the Long's Strange Trip
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(9/13/00, Vagator, Goa, India (wpl)) The headline to the article in the paper this morning read, "Activists vow to end attacks on 'witches' ". Apparently there are incidents of tribal women in a northeast part of India being killed or ostracized due to their alleged practice of sorcery. Sounds familiar to anyone who remembers ninth-grade American History. Americans tend to look back on the Salem Witch Trails as a period of thinking gone awry. What started out as a desire for God, safety, family, community, morals, and all kinds of good, turned into a terrible evil, where many innocent people were punished, tortured, and killed. (Some of the accused weren't quite so innocent. They actually were guilty of the heinous and reprehensible crime of witchcraft.)
Of course, history is full of examples where good intentions went bad, from the Inquisition, to the caste system here in India, to McCarthyism, to many if not most wars. As we all know America is currently in the middle of the longest declared war in its entire history. Thirty-two years ago President Nixon officially declared the War on Drugs, naming Elvis Presley (a man who later died of a drug overdose) as our nationís first drug czar. We as a nation agreed to fight and fund this war because we see that drugs bring crime and addiction, and loss of safety, family, community, morals, and most other good. But is this really the case? Is this a just and justified war? What are the costs, and what are the results? Are we thinking straight, or is this another example of thinking gone awry?
In 1968 the federal expenditure on the War on Drugs was $65 million. The Reagan administration spent an average of $3 billion per year on it, the Bush administration spent $10 billion per year, and the Clinton administration has raised the ante to $17 billion per year. We actually spend $3.5 million per day just to imprison drug offenders. What are we getting for our money? Well, the United States now has over two million people behind bars, incarcerating more of its citizens (690 out of every 100,000) than any country but Russia. The number of federal prisoners is up 450% over the past 15 years. Sixty percent of those prisoners are drug offenders. Despite these enforcement efforts, there has been no substantial decrease in crack, heroin, or marijuana use. According to a United Nations report, prices on cocaine have actually fallen 45%, and heroin prices have fallen 60%. Eighty-seven million Americans admit having used an illicit substance, and twenty-six million admit using an illicit substance in the past year. Doesnít sound like weíre doing such a good job at this, does it?
What are some of the (perhaps) unintended consequences of the War on Drugs? Because they are illegal, drugs are not priced at their "free market" price, but rather at an inflated, "black market" price, which goes to cover the perceived risk that the seller is taking. This makes it quite an attractive business for someone who is uneducated, unskilled, or for whatever reason willing to take that risk. Because it is an underground economy, there are not "fair trade practices" as most business people know them. Thus, gangs become the drug distributors, and a heroin addiction, which would cost $4 per day to maintain, becomes one that costs $200 per day. Of course, gang violence has decimated many inner cities in the U.S., positive male role models are almost nonexistent in many communities, and the cycle of crime, addiction, and broken families is vicious. (Approximately 1/3 of African-American males in their 20ís are in prison, on probation, or on parole. If the trend continues, more African-American children will go to prison than to college.)
Of course, the effect of this artificial black market in drugs does not just stay within our borders. Today black-market profits from the drug trade help support third world dictators (as in Myanmar) and civil wars all over the globe. Fighting is currently going on in the Kashmir area in northwest India, reportedly funded with marijuana and opium profits. Itís supposed to be a beautiful place, but of course we wonít be going there. The same is happening in Colombia, Laos, and many other areas that are wracked with civil war.
The War has also corrupted our countryís system of justice. Mandatory minimum sentences were instituted by a Democratic-controlled Congress in the effort to get tough on drugs. If an offense meets certain requirements, it is subject to a mandatory minimum jail sentence of five or ten years. The result is a prison population increasingly filled with non-violent drug offenders, and early release programs for many violent criminals. The mean prison stay for drug trafficking is 40.1 months. Ditto for murder/manslaughter.
Unlike the rest of our countryís judicial system, where the judge has discretion concerning sentencing, the only person given this power in a mandatory minimum case is the prosecutor. The sentence can be reduced if the defendant provides "substantial assistance" in helping to convict someone else. With such a high incentive to testify, these witches, er, I mean drug defendants, are naming anyone they can think of, and these often baseless accusations are used to seize property, obtain search warrants, make arrests and gain convictions. (During the Salem witch trials, as well, tremendous pressure was put on people to "out" others who they suspected of witchcraft. Some people actually made up stories about their neighbors, just so they themselves wouldnít be suspected.)
Perhaps the most tragic effect of the War on Drugs has been how it has affected our Constitutional law and record on civil rights. The courts have upheld the validity of using "profiles" for drug couriers, allowing searches based on factors like skin color, clothing, being the first to board a plane, being the last to board a plane, or just about any other "evidence". (In Salem in the 1600ís, witches were identified by warts, moles, or other "markings".) Search warrants are no longer required if police act in "good faith". Police agencies routinely use asset forfeiture laws to seize property that may have been used to commit a drug crime, and eighty percent of the cases involve no criminal prosecution since it is the "property" accused of committing the crime, and not the property owner. The police agency itself gets to keep the property if the owner does not successfully sue to get it back.) Even the Second Amendmentís guarantee of religious freedom no longer applies if your religion involves the use of an "illicit substance". (see our Peruvian Ayahuasca experience at At Home on the Amazon).
The War on Drugs has been going on so long, that there are now many vested interests, both political and economic. The politically uncourageous yell and shout that because the War on Drugs is not working, we must spend even more; we must impose even harsher penalties. Multi-million dollar business concerns, from the prison building and staffing business, to arms manufacturers, security companies, the legal profession, and the drug testing industry, all benefit financially from the continuation of the War on Drugs. (The recent approval of a $1.2 billion aid package to Colombia fight its War on Drugs included a $400 million purchase of helicopters, coinciding with $700,000 in lobbying efforts from Bell Helicopter.) But the biggest proponents of all for the continuation of the War on Drugs are the drug manufacturers and distributors themselves, the very people the War on Drugs claims as its highest target. Without the War there would not be the incredible profits that make manufacturing and distributing illicit drugs so economically worthwhile.
What is our goal, as a society, on this issue? Do we really want a "Drug Free America", I doubt if the vast majority of Americans who use caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, herbal energizers, chocolate, Prozac, sleeping pills, or any other licit or illicit mind altering substances really think so. (The two biggest contributors to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the alcohol industry, and the tobacco industry, certainly donít think so.) The sight of three young boys sniffing glue in the streets of Bombay reinforced my conviction that this goal is not even remotely possible, even if it were desirable. People have been using various methods of altering their consciousness for thousands of years, and will always continue to do so.
I think our goal is the same as itís always been. We want a happy, healthy, safe, free, clear thinking society. Even if we do philosophically believe that a person has the right to alter his or her consciousness in whatever way they please, as long as they keep it to themselves, we still donít want our kids addicted to drugs or our leaders making whacked out decisions because theyíre on drugs. (Iím not sure thatís not already happening though...)
But perhaps thereís a better way. After all, weíre spending a whole lot of tax dollars and getting some terrible results. From what Iíve read, to get a 1 % reduction in cocaine use, we could spend $783 million in interdiction or $34 million in treatment. What would we get if we took away the profit incentive of drugs, and spent our money on treatment, education, information and empowerment?
Or, we could stay on track and shoot for a Drug Free America. First weíll outlaw tobacco, because nobody likes that anymore. Then alcohol . . . but wait a minute. Didn't we try that once already?
What do you think? Please let us know.
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