Jackson County, Missouri has been financing the war on drugs with a quarter-cent sales tax since 1989, and voters are being asked to re-up for at least seven more years.
I look at the drug war pretty much the same way as the conflict in Iraq. If you're engaged in hostilities, you want the good guys to be well equipped. So I intend to vote Nov. 3 in favor of renewing the Community Backed Anti-Drug Sales Tax, otherwise known in COMBAT.
But I question why we're in the war.
The big war, that is.
The one that costs federal, state and local governments in the U.S. about $44 billion a year, by conservative estimates. The one that has landed 1.7 million people in prison for nonviolent offenses. The one no rational person thinks we'll ever win.
In seeking renewal of the COMBAT tax, backers unintentionally demonstrate the futility of the war on drugs.
COMBAT funds have been used to arrest more than 11,000 persons on drug charges since 2002, campaign materials boast. More than $250 million worth of drugs and more than 3,000 weapons have been cleared from the streets
And still they keep coming.
Kansas City police shut drug houses down, and new ones open up. Drugs, gangs and illegal guns, an inseparable evil stew, are at the root of most of the city's 92 homicides so far this year.
For a time in the 1990s, eastern Jackson County was a hotbed of methamphetamine production. Dealers cooked the stuff in garages, bathtubs and camper trailers. Aided by COMBAT funds, law enforcement officers dismantled the labs and put dealers in prison.
But then gangs began importing meth from Mexico. No sooner did police crack down on the trade than they began seeing a return of the home-grown variety.
"It just keeps evolving and changing," said Michael Hand, officer in charge of the Jackson County Drug Task Force.
It does and it always will. Unless we rethink our strategy for dealing with narcotics.
This week, the U.S. Justice Department said it wouldn't waste its time or money targeting states that allow the production and use of medicinal marijuana.
A retired police chief, writing for The New York Times' Room for Debate blog, used the occasion to question the larger drug war, calling it an "irrational policy of unnecessarily criminalizing widespread conduct."
"Why is a free society so terrified of trusting adults to make responsible decisions?" he wrote.
The author is familiar to many Kansas Citians. Joseph D. McNamara was police chief here in the 1970s, and later spent 15 years as chief of police in San Jose, Calif.
Now a research fellow at the Hoover Institute in California, he joins a growing number of retired law enforcement officers in proposing that narcotics be sold as legal but regulated substances, heavily taxed and tightly controlled.
The law enforcement converts argue persuasively that a legal drug market would dramatically reduce crime and violence.
"The violence comes from the competition for illegal profits among dealers, not from crazed drug users," McNamara has written.
Good anti-drug programs like COMBAT have already acknowledged that police action alone isn't the answer. One of COMBAT's strongest features is its drug court, which gets non-violent offenders into treatment and services instead of prison.
Think of how much more money could be freed up for treatment and prevention if the drug market was run by licensed operators instead of by criminal gangs who enlist school kids as their foot soldiers.
COMBAT is a smart response to an ongoing problem. But it's not smart for a nation to engage in a war with no end game.
By Barbara Shelly
October 26, 2009
The Kansas City Star