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War without end?

interior-warondrugsThis article was published in the Sunday Herald on March 28, 2010.

The “war on drugs” has been a cornerstone of America’s criminal justice system ever since President Richard Nixon coined the phrase four decades ago. Three recent developments suggest that policy-makers are finally losing faith in its effectiveness.

The National Drug Threat Assessment, released on Thursday, showed that drugs are cheaper and easier to obtain than ever before. Traffickers and violent street gangs either side of the US-Mexico border are thriving. Law enforcement has failed to interrupt the chain of supply and demand.

On Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill that would reduce the number of crack cocaine users receiving lengthy jail sentences, by raising the threshold at which a mandatory minimum of five years in prison kicks in. If it passes the House Of Representatives, the law will reduce the glaring disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine possession – as a result of which millions of poor, largely African-American addicts have been locked up, while affluent, middle-class drug users escape with fines.

The same day, officials in California announced that a proposal to legalise the sale of marijuana will be on the ballot on election day this November. Supporters of the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act provided 694,248 signatures, initiating a political campaign against prohibition that is likely to have national implications.

It is only a coincidence that these three events occurred in the same week, but a subtle shift in priorities is evidently underway, driven by fiscal crisis, escalating violence and changes in public opinion.

Norm Stamper, a former Police Chief of Seattle, has been a spokesperson for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition since he retired. “The war on drugs has been an abysmal failure,” he told me. “We have spent a trillion dollars and what do we have to show for it? Tens of millions of Americans incarcerated and families fractured. Drugs are more readily available, at lower prices and higher levels of potency. Young people, poor people and black people have been the victims.

“In the last year, there has been a massive change in people’s thinking. We’ve seen support grow very rapidly in recent months and it’s clearly fuelled by the economic situation. California is considering legalisation because it needs the money badly. They need to spend less on criminal justice and prisons for non-violent drug offenders.”

Every President since Nixon has enthusiastically prosecuted the war on drugs. George H.W. Bush mentioned it in his inaugural address: “Take my word for it. This scourge will stop.” Bill Clinton spent $1.3 billion on Plan Columbia, which financed paramilitary crackdowns and sprayed acres of crops with herbicide without significantly disrupting the cocaine trade.

George W. Bush signed the Merida Initiative, which committed $1.4 billion in aid to Mexico, with the specific aim of breaking up the narcotics business. Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton was in Mexico City this week, to re-affirm the pact’s basic principles, albeit with a new emphasis on economic development.

The Obama administration has been sending mixed messages about the possibility of reform. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske said he considers the phrase “war on drugs” to be counter-productive. “Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as a war on them,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “We’re not at war with people in this country.”

Kerlowski is a former Seattle Police Chief whose own stepson has been to prison on drugs charges. Last October, his office announced that the FBI would no longer arrest medical marijuana users, providing they abide by state laws. But this month he told a meeting of Police Chiefs in San Jose that he is strongly opposed to legalisation of the drug.

The government’s primary focus has been the epidemic of drug violence in Mexico that has frequently spilled over into Texas, California and Arizona. In travelling to Mexico with Secretary Of Defence Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, Clinton indicated that the USA will continue to support to President Felipe Calderon’s policy of flooding border towns such as Ciudad Juarez and Reynosa with military personnel.

In one particularly bloody week, there were 256 drug-related murders, according to the Mexican daily newspaper Reforma. Journalists in Ciudad Juarez have stopped reporting from crime scenes, following death threats from the cartels. Estimates of the larger death toll in the three years since Calderon won power vary from 10,000 to 18,000 people.

“The government’s point – shared, incomprehensibly, by the Obama administration – that the rise in violence is a sign of success brings back tragic and uncanny memories of body counts in Vietnam,” wrote Jorge Castaneda, a former Foreign Minister of Mexico. “There is, for now, no cost-benefit analysis that justifies the pursuit of a war that is clearly going nowhere.”

When Intelligence Director Dennis Blair suggested that the Mexican government had lost control of its cities, Calderon responded with a pointed reminder that the USA is “the biggest consumer of drugs in the world and the largest supplier of weapons in the world.”

The National Drug Threat Assessment for 2010 is a grim summary of failure. It found that heroin, ecstasy, methamphetamine and marijuana have all fallen in price, as drugs cross the border in record amounts. Only cocaine has become slightly harder to obtain. Prescription drug abuse has also soared, from opiates like morphine, methadone and codeine to anti-depressants and medicine for Attention Deficit Disorder. The number of overdose deaths doubled between 2002 and 2006.

Heroin production in Mexico has risen sharply, from 17 to 38 metric tons. The arrest on Thursday of “Heroin King” Jose Antonio Medina may block the pipeline for a week or two but even the most optimistic law enforcement officials concede that he will soon be replaced.

The report provided insights into how drug wholesale and retail operations are changing, as Hispanic gangs become involved in every phase of the business. “Street gangs such as Shelltown 38th Street, Tri-City Bombers, and Vallucos have been increasingly acquiring larger wholesale quantities of drugs at lower prices directly from Mexico and along the Southwest Border,” it noted. Many of the most powerful gangs, including Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos, are run from prison.

According to the latest available figures from the American Correctional Association, the average daily cost per state prison inmate is $67.55. That means that in 2007, states spent more than $6 billion incarcerating drug offenders. Treatment and rehabilitation programmes are gaining in popularity because states can no longer afford to keep so many people behind bars.

The Urban Institute has estimated that for every $1 spent on drug courts – which offer counselling, strict probation and regular blood tests as an alternative to jail – $2.21 is saved in criminal justice, prison and healthcare costs.

If California was not in the grip of a severe fiscal crisis, it is doubtful that the marijuana legalisation bill would stand any chance of success. Advocates of legalisation argue that taxing the sale of cannabis could bring in $1.4 billion per year. “We need the tax money,” said marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee. “Second, we need law enforcement directed towards real crime.”

The act would allow personal possession of up to one ounce of the drug and the cultivation of a small plot of marijuana plants. All three of the principal candidates for Governor oppose it, as does the California Peace Officers Association. A recent survey found that 56% of voters are in favour. More surprisingly, in a nationwide Gallup poll, 44% of respondents said they would support full legalisation, an outcome that would have been unthinkable five years ago.

“The California situation is, at a minimum, going to provoke a loud national debate on the issue,” said Jeffrey Miron, a Senior Lecturer in Economics at Harvard University. “If the pre-initiative polling is accurate, a majority supports it. If it passes, it has unbelievable ramifications, because federal law will conflict with state law, so it will go to the Supreme Court.” Both sides of the debate are well funded, with high-profile political backers.

The war on drugs has, so far, proved impervious to criticism. Every attempt to adjust the government’s approach, to stress prevention and treatment over strict enforcement, has been easily defeated by groups with an interest in maintaining the status quo, not least the prisons industry. In 1994, Bill Clinton’s Drugs Czar Lee Brown submitted a budget including $355 million to treat hardcore drug addicts. By the time it has passed through Congress, that funding had been cut by 80%.

“Federal, state and local law enforcement officers have become dependent on the funding that the drug war brings in,” Stamper told me. “There are many police officers who believe that with more money, more equipment, more manpower, more time, we will win this war on drugs. But they are in a minority. Increasingly, police officers, from rank and file all the way up to police chiefs and sheriffs, are whispering their support for drug policy reform.”

A spokesperson for the National Association of Police Organisations, Andy Mournighan, said officers generally welcome a common sense approach to dealing with drug offenders, provided enforcement remains a priority. “Putting minor offenders in jail isn’t going to help them,” she said. “If they don’t use weapons or commit violent acts, we prefer treatment to help addicts recover, allied to strong community policing. Officers don’t want to be arresting the same addicts off the street over and over again.”

Last year, Mexico quietly decriminalised possession of small amounts of drugs. Four years ago, a similar bill was rejected by President Vicente Fox after the Bush administration objected. The official White House line this time is that they will “wait and see” what effect it has.

Advocates of reform are cautiously optimistic that a turning point has been reached. “It’s important to recognise that politicians are followers, not leaders, by definition and by habit,” Stamper said. “Once they understand that people are way out ahead of them on this issue, they will come around.”