2009-09-24 / Features

Is War On Drugs Worth It? Maybe Not, New FBI Data Suggest

Many law enforcement officers now say the drug interdiction effort is costly and unsuccessful
By Patrik Jonsson THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

ATLANTA - Every 18 seconds, an American is busted for drug possession, according to Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) crime statistics released last Monday.

The new statistics point to a continued emphasis on drug interdiction - otherwise known as the "war on drugs" - that more and more law enforcement officers are now questioning. While many experts hold the anti-drug campaign to be the key reason for the decline in the crime rate in the U.S., especially violent crime, since the 1990s, these police officers, as well as current and retired judges and prosecutors see, instead, thousands of American lives ruined for small drug infractions in a costly and possibly unwinnable "war."

"Not only do these officers see the terrible results that their work has had on individuals' lives, but a lot of what I hear from beat officers and undercover narcotics agents is they've seen colleagues die in the line of fire trying to enforce laws that have no positive impacts," says Tom Angell, a spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) in Washington. "For a lot of them, this is about trying to keep good cops alive by repealing stupid prohibition laws."

According to the latest FBI figures, 82.3 percent of all drug arrests in 2008 were for possession, and 44.3 percent of these for possession of marijuana. Arrests totalled more than 1.7 million.

"You can get over an addiction, but you will never get over a conviction, said Jack Cole, a retired undercover narcotics agent and LEAP director, in a statement last Tuesday about the "collateral consequences" of the war on drugs.

Changing attitudes

The emergence of frontline officers speaking out against the war on drugs is helping to kindle a debate about legalization of drugs across the U.S., says Angell. It is even driving a Congressional bill written by Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virigina to establish a new Blue Ribbon justice system panel that would take a serious look at drug legalization.

The U.S. could gain $77 billion in revenue a year by legalizing - and taxing - marijuana, cocaine and heroin, says LEAP.

Culturally, attitudes about drugs may be changing. A Zogby poll in May showed for that the first time a majority of Americans favor decriminalizing marijuana. States such as Massachusetts and California have already taken steps in that direction.

"Most drugs are more readily available at lower prices today than when Nixon declared a war against it," says Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief and a staunch proponent of drug le- galization, referring in part to the lower price of marijuana.

However, White House "drug czar" Gil Kerlikowske recently said, "Legalization is not in the president's vocabulary and it's not in mine."

Sending the wrong message?

Pro-legalization groups are missing the forest for the trees, says Gregory D. Lee, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent. He says the dwindling crime rate across the U.S. is directly correlated to the government's investment in border and street interdiction.

"Legalization sends a message that it's okay to do drugs when in reality these drugs have a tremendous impact on the future of the people who take them," he says. "Under legalization, the crime rate would rise because of crimes committed by people under the influence of these substances."

Lee points to the rising price of cocaine in the U.S. as a sign that domestic and international interdiction is working. "The war on drugs," he says, "is being won."

Return to top