Re-evaluate war on drugs

The war on drugs in the United States will celebrate its 39th birthday as a part of official political vernacular in less than a month. The ongoing prohibition of psychedelic drugs is now more than a century old. The phrase has been used by politicians left and right who want to seem tough on crime without much thought to its roots and the means of "winning" this war. In the 39 years that the war has been official, arrest rates have soared, prisons have become overcrowded and tougher laws have been passed to ban drug trafficking and punish users. So the U.S. government is clearly winning the war on drugs, right?

The short answer is no. To begin with, the three major drug law passages –– opium, marijuana and cocaine –– are rooted almost entirely in racist origin. Opium was outlawed in the early 20th century to close down opium dens and minimize contact between middle-class whites and mostly Chinese immigrant workers. Marijuana was outlawed out of fear of the Mexican migrant workers in the 1930s, without full knowledge of the capacity for which the drug is used. Cocaine was outlawed in the 1980s and has since drawn the most attention for punishment disparity among races.

For example, until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, the 500:1 punishment rule was in effect to differentiate between crack and powder cocaine. Basically, an offender would receive the same 5-year federal imprisonment sentence for possessing 500 grams of powder cocaine as one would receive for 5 grams of crack cocaine. Why? Because powder cocaine was used predominantly by upper-class white businessmen while crack cocaine was more prominently used by impoverished inner-city blacks. The new rule, albeit a step in the right direction, still holds an unfair 18:1 ratio of possession for powder to rock form.

The outright banning of drugs also ignored the two most fundamental laws in a capitalist society: supply and demand. This drives the international drug trade to be enormously profitable. An amount of heroin purchased for $300 in Pakistan, when smuggled into the United States, can sell for close to $290,000. Why wouldn't drug peddlers be enticed to take part in an investment that can have a 100,000 percent rate of return?

The illegality of the drug trade also has adverse effects for the strength and purity of the drugs smuggled into the country. Since there is obviously no regulations for the purity of cocaine, batches of tainted or unsafe cocaine often lead to sickness and overdose. Due to the difficulty of smuggling the drug into the country, dealers often compensate for lack of supply by increasing the potency of the drug they offer. This is a deadly consequence for many first-time or recreational users who are led to overdose or death by being ignorant of the strength of the drug they are injecting into their system.

Even worse, the current laws on drugs essentially encourage gang warfare. As there is no way to legally settle disputes for selling territories, rival drug gangs often engage in "turf wars," which have left thousands dead and even more citizens endangered.

While the amount of incarcerations and arrests for drug possession have increased steadily, it is important to note that again, the arrests are disproportionate to the races of drug users. While blacks comprise 13 percent of Americans and 13 percent of recreational drug users, they represent 35 percent of arrests for possessions, 55 percent of convictions and 74 percent of prison terms. Drug possession is the fourth leading cause of arrest in the United States. It continues to grow.

The thought that the growing number of arrests will deter possible dealers is also a logical fallacy. For every drug dealer that is incarcerated, there will be another person willing to take his or her place. And why not? The job is easy enough, there's a constant demand and it's statistically unlikely that a dealer will be caught. Unless you're black or Hispanic. In that case, you're more likely to be involved in poorly-constructed drug trade, and as such, are more obviously seen or infiltrated by police and unfairly represented in the prison system.

This creates a cyclical problem for lower-class minorities, who are more prone to be arrested for minor possession or trafficking charges. The result is that families are torn apart; single mothers addicted to cocaine have their children put into foster homes — a mess that can't even be described in this article — and the children are raised with minimal structure and low outlook for upward progression. Once adults, the ill-prepared youth are sent into the world with bad education, little life structure and few prospects for self-advancement. As previously stated, drugs are easily available and in high demand in poor neighborhoods. With little opportunity elsewhere, many are driven to selling or addiction themselves, and the cycle begins anew.

Part of the blame lies on the public, which demands statistics in incarcerations to go up to compensate for the obscene amount of money that is spent on the war on drugs (somewhere near the $30 billion range). Police are more prone to prosecute in poorer areas populated by blacks and Hispanics because it's easier to find arrests there. It's akin to hunting –– a good hunter will go to an area populated by deer to kill a buck, not an area where one would be well-hidden or scarcely found.

The worst part of the drug war is that the United States has the ability to help. Programs in Europe that offer a safe haven for drug users or even needle-exchange programs –– where an addict can exchange an old needle for a new, sterile one –– have shown great success. It is even speculated that the AIDS epidemic would not have become an epidemic had intravenous drug users been able to cleanly shoot up. But since most of these drug users are minorities, AIDS became seen as the plight of the poor and filthy drug users and a fitting fate for those terrible criminals who use intravenous drugs.

This outlook on drug users is in no way masked by elected officials. Former Chief of the LAPD Daryl Gates even stated in a Senate Judiciary Committee that casual users should be "taken out and shot" for "treason" in the drug war. This thinly-veiled racism evidences some of the true motives of the current drug war: put away minorities for good.

America is not slowly losing the war on drugs; it is badly losing the war on drugs. Progressive programs exist to make drug use for users safe and clean, but American politicians are too concerned with seeming "soft on drugs" to attempt to use them. Our jails are crowded, our minorities profiled and our drugs outlawed to a point that not selling them is unprofitable. America needs more progressive policies toward drugs to prevent these things from happening. The war on drugs has taken enough of a toll on American society. It's time to put it to rest.

Cody Gorman is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science. His column, "The Tuning Fork," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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