Michael Massing writes: It’s a social policy that, many experts agree, has failed miserably since it was introduced more than forty years ago, tearing apart families and communities across the United States, consuming tens of thousands of lives abroad, and squandering huge sums of money. Yet hardly any national politician is willing to challenge it, and it’s been completely ignored during the 2012 presidential campaign.
I’m speaking of the war on drugs. Since 1971, when Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one” and stated his intention of waging a “new, all-out offensive” against it, the government has spent an estimated trillion dollars on the war. Much of that money has gone to street-level drug arrests, undercover raids, intelligence taskforces, highway patrols, and—most costly of all—prison beds. Of the 2.3 million people in prison in the United States today, nearly half a million are there for drug offenses, many of them of the low-level, nonviolent variety. In 2010, 1.64 million people were arrested for drug violations—80 percent of them for possession.
In Latin America, the war on drugs has sown misery across a vast swath of territory stretching from the coca fields of Peru to Mexico’s border with the United States. Billions have been spent on crop eradication, commando units, military training, unmanned surveillance drones, and helicopters. The result has been endless bloodshed, widespread corruption, and political instability. In Mexico alone, an estimated 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in the nearly six years since Mexican President Felipe Calderón (encouraged by Washington) declared war on his nation’s drug cartels. One result of the crackdown has been to push traffickers into Central America, where they now terrorize Guatemalans and Hondurans. All the while, drugs continue to flow unabated into the United States. In 1981, a pure gram of cocaine cost $669 (adjusted for inflation); today, it goes for $177.
As for consumption, cocaine use has decreased considerably since its peak in the mid-1980s, and methamphetamine use has also subsided after a destructive surge in the 2000s. But the abuse of prescription drugs, especially of opioid painkillers, has grown to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “epidemic” levels, and the number of accidental overdose deaths from such substances has soared. This spurt underscores that the real source of our drug problem lies not in Mexico or Colombia but inside our own borders, and that arresting and locking up users is a singularly ineffective way of addressing it. [Continue reading…]