What Drives the War on Drugs?

First it was the Dominican limo driver, who disappeared while driving a client upstate. When my husband extracted him from Utica jail a month later, it turned out he’d been arrested on bogus drug charges, and his limo confiscated. Then it was a friend, set up for a drug bust by his ex-wife, to gain custody of their child. Somehow, in 1994, we ended up running a small non-profit with a big name:  Partnership for Responsible Drug Information, or PRDI—a response to the Big Media—Big Business Partnership for a Drug-Free America. For eight years we struggled for funding—foundations wouldn’t touch the issue—before we shut down in 2001.

It’s now forty years since President Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs, the “WOD”. It was a cynical move, appealing at once to the white “silent majority” frightened by hippies, and to white southerners angered by the dismantling of Jim Crow laws. Yet while started by a Republican president, and famously identified with the wife of the next Republican president, Nancy “Just say No” Reagan, –the WOD has expanded relentlessly ever since, under both Red and Blue administrations. See Charles Blow on Drug Bust, New York Times, June 10.

Moreover, it’s not just the WOD. The superb July 2011 special issue of the libertarian magazine, Reason, “Criminal Injustice: Inside America’s national disgrace” spells out how the entire criminal justice system has become more punitive, more expensive, more arbitrary and more racist. California’s “Three Strikes You’re Out” and its imitators lock up shoplifters for life. Megan’s Law and its imitators require lifetime public registration of sex offenders—even though most of them pose no threat—like the 19 year old boy who slept with his 15 year old girlfriend. Then it’s the prosecutors’ plea-bargaining racket, the forfeiture game, the jailhouse snitches, the undocumented immigrant sweeps, and so on.

So what keeps the WOD going? These three: Misinformation, special interest capture, and increasing inequality.

Misinformation. AT PRDI, we sought to educate “opinion-makers” that the WOD was just alcohol prohibition, with all its illogic and human costs. We held forums with prominent judges as speakers, published a Directory of Drug Policy Experts for the Media, and organized the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers, modeled on the premier organization that helped overturn alcohol prohibition. I published a book chapter on “Economics of Illegal Drug Markets.”

At one level, we and our fellow anti-WOD organizations succeeded. Legalization is no longer a taboo subject, and major newspapers like the New York Times regularly editorialize against the WOD. Over Federal opposition, several states have legalized medical marijuana. But the WOD keeps growing, now wreaking bloody havoc in Mexico.

Special interest capture. When Governor Rick Scott of Florida took office, he immediately signed a law requiring drug-testing of all welfare recipients and state employees. Surprise! His urgent care chain, Soltanic, makes big bucks from drug-testing. Many police departments around the country expect to meet part of their budgets by “forfeiture”: seizing and selling property involved in offenses—like our Dominican driver’s limo, or homes with marijuana plants in the closet. Defense contractors profit from arming police swat teams to break down doors in the US, as well as paramilitary forces in Mexico and Colombia. Meanwhile the prison industry, including prison unions, lobbies for more repressive laws.

Increasing inequality. In 1976, the share of wealth owned by the top 1% hit an all-time low of around 20%. Now it’s back up around 36%, close to the levels in 1929 before the Great Depression. As I have argued elsewhere, the upsurge in inequality results from the dismantling of anti-trust laws and other policies justified by free market ideology.

Until 1973, the US prison population had hovered around 200 per 100,000. Then it took off exponentially, reaching 743 per 100,000 in 2009, the highest in the world. A little over half of both state and federal prisoners are non-violent drug offenders. Most prisoners are poor, minority, and ill-educated. A coincidence? I don’t think so. A society of equals would not tolerate the reality in California that a third of young black men are in the criminal justice system.

Compelling cross-sectional evidence supports the inequality hypothesis. Here are two graphs from the Equality Trust, publisher of The Spirit Level, showing how the most unequal countries and the most unequal US states lock up the most prisoners per capita.


US Imprisonment Rates by State

Inequality doesn’t register with free market ideologues. In his introduction to the “Criminal Injustice” issue, Matt Welch, editor in chief of Reason, asks, “Why did all this happen?” He answers, “Because we let ourselves be OK with the ends justifying the means.” We?

9 comments to What Drives the War on Drugs?

  • Mike Curtis

    Thank you for an outstanding article. Perhaps you are correct, that the war on drugs is the an extreme example of the end justifying an atrocious means. I’m now wondering how many other examples will come to mind in days ahead.

  • Polly –
    Thank you for this post. The median country has approximately 100 people incarcerated per 100,000 population while the United States comes in at seven times that rate. States that have abolished the death penalty tend to have imprisonment rates much lower than the U.S. average and closer to the international range (excluding two outliers – Greece at the low end and Singapore at the high end) of 50-150 people incarcerated per 100,000 population. So states with the death penalty have more people in prison.

    Many states with high imprisonment rates are running high budget deficits. These states include those like Nevada and Arizona that are hit hard by the real estate meltdown and the states suffering from lost manufacturing jobs, like Michigan and Ohio.

    States confronting intractable budget deficits may want to look at changing their laws and judicial practices to divert some of the flow of human potential away from the costly cul-de-sac of their prison systems.

  • These are great as far as they go, but:
    1. The graphs are too fine to read
    2. Utah looks like heaven on your graphs, yet its voters are the reddest in the U.S.A. So does equality carry the seeds of its own destruction, or what?
    3. You leave us hanging. Where do you recommend we go from here?
    4. Please develop the historical side of it more. Thus, the “whiskey rebellion” suggests a link between alcohol, and helping the poor. The Volstead Act was followed by soaring of inequality. Growing MJ is a livelihood for many of the poorest. How about Comstockery and Carrie Nation – were they related to inegalitarianism?

    Mason G.

  • Bill Batt

    Well put, Polly! About as clear and concise a statement as I’ve ever read. Sadly, I am not holding my breath waiting for a shift in public policies, at least not yet. One must ask how bad things have to get before people will be willing to rethink our approach. B.

  • John David Kromkowski

    Graphs and data are a funny things.

    What’s the difference between MA and VT? Both have abolished the death penalty and have roughly the same per capital prison population, and by some unidentified measure VT has “low” “income inequality” while MA has relatively “high” “income inequality”. Obviously, the theory that either high imprisonment rates lead to income inequality or visa versa. (I’m not really sure which way you are proposing the alleged causal arrow to go.)

    Was Prohibition a ridiculous WASPy idea primarily aimed at trying to control immigrants, especially Catholics. Of course.

    Was the W.O.D also aimed at blacks and the hippy counter culture, yes.

    But are they really the same thing? There is a fairly long culturally tradition of alcohol and meals, like for most of civilization – almost everywhere where there were cities/non-nomadic traditions as well as resources to produce alcohol. (Teetotalism is in fact a counter cultural phenomenon.) But there is not really a tradition of having some meth, or crack or heroin with or after a meal or at the post saint’s day mass! Moreover Meth, Crack and Heroin and a host of pharmaceuticals are massively more addictive.

    From an evolutionary anthropology viewpoint (I’m not one but I make a wild conjecture), I suspect that one could make the case that alcohol use has evolved as an important survival strategy as people became urbanized where water consumption in cities has only recently been a safe proposition; hence those who drank alcohol lived and those who drank dirty water didn’t. (In long standing cultures without ETOH (as opposed to teetot cults), I’d bet we’d see less urbanization and less natural resources for alcohol production.) But most drugs are a very recent invention of scientific revolution. So we’ve hardly had time to adapt to drug use.

    You noted that about third of black young men are in or associated with the CA crim. justice system. Well in the 1920s, more than a 1/3 of Polish-American young men in Detroit were associated with criminal justice system! So if you think of the California African American as immigrant/ethnics who left that “almost other country” called “the South.” (for goodness sakes the traitors still fly their traitor confed. flags) in a great Migration (first wave 1910-1930 and second wave from 1945-1970), an argument might be made that the imprisonment rate is evidence of the assimilation process (from immigrant to ethnic) although slower because of legacy and continued existence of racism.

    As to “the 19 year old boy who slept with his 15 year old girlfriend.” A 19 year old adult (who can vote and go to war and drive) who sleeps with a 15 child (who cannot even drive and who has not completed high school) is, in fact, a predator. (Even half your age plus 7 is 16.5!) So let’s not sugar coat that.

    I can’t believe that anyone would say that legalization in the US would somehow make the situation in Mexico any better. Because the demand, would have to increase – by some amount, which would raise the profits – which is in part why the cartels are fighting in Mexico. That and the fact the use of meth and crack cocaine leads to paranoia and violence. And the cartel “soldiers” are users!

    When the Communists were cracking down on Solidarity, the basic plan was to give troops,police, paramilitaries and goons lots of “speed” (usually with alcohol – i.e. ETOH separated from meals and social events becomes a pharmaceutical) to work them up into a state where they would be violent and paranoid and thus prone bashing in the heads of Solidarity supporters and leaders.

    The bottom line is that things are just more complicated than some libertarian dream and some sketchy use of data. The former easily devolves into anarchy/nihilism and and the later into pseudoscience.

    I do though enjoy these posts and I trust my critique is taken in the best spirit.

    As always my comments were written in haste without proof reading, John Kromkowski.

  • John David Kromkowski

    From Wikipedia (Crime in Mexico):

    “According to the CNDH, only one out of every ten crimes is reported in Mexico; this is due to lack of trust from citizens to the authorities. Furthermore, only one out of 100 reported crimes actually goes to sentencing. This means that only one out of every 1000 crimes is punished.”

  • Out of all of the posts I’ve read, I’m kind of mad that this is the one that made me realize this has been going on all along. :-/ Thank you.

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