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America's Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs
by Stephen Duke

Category: General Nonfiction
Description: America's war on drugs. It makes headlines, tops political agendas and provokes powerful emotions. But is it really worth it? That's the question posed by Steven Duke and Albert Gross in this groundbreaking book. They argue that America's biggest victories in the war on drugs are the erosion of our constitutional rights, the waste of billions of dollars and an overwhelmed court system. After careful research and thought, they make a strong case for the legalization of drugs. It's a radical idea, but has its time come?
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1982
eBookwise Release Date: June 2001


2 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [706 KB]
Words: 139523
Reading time: 398-558 min.


America has been using the force of criminal law against its citizens to punish them for consuming disfavored drugs for nearly eighty years. The intensity of those efforts has frequently been described as a "war." As such, it is America's longest and most self-destructive war.

One of the casualties of war is truth. A prime example of that occurred on September 5, 1989. On that day, in his first television speech to the nation as President, George Bush stared into the cameras, held up a clear plastic package marked "evidence," and solemnly intoned that he was drastically escalating the "war."1 The President was not speaking of war against another nation or against an evil leader; he was talking about a war against a class of inanimate objects--illicit drugs.

1 Televised address of President George Bush, 5 September 1989. See Los Angeles Times, 6 September 1989, A1.

Inside the package that the President held aloft was rock cocaine, harvested earlier that day from Keith Jackson, a nineteen-year-old dope peddler enticed by law-enforcement officials to a drug sting in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. Far from being a regular trader at that venue, Jackson needed travel directions from his sham "customers" to enable him to find the White House. The purpose of the staged drug deal was to permit the President to suggest that drugs were being dealt virtually on the steps of the White House, and thus that the country was in grave peril. Such theatrics are reminiscent of the "unprovoked attack" on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin that triggered our war against North Vietnam.2

2 See John Hart Ely, "The American War in Indochina, Part 1: The (Troubled) Constitutionality of the War They Told Us About," Stanford Law Review, 42-2, 1990, 877, 884-91.

Since Keith Jackson invaded Lafayette Park, the federal government's annual spending in the war against drugs has doubled. Civil liberties have been curtailed at almost every turn in the interest of the drug-war effort. As with the Vietnam war, moreover, our leaders have repeatedly seen the light at the end of the tunnel.

As in most wars, numbers emerge that suggest that victory may be on its way. Casual use of illegal drugs appears to have taken a downturn, not since President Bush escalated the war against drugs, but since 1980. However, the number of people who use cocaine weekly, "the addicts," virtually doubled since 1985. Thus, we are told, the war seems to be "working" with the casual user--the middle-class experimenter. However, it seems to be having little impact on hard-core addicts who may be willing to steal or kill to feed their cravings.

Crime rates have been in a general uptrend in this country for three decades despite a strong force in the opposite direction: the aging of the population. Teenagers, who commit a disproportionate share of our violent crimes, are a smaller and smaller proportion of the population. Still, in many of our cities, murder rates are at record highs, reflecting turf wars between rival drug dealers and other drug-related violence. The drug war has made these problems worse, not better.

George Bush was not the first president to invoke the imagery of war in an effort to induce the nation to support his antidrug efforts. President Reagan declared a war against drugs in October 1982, in a radio address to the nation. President Nixon, almost a decade before that, had labeled drugs "public enemy number one" and declared "all-out global war on the drug menace." Victory has never been in sight. On the contrary, except for minor setbacks and lulls, the enemy has steadily advanced during that period. The drug problem, broadly understood, has never been worse in this country than it is today.

We are spending more than $12 billion a year on the drug problem at the federal level and far more at the state, city, corporate, and private levels. Fifty billion dollars in annual expenditures to curb our national consumption of illegal drugs is a reasonable estimate.

We are losing perhaps $100 billion per year more in drug-related crime, medical costs, and lost productivity. Another $60 to $100 billion is spent every year by consumers to purchase the illicit drugs themselves. The total annual cost of the "drug problem" in dollars, therefore, may be as much as $200 billion, more than the entire annual deficit only a few years ago.

That estimate does not take account of what we spend on the two major licit drugs, alcohol and tobacco, the true costs of which may exceed those of the illegal drugs.

Nor does it include another figure that, if measurable, would make the others appear microscopic in comparison. Throughout our nation, in city after city, drug dealing and the violence and intimidation that accompany it have converted family neighborhoods into war zones and fear-ridden, rat-infested slums. Gangs of hoodlums fire automatic weapons at each other, killing innocent bystanders. Life in many inner cities has become unbearable; and the schools, filthy fiefdoms of the drug gangs. The destruction of property values attributable to the commerce in illegal drugs is staggering. Block after block of the once-stately residential buildings in our inner cities is simply being abandoned to crack dealers or other criminals.

At the same time, health and welfare expenditures are being drastically reduced, cities are literally going bankrupt, needed schools and libraries are closing, police and fire department staffing and budgets are being reduced, our doors are closed to the homeless, and taxes and deficits are soaring.

Many of our most serious social problems are directly related to the intensity of the war against drug distribution and use. Most drug overdoses, including poisonings from contaminated drugs, are attributable to the illegality of the market. The possibility of a family life is eliminated for thousands of children because one or both parents are jailed for a drug-related offense. Our prison population has doubled in seven years, and one in four black males in his twenties is either in jail, on probation or on parole, mostly for drug-related offenses. As much as half our violent and property crime may be related to drug prohibition: either committed as part of a drug-distribution scheme or to get money with which to buy and consume illegal drugs. Both the human and the economic costs of the drug war are staggering.

Our aim is to examine the effects of intense criminalization of drug commerce on both the consumption of drugs and the health of our basic institutions. The victims of wars are never limited to the enemy; innocent people and precious institutions are also damaged and die. This is as true of a "war on drugs" as it is of a real war. We also explore and applaud alternatives: drug education and treatment for drug abuse.

People are induced to change their behavior by education--increasing their knowledge of the behavior itself, by threats or inducements, or a combination of both, together with appeals to morality. The war on drugs utilizes all these methods, but the emphasis is on the punitive. Nearly two-thirds of the federal drug budget is earmarked for law enforcement. Drug dealers receive savage sentences, even life without possibility of parole. There is talk about imposing the death penalty on them or even shooting them on sight. Drug consumers are also being punished, most noticeably by forfeiture of their homes, cars, boats and other valuables merely because they were used to consume or store small quantities of marijuana or other drugs. For the first time in our nation's history, the federal government now claims the right to compel schools and colleges to punish students who use or possess illicit drugs. Judges are now authorized to suspend licenses and welfare and other benefits of those convicted of drug offenses. Efforts to ferret out and punish drug criminals have intensified, and courts increasingly approve deprivations of civil liberties in the name of drug-war necessity. These efforts threaten to destroy much that is fundamental and unique about America and its Constitution. The costs of conducting the war might be justified were a Hitler invading our shores, but are they warranted when the enemy is a chemical that is harmless unless ingested by human beings?

Our conclusion, like that of a growing and articulate chorus, is that the costs are not remotely justified; that much of the drug-war artillery is worthless and in many cases is counterproductive. The casualty rates among those who have nothing to do with illegal drugs is unacceptable. We also assess the arguments in favor of "legalization" and conclude that regulated legalization--though not unfettered availability--should be pursued.

We do not lightly arrive at the pro-legalization conclusion, nor did it originate with us. Once an unthinkable--or at least unmentionable--solution to major aspects of the drug problem, legalization is now an option seriously proposed by prestigious publications such as The Economist, statesmen such as George Shultz, jurists such as Robert Sweet, academicians such as Milton Friedman and Ethan Nadelmann, social commentators such as William F. Buckley, Jr., and Ernest van Den Haag, law-enforcement officers such as former San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara, and politicians such as Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore. Those advocates have made some convincing arguments for legalization, and in the pages that follow we will present them, as well as our own, for this drastic though sensible remedy for an intolerable status quo.

We concede that the issue is debatable; that reasonable policymakers can differ on whether heroin and cocaine, like tobacco and alcohol, should be freely available, at low cost, to any adult desiring to purchase them. A rational case cannot be made, however, for the garrison state that we are in the process of creating. Long after the appetite for currently illicit drugs has subsided or been transferred to lawful drugs or other substitutes--or we have decided to permit our people to make their own decisions about chemical use--we will need our institutions and our civil liberties. The battles to recapture our liberty and our integrity may be fiercer and even more formidable than the drug wars in which they were lost.

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