Published in the Sunday Herald on June 19, 2011.
Forty years ago this week, in a White House press conference, President Richard Nixon defined his country’s new drug policy with a military metaphor that stuck. “Public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse,” he declared. “In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” A trillion dollars and seven presidents later, the war is still being fought, and lost, with catastrophic results.
Nixon never actually used the phrase “war on drugs” and many aspects of his programme were anticipated by the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, signed a decade earlier, but in its relentless prosecution of addicts, dealers and drug producers, the USA has no peer. Prohibition has failed all over the world, but the disastrous consequences of that failure are most evident in the land of the free.
There are now more than 500,000 people in US prisons for drug offences, a tenfold increase since 1980. Drug overdose has become the leading cause of death in the 35-54 age group. Four in five drug arrests are for possessing small quantities, with no intent to sell. Whole communities have been criminalised: more than half of the African-American men in Chicago have a charge sheet that disqualifies them from public housing and student loans.
Even adjusting for inflation, Nixon’s $100 million annual drug budget has multiplied fifty times: the Obama administration has asked Congress for $26.2 billion next year. Despite all this money being thrown at the problem, narcotics are cheaper and more widely available than ever, according to the government’s own National Drug Threat Assessment.
Ian Bezman was a bright, insecure, hyper-sensitive child. At the age of 14, he started to self-medicate. “First it was marijuana, then mixed with PCP, then over the years it was meth, heroin, cocaine,” says his mother, Suzanne Riordan.
After a brief, unsuccessful stint in rehab, the state of California showed little interest in treating his addiction, preferring to lock him up, the sentences growing a longer with each arrest. “He was in juvenile detention, then jail a number of times, never for more than a few months, always for possession,” Riordan says. “He was a very sensitive young man, with pretty fragile self-esteem. Over several years, he cut deeply into his arms, all the way to the bone. Jail was hard on him.”
Bezman came out of jail in 2005 drug free and determined never to go back. He found a good job, working with the carpenter’s union on the Ronald Reagan Memorial Library. He got his girlfriend pregnant and was excited by the prospect of being a father. Although checking in with his probation officer every week was a hassle and he worried about being sent to prison for a minor violation, he seemed to be gaining some stability.
Then, late one night, during a drinking session at his foreman’s house, he did a line of cocaine. Five days later, a mandatory drug test came up dirty. “He was extremely upset and frightened,” Riordan says. “He called his foreman and said he wouldn’t be at work tomorrow, because they’d take him to prison. He disappeared that night and police found his body three weeks later.” Although he had enough morphine in his system to suggest an overdose, it’s not clear whether Bezman was trying to kill himself.
US prisons currently hold around 2.3 million people, meaning that a country with just 5% of the world’s population has 25% of its prisoners. This is a consequence of mandatory minimum sentences and zero tolerance crime policies, but the war on drugs has played its part, not least by incarcerating people like Ian Bezman who hurt no-one but themselves.
The shift towards punishment and away from rehabilitation in the “corrections” system has been stunningly counter-productive. According to the Bureau of Justice, half the prisoners released this year are expected to be back inside by 2014. Last year, expenditure on prisons was $68 billion. The Supreme Court recently ruled that California’s prisons are so overcrowded that the constitutional rights of inmates are being violated, ordering the state to release or transfer 32,000 people.
Natasha Darrington spent 11 years in prison in Dublin, California, after being convicted of helping her husband deal crack cocaine. “There were fights constantly, because it was so overcrowded,” she says. “There were women there on drugs charges from Africa, the Philippines, China, the Dominican Republic, from every spot on the earth, it seemed like. Some had been selling to feed their children, others to feed their habit.”
American prisons are notoriously violent places. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, an estimated 70,000 prisoners are sexually assaulted each year, In 2005, Bryson Martel testified to a congressional committee that during his nine months in Arkansas state prison he was raped repeatedly, often by several men at the same time. His punishment for the crime of cashing a forged cheque, to pay for crack cocaine, was the HIV virus, contracted at knifepoint.
Richard Van Wickler, who runs Cheshire County jail in New Hampshire, argues that sending non-violent addicts to prison is a colossal waste of money and human life. “62% of our prison population receives prescription medication. 32% have been diagnosed with a mental illness,” he says. “Here in New Hampshire, if you’re an addict and you’re trying to get help, it’s almost impossible, so the only place left for you to go is jail, which is the most expensive option.”
Van Wickler is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group that believes all drugs should be legalised, taxed and regulated. Neill Franklin, the organisation’s Executive Director, is a retired Maryland State Police Major who spent more than three decades fighting the war on drugs. He started speaking out against it after a close friend, working undercover, was murdered by the cocaine dealer he was trying to bust.
At a recent workshop in a juvenile detention centre, Franklin asked the kids, almost all of whom were African-American, what would happen to their neighbourhoods if all drugs were legal. “The number one answer was ‘we would have no money’ – because that’s what they see as employment,” he says. “The second overwhelming answer was ‘police will no longer harass us.’” The drug war has a disproportionate impact on minorities: more than half of the 50,000 people arrested for marijuana possession in New York last year were black and Latino teenagers. In Alabama, one in three African-American men is permanently disqualified from voting by their criminal record.
Franklin’s home town, Baltimore, is best known in Britain as the setting for The Wire, a television series that portrays a shockingly violent, dysfunctional city, in which black communities are abandoned to addiction, incarceration and civil war between rival drug gangs. “I liken that show to a documentary where the names have been changed,” Franklin says. The only part that isn’t realistic, he offers, is the episode with a decriminalised zone, nicknamed Hamsterdam, where pushers and junkies do as they please. In real life, a needle exchange programme was the only experimental approach Baltimore’s mayor was prepared to sanction.
Although LEAP’s manifesto – cannabis in corner shops, heroin and cocaine at official dispensaries – is no longer considered to be quite as radical as it once was, most of the alternatives to prohibition that have been tried, in Portugal and Switzerland, for instance, have involved decriminalising drugs, rather than regulating their sale.
Earlier this month, the Global Commission on Drug Policy (a panel including former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, eleven former presidents, and Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz) released a report that declared “the war on drugs has failed” and called for fundamental policy reforms. Although the eminent names made the findings difficult to dismiss, the Obama administration rejected their central premise. “Making drugs more available – as this report suggests – will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe,” said drug policy spokesman Rafael Lemaitre.
Seven years ago, on the campaign trail, Obama called the drug war an “utter failure,” although he added that he did not favour legalised marijuana. In office, he has reduced the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine possession and ended a ban on federal funding for needle exchange programmes, but he is otherwise following the same policies as his predecessors, allocating much more money to enforcement than treatment or education.
Every President since Nixon has endorsed 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 Colombia, which financed paramilitary crackdowns and sprayed cocaine crops with herbicide. 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.
Obama has doubled down, sending billions more, without loosening the grip of cartels or stemming the violence. On Thursday, the industrial city of Monterrey suffered its bloodiest day yet, with 32 people murdered. In the four years since President Felipe Calderón announced a military offensive against the traffickers, at least 40,000 people have been killed.
Terry Nelson, who spent most of his career in the US Customs Service and Department of Homeland Security disrupting drug routes in Central America, is scathing about the effectiveness of the cross-border efforts, noting that cocaine production increased in the Plan Colombia era. “Even if you manage to wipe it out in Colombia and Peru and Bolivia, this stuff will grow in sub-Saharan Africa and it will also grow in India,” he says.
Nelson is a lifelong Republican, unlike most of his colleagues in the legalisation movement, but he says conservatives are coming around. At a recent Grand Old Party meeting, the organiser told him that regulating marijuana should be on the manifesto for the next election. Libertarian Ron Paul has been calling for legalised drugs and prostitution for years. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich has formed a group called Right On Crime, which calls for non-violent offenders to be sent to treatment, not prison, with a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation and recovery.
“To me, the war on drugs means the destruction of the American family,” Nelson says. “When 1.9 million kids go bed at night with one of their parents in prison, the very thing they’re claiming to protect – the children – is what they’re harming.” When Natasha Darrington was sentenced, the youngest of her four children was 10 years old, the oldest 17. By the time she came out, they had children of their own.
There are tentative signs that public opinion is changing. In a recent Rasmussen poll, 42% of respondents said marijuana should be legalised, while 45% disagreed, with 13% unsure. The Drug Policy Alliance commissioned a poll that showed 72% of Californians favour reduced penalties for drug possession. In Congress, a first ever marijuana legalisation bill is being prepared, although it stands no chance of passing.
If the law does change one day, it will be too late for Cornell Hood, who was recently sentenced to life in prison for possessing marijuana with intent to distribute. It will be too late for Ian Bezman and too late for Jeff Cullen, another troubled young man who died of an overdose, not long after leaving jail.
His mother, Denise, is a member of Moms United To End The War On Drugs. “Addicts have nowhere to turn, so it’s just a cycle, in and out, to keep the money going in the prison industry,” she says. “They look at drug users as ‘those people,’ even though they are often good kids, from loving families. There are so many casualties of this war. Every day I get a new call from somebody who has lost someone.”