“Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded. “
– Abraham Lincoln
If you live in Somerville, you probably know of someone who has suffered from drug abuse. Coke, meth, crack, and particularly heroin and oxycontin use is ruining lives, stressing families, promoting crime, destroying young peoples’ futures, and occasionally, killing them. A significant portion of assaults and murders are drug related.
Somerville Cares About Prevention educates citizens regarding drug use and its consequences. Our Police Department works hard to reduce drug related crime. They do at least as well, and probably a little better, than their colleagues in other urban areas. Yet there are always more addicts to treat, more dealers to arrest, more funerals to attend, more heartache to heal.
Thirty-five years ago, Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. Since then, we’ve spent more on that war than in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve made 37 million arrests for nonviolent drug crimes. Prisons are our fastest growing industry, with 2.2 million Americans currently locked up. We’re annually making 1.9 million arrests and spending $70 billion. Yet drugs are cheaper, more potent, and far more available. What is to be done?
If you drive northwest on Mystic Avenue, not far past the Medford line you’ll pass a modest office building. One of its tenants is LEAP, an organization that is influencing opinion on drug policy across North America. Law Enforcement Against Prohibition’s members—current and retired law officers—propose a different way. They advocate “a system of regulation and control of production and distribution [that] will be far more effective and ethical than one of prohibition.”
LEAP member, Terry Nelson was a federal drug enforcement officer for 30 years. He “saw on a daily basis that we were making no difference….When you put a drug dealer in jail, you create a job opening.”
Former federal Drug Czar Lee Brown says, “When you’re in that position, you see very quickly that you can’t arrest your way out of this. You see the cycle of people using drugs, going to prison, getting out, and getting into drugs again.”
The alternative? Brown points to a study conducted fifteen years ago by the RAND Corporation. A team of mathematicians calculated the most cost effective tactics in the drug war—law enforcement, interdiction, foreign aid, treatment, and prevention. They were surprised to find that only treatment was effective.
But the hard evidence has no impact on drug policies that have not just failed in their stated goals of reducing drug addiction, crime, and juvenile drug use. Instead, the drug war continues to worsen each of these.
LEAP member Jim Gray describes himself as a conservative judge in a conservative jurisdiction. Prior to joining the Orange County Superior Court, he prosecuted what was then Los Angeles’ largest ever drug case. He says unequivocally, “We have a more radical approach [to drug law] than any other western democracy, and we have a bigger drug problem. I’m convinced there is a connection.”
The plain truth is that drug laws create crime. In his book Bad Trip, conservative author Joel Miller writes, “Drug prohibition does not end drug use. It simply forces the consumer to break the law to get what he wants.”
Add to that addicts who steal to support their habit and drug bosses who kill to dominate their territory. Peter Christ, a LEAP member and retired Buffalo PD captain observes, “We legalized alcohol because it only took us 13 years to learn the lesson that alcohol did not create Al Capone. Prohibition created Al Capone. And everyone didn’t become a drunk in 1934.”
He’s right. With alcohol prohibition, murder went up 13% and robbery, 83%. Prohibition ended in 1933, and violent crimes returned to their pre-prohibition levels by 1937. Judge Gray estimates that 80 percent of felonies are drug related.
One of the drug war’s hypocrisies is that its purpose is to prevent harm to users. While drug addicts do serious damage to their lives, the drug war destroys those lives.
Jay Fleming, a thoughtful LEAP member, served 15 years with multiple drug enforcement agencies: “As with all wars, you have to have an enemy. That enemy turns out to be our fellow citizens. Once you make the enemy evil, its ok to use any means to destroy them.” He relates how, working undercover, he got to know drug culture people and their families. “And then you have to come back and destroy that family.”
The number of Americans behind bars for drug offenses, mostly nonviolent, has increased by 1,200 percent since 1980. Legendary NYPD crusader Frank Serpico describes the prison system as an industry. “They run it like real estate. They have so many rooms, they have to rent them out, and the police fill them.” Former drug cop, then coroner, then mayor of Vancouver Larry Campbel says that the drug war isn’t really a war, it’s a business.
Imprisonment and a criminal record is not the only damage prohibition does to addicts’ lives. Joel Miller writes, “People who fall into a drug habit and do not want to harm others by stealing, instead harm themselves by whoring.”
Fleming’s remorse suggests another drug war impact. Former Seattle Police Chief and LEAP member Norm Stamper says, “Narcotic enforcement puts cops in an untenable situation. They are enforcing laws that in many cases they don’t believe in.” Then there are lucrative temptations to corruption. The few cops who yield, damage the morale of and public respect for the many who don’t.
Nor is corruption limited to law enforcement officers. LEAP member Cellie Castillo was a DEA agent interdicting Latin American drug traffic. He discovered that U.S. officials were sending flights of cocaine to the U.S., buying weapons with the proceeds, and sending the weapons on return flights to Nicaraguan Contras who used them to commit atrocities. His reports were ignored.
And of course the Taliban, al-Qaida, and terrorists in Colombia, Peru, and Pakistan can finance their operations through drug trafficking because drug use is criminalized in the U.S.
LEAP’s solution is to legalize, regulate, and heavily tax drugs. Then as Judge Gray suggests, “Hold people accountable for what they do instead of what they put in their bodies.”
A portion of the enormous revenues and reduced costs thus generated could be put into drug treatment. The RAND study found that 13 percent of addicts who went through treatment stopped using permanently. That seems minimal until you realize that no other tactic has produced any reduction at all. And treatment programs have become more effective since the study.
This is not a matter of morality. Enforcement causes more misery than it prevents. It’s not a matter of ideology. George Will, Howard Zinn, William F. Buckley, Noam Chomsky, Milton Friedman, and George Shultz have all agreed with the policies that LEAP advocates. It’s a matter of hard evidence, honesty, and courage.
Nixon was right to call drug abuse an epidemic, but he was wrong to make “war” on its victims. Over my lifetime, a half dozen people whom I have known died from overdoses or bad drugs. At least that many got caught in prison/addiction cycle. One was shot to death in a transaction. Judge Gray says that, “Eventually we will come to our senses.” I hope so.
This column first appeared in the Somerville News