A TALE OF TWO WARS ON DRUGS
Consider two "drug wars" -- one a highly and expensively hyped crusade, the
other quieter; but both of tremendous social, economic, legal and cultural
significance over the last few decades.
One, waged principally against opiates, cannabis and cocaine by state and
federal governments for more than 20 years, has cost billions, perhaps
trillions of dollars in taxpayer money; taxed the resources of already
overworked law enforcement agencies; sustained a criminal empire the size
and riches of which would dwarf the booze kingpins of the 1920s and '30s;
created, with the help of "mandatory sentencing" politics, an unprecedented
corrections crisis by stuffing prisons to bursting with drug offenders; and
provided the dubious rationale for abrogating the Bill of Rights to an
extent even the Patriot Act hasn't approached. And even the front-line
troops in this war have acknowledged it's a losing campaign.
"Drug war" No. 2, which hasn't generated nearly as much attention -- which,
in fact, few people have thought of as a "drug war" at all -- has involved
relatively little public money, no prison space, little or no effort on the
part of law enforcement. Nobody's been randomly summoned away from a desk or
work site to urinate into a cup. And it has been waged against a drug that
every year claims more lives than all illegal substances combined.
But the vast differences in expense and approach aren't the most dramatic
distinction here. The biggest difference is that one of them has worked.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reported last week
that smoking among American teens is at its lowest level in almost 30 years
-- an achievement the CDC attributes principally to anti-smoking campaigns
and higher cigarette prices. Dr. John Banzhaf III, executive director of
Action on Smoking and Health and professor of public interest law at George
Washington University Law School, called it "probably the most dramatic
progress which has been made in terms of any public health problem, at least
in recent memory."
So providing people with education and information has proven dramatically
effective in curbing use of a drug some experts have said is as addictive as
heroin; while draconian laws and sentences and self-incrimination policies
have created more problems than they have solved.
Surely there's a lesson in there somewhere.
-- Dusty Nix, for the editorial board