Abraham Lincoln once argued that "a prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which this country was founded." Yet today's politicians follow a set of principles that allow them to advocate laws which, if fully enforced, would imprison tens of millions of Americans for using drugs.
In the eyes of mainstream America, the drug war still operates under the pretense that its primary goal is helping our children stay off drugs. According to this pretense, the kids are supposed to be the potential victims whom the war seeks to defend. But the instant that little John and Mary pop their first pill or smoke their first joint, they are immediately transformed by the terms of the war itself into something quite different from victims: They become our enemies. Our goal then becomes not helping them, but jailing them.
My brother Billy was a casualty not of drugs but of the drug war. As a boy, Billy was considered a child prodigy, twice honored by our hometown newspaper as the outstanding high school photographer of the year. Like many adolescents, though, Billy experimented with drugs, and somewhere along the way he got hooked.
Billy's once-promising future became a downward spiral of temporary highs and ever-deepening lows. But before our family could figure out how to help him, Billy was arrested and imprisoned for a nonviolent drug offense. After finally getting out, he tried as hard as he could to stay away from drugs. Like countless other victims of dependency, however, he fell off the wagon. Unfortunately, this happened just before he was forced by his parole officer to take a random drug test. Faced with further imprisonment, Billy chose to end his life.
The drug war has been raging with no end in sight for several generations now; Billy died over 18 years ago. The war is no closer to achieving its stated objectives today than it was then--ironically it is probably farther from it.
For example, while the number of federal inmates doing time for nonviolent drug offenses has risen more than eightfold since 1981, drug abuse among America's youth remains cyclical at best, and virtually unaffected by Draconian measures such as the threat of lengthy imprisonment and mandatory sentencing guidelines. These same trends extend to the state and local levels, where the number of imprisoned drug offenders has similarly mushroomed, with no correlating decrease in drug abuse.
Despite this sorry record, the drug war marches on--albeit to the beat of a different drummer under the Clinton administration. While the president's efforts to place greater emphasis on "treatment" of chronic drug abusers should be applauded, his continued adherence to the notion that you can somehow help drug users by jailing them is inherently flawed.
First, it ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of drug users are "recreational users," taking drugs only on weekends or at the occasional rock concert. Whatever harmful effect drugs are having on these people's lives pales in comparison with the devastating effects that years of incarceration would have. Moreover, most of these people eventually outgrow drugs on their own. Otherwise there would now be more than 80 million drug users in America, rather than the current 25 million--including, presumably, both of our presidential front-runners.
Second, the punishment imposed on convicted drug offenders typically has little or no connection with actually helping the user to stop using drugs. Not only are drugs readily available in most of our nation's prisons; most prison drug programs are swamped by the vast numbers of nonviolent drug offenders currently serving time.
I had the rare opportunity to discuss some of these issues with the federal drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, at a Georgetown University symposium where we both spoke a couple of years ago. After the gathering broke up, the general told me that nearly everywhere he speaks someone tells a story similar to my brother's. He explained to me, as if to a family member of someone killed by friendly fire, that innocent casualties are an inevitable consequence of any war.
I reminded him that this war is different. It is a war being waged not against a foreign enemy but against millions of our own citizens. It is a war that has already taken more prisoners than any other. To his credit, the general recently renounced the use of the term "drug war" for these very reasons.
The time has come to reclaim the moral high ground from the drug warriors. Then, and only then, will the drug war be exposed for what it truly is: a failed attempt at social engineering that should have no place in the 21st century.
The writer is president of the California Center for Strategic Studies.