Sunday, November 2, 2008

Ben Tan's Radio Report on Drug War

Click here to listen: 


Ben Tan
: Government policies of the last decades has treated drug use as a crime. The office of national
drug control policy says in this year alone our government has spent more than $40
billion on the drug war. Every president since Nixon has declared support for punishing
drug users. Others, however, say that this persecution should end. Professor
Jeffrey Miron is Harvard University's senior economics lecturer and the author
of the 2004 book Drug War Crimes. Professor Miron says that the War on Drugs, for all
its good intentions, has actually lead to more malice.

Professor Miron: I think it's done enormous harm and very little good, if any. It contributes
to crime, it contributes to corruption, it costs substantial resources for prisons, police, and
prosecutors. It undermines civil liberties, it fosters terrorism and insurrection in other
countries and at best it has a modest impact on drug use. And further, it's not obvious
that reducing drug use is a necessarily always a good thing. Just as some people use
alcohol in ways that is perfectly fine for them and others, many people can use
drugs in ways that are harmless or even beneficial for themseleves without harming
others and so we shouldn't assume that reduced drug use is an appropriate goal.

Ben Tan: Professor Miron published his book in 2004 at a time when almost
1/2 million Americans were in prison for drug offensives. Randall Sheldon
is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada in Los Vegas.
He sees the escalation of drug arrests since the 80s as a cause of jail

Professor Sheldon: To explain either jail or prison overcrowding or both, you
first have to consider something very simple, very elementary: a jail or a
prison is overcrowded for one of two reasons. 1) Too many coming in the
front door and not enough leaving the back door. So what we've seen
since the early 1980s is roughly a five fold increase (500% increase) in
the nation's prisons and jails in terms of the rate of incarceration. For just
drug arrests alone, it is about 1100% increase in drug arrests. So we just
put two and two together. And most of these arrests are for small time
traffickers, possession. The biggest drug, of course, would be marijuana.
So without a doubt, this has been what is happening.

Tan: Opponents of the drug war say it has also caused a greater
issue: racial profiling. A government studied revealed that at the end of
2004, of the almost 250,000 drug offenders in state prisons, 45% were
black and 20% were hispanic. Professor Sheldon says this doesn't
reflect the amount of drug use among races.

Sheldon: Several organizations do surveys of people, both adults and
juveniles, on the incidence of their use of illegal drugs. And every one
of these surveys since they started doing them back in the 1980s
have shown that their is no significant difference between the races.
Some surveys show whites using these drugs more often than
either African Americans or Latinos. Police departments have
admitted that "yeah we've gone into these neighborhoods (meaning
African American or Hispanic) because they are easier to find. There
is easier to find drug use going on in there 'cause they are done
mostly out on the streets, in the alleys and so forth. Whereas in
the suburbs, they are being used behind clothes doors, in people's
backyards, and even businesses and college fraternaties and sororities
and dormitories. That's what we have.

Tan: Opponents of the drug war also cite the toll it takes on the
government's budget. Professor Miron explains how an end to drug
prohibition could benefit the nation's financial situation.

Miron: We currently spend something like $35, 40 billion dollars a year
on the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of people on drug
related charges. So we would say that those are sources for other uses
if we were to legalize drugs. We also are not collecting tax revenues
(the taxes that would presumably be levied on legal drugs) and so that
means taxes on other things have to be higher for any given level of
goverment expenditure. So the budgetary situation for the U.S overall
would improve by somewhere between $50 and 70 billion dollars if
we were to legalize and and regulate the currently illegal
drugs. It's not going to fundamentally change anything about the current
financial crisis or anything like that. It's not going to fundamentally change
the overall path of the U.S economy, but it's not trivial either. There are
many government programs which are far smaller than $50 billion or 70
billion dollars a year so it would make a noticable difference. In
addition to all these other consequences that don't show up in the
government budgets like reduced crime.

Tan: Despite all the arguments against drug prohibiton, the cause of these
drug war opponents may seem lost in today's political climate. After all
how else can the government send the message that drugs are dangerous?
Professor Miron has a suggestion...

Miron: I think the best we can do with respect to drugs is to have them
be legal and then possibly, although not necessarily but possibly, have
relatively mild policies in a legal environment in an attempt to nudge
people against the most irresponsible uses of drugs. One example, which
is almost certainly desirable, would be analogous to drunk driving laws
would be driving under the influence of marijuana or heroin or anything
else. Another type of policy that most countries use in conjunction
with alcohol is minimum purchase ages. So that would certainly be
thinkable, defensable, plausible in the case of legalized drugs.

Tan: Such reform may seem radical next to the policies of the Republicans
and Democrats. Even the reform Question 2 on the Massachusetts
Ballot may bring is a far cry from a nation in which all drugs are legal.
In 2005, a goverment survery said that more than 100 million Americans
twelve and over have used an illicit substance at least once. The
dangerous consequences of drug use can not be denied. A 2000
American Medical Association study says that 17 million Americans
died from illicit drug use that year. How will America's future leader
address the problem? Republican Presidential candidate Senator
John McCain is a strong supporter of the war on drugs. On the other
hand, Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama supports
rehab rather than prison for first time non-violent offenders. This is
still a far cry from the libertarian view that all drug use should
be legal. So how should government approach the drug problem?
The writer H.L Mencken once said "For every complex problem
there is an easy answer and it is wrong." For You Are Here
this is Ben Tan.

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