The War On Drugs

Michael handing a crack pipe over to police
Here I am handing over a crack pipe to the police. I won a battle in my personal war on drugs in “Cracktown” by pushing out the local dealers and cleaning up the neighborhood, but the drug activity just moved elsewhere. The obvious solution to the problem – taxing and regulating drugs just like alcohol and tobacco – is the elephant in the room that no politician wants to discuss.

Last year, over 6,000 people were killed in the Mexican Drug War, which is now being fueled by a grant of $500 million by American taxpayers, thousands of guns streaming south courtesy of American gun dealers, and billions of dollars in illegal drug revenue from American consumers. The Mexican Drug War, which joins the ongoing American Drug War, now operates in over 200 American cities, including all major Florida cities.

Florida's lengthly shoreline, its 14 seaports, 131 airports, excellent highway system, and its proximity to the tropics makes it a magnet for tourists. It also attracts Mexican, Columbian, Dominican, Jamaican, and other foreign drug trafficking organizations that bring illegal drugs into the state. Hundreds of local gangs distribute what is brought in and their infighting contributes to the high rate of violent crime in Florida.

The law enforcement approach will never accomplish more than moving the problem around. The most lethal drugs – alcohol and tobacco – are already legal, and alcohol Prohibition spawned the same scourge of soaring incarceration and violent crime rates in the 1920s that we are experiencing today. Al Capone, Yo Gotti, Scarface, Beanie Sigel, Noriega, Biggie Smalls, and Lucky Luciano. Sound familiar? These are the nicknames of modern “gangsta” rappers, who along with Notorious B.I.G, DMX, 50 Cent, Ice Cube, N.W.A., and 2Pac are channeling the spirit of alcohol Prohibition and organized crime. The same general contempt for the law that was evident in the speakeasy and gangster culture of the Prohibition era has been reborn with drug prohibition. Today's gangsta rappers are associated with the drug and prison culture and have, in some cases actually adopted the same nicknames as the 1920s gangsters. Some rappers have mellowed with age or have been killed, but the music that lives on is filled with lyrics about sex, violence, fighting, drinking, drugs, and cop killing. They wear prison and gang–inspired baggy clothing and tattoos, and get shot just as much as the gangsters of old. The biggest rap hero of all time was Tupac Shakur (aka 2Pac and Makaveli) who sold 75 million albums. He was shot five times and survived, just in time to be sent to prison for a sexual battery charge. When he got out he was shot four more times and killed in a drive–by shooting. His band was called Outlaw Immortalz (Operating Under Thug Laws As Warriorz). His bandmates reportedly mixed some of his ashes with marijuana and smoked him. Some fans think he is still alive somewhere, or consider him immortal, like Elvis. (note to fans of rappers: please do not misunderstand this as me knocking rap music – much of it is remarkably inventive and sincere – this is about how bad laws about drugs and prostitution have pushed rappers to create lyrics that are contemptuous of the law in general.)

Any law against consensual crime is subject to the same process. One rapper went by the name "Pimp C." He was sentenced to eight years for violating probation from an aggravated assault; and he died in 2007 attributable in part to an overdose of cough syrup. The word “pimp” has evolved from referring to “a despicable procurer and exploiter of prostitutes” to mean “gussy up or to decorate.” There's even a MTV show on car detailing that is called “Pimp my Ride.” A pimp doing the pimp walk on his way to his pimpmobile is about a wonderful man with an admirable swagger on his way to his flashy car. Rapper Jay Z's 2001 song “Big Pimping” is about just this sort of character. Laws against drugs and prostitution hit the underclass especially hard. In turn, this fuels racial hatred toward African–Americans and Hispanics who have become identified with the criminal subculture.

By any measure, the current approach to crime, drug activity, mental illness, and homelessness is an abysmal failure throughout the United States. In the U.S we incarcerate our citizens at a rate that is 7 times higher than Canada, 9 times higher than Germany, 11 times higher than Norway, 12 times higher than Japan and 23 times higher than India. We have 4.5% of the world's population and 24% of its incarcerated. We incarcerate 2.3 million people with an additional 4 million on probation or parole. That is 1 in 31 people, more people than the populations of 39 states, including the District of Columbia. Despite locking up a greater number of our citizens than any other country in the world, we still have a higher level of violence than any other industrialized country. The nearly 40–year–long war on drugs and the process of deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill has turned overcrowded prisons into asylums and created a plague of homelessness. Half of the people in prison are non–violent offenders. Half are there because of mental illness or substance abuse related issues (not necessarily the same half). Large numbers are in prison because of mandatory sentencing guidelines, which have been shown to be ineffective in reducing crime.

If this horror story is not bad enough, the picture in Florida is substantially worse. According to a March 2009 report by the Pew Charitable Trust, Florida's prisons are growing faster than any other state. Florida corrections cost 10% of the general fund, or $2.82 billion, in 2008. This was up from $502 million in 1988. Only Oregon and Michigan spend a greater percentage of their budget. The Criminal Justice Estimating Conference predicted in early 2008 that Florida would need an additional $1.6 billion over three years to keep up with the anticipated growth of prisons. Even the Governor's Office could see that something needed to be done. For fiscal year 2008–09 Crist proposed that a tiny fraction of that amount– $28.8 million-be diverted from prisons to treatment. It would have resulted in a cost savings to taxpayers of $771 million over five years. State House Republicans defeated the bill. Instead the state made $3.58 million budget cuts on correctional substance abuse programs in 2008. The Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association estimated that these cuts will cost taxpayers at least $17 million in 2009 – 4.7 times more expensive than treatment.

Approximately half of the untold billions spent by the municipal, county, state, and federal law enforcement goes to prop up the futile war on drugs. The city of Miami by itself will spend over $228 million – 43% of its total expenditures in 2009 for public safety. Many police departments are already reducing their drug and gang enforcement in order to handle the budget cuts. Often they use asset forfeiture law, a constitutionally questionable tactic of seizing property. The Fifth Amendment states, "No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." Nevertheless if any law enforcement agency in Florida has "probable cause," any kind of property believed to be associated with any criminal activity may be seized. If you had a party and someone left a roach clip on your porch, the feds could seize your house. It is incumbent upon the property owner to prove that no crime was committed, and the government still does not have to return the property.

Even more outrageous than this assault on the Bill of Rights is the fact that in 1985 Congress authorized “equitable sharing” whereby the seized assets may be used by the law–enforcement agencies for their own purposes. At best this practice invites corruption, at worst it amounts to a license to steal. Authors Stephen Duke and Albert Gross in their book, America's Longest War, recount a Milwaukee case in which the city seized a thirty-six-unit apartment building plagued by dope dealers even after the owner evicted the tenants he suspected of dealing, hired two security firms, and gave a master key to the police. In May 1988, U.S. customs agents in San Diego seized the Atlantis II, an $80 million research vessel owned by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, which was once used to explore the wreck of the Titanic. The agents found a tiny amount of pot in the shaving kit of a crewmember. A spokesman for the customs service in Los Angeles was quoted by Time magazine as saying that if a single marijuana joint was discovered on the Queen Elizabeth II that they may have the authority to seize it.

To a large degree, Alcohol Prohibition ended in 1933, during the Great Depression, because the government could no longer afford to enforce a policy that was not working. We are in the same situation today. Ending drug prohibition across the country will lower violent and property crime, gang activity, and organized crime. We will then have resources to deal with the health issues connected with mental illness and substance abuse. President Obama has thus far steered clear of these issues, but he needs to know the impetus is out there beginning on the state level.

And what do we get for maintaining the world's biggest gulag? According to the National Institute of Corrections, Florida's 2007 crime rate was 22% above the national average with violent crime about 35% above the national average. Florida is 16% above the national average of incarcerated adults.

The tentacles of special interests wanting to continue the failed War on Drugs run very deep in our economy. The so–called “Prison Industrial Complex,” consists of the immensely profitable prison building industry. Drug and alcohol companies benefit from laws prohibiting low–cost, grow–your–own alternatives. Law enforcement agencies get bloated budgets and asset forfeiture proceeds. The military gets more funding. These are only a few of the legally sanctioned special interests. Others wanting to see the drug war go on indefinitely include terrorist groups like al–Qaeda (who finance part of their operations from the opium trade) global organized crime syndicates, drug cartels, drug gangs, and the local pusher selling your kid drugs (which are easier to get than alcohol.)

An effective policy approach is clear, but Florida's leaders have had neither the insight or the will to change course. As has been recommended in countless studies and by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), we must end the expensive and self–destructive war on drugs and treat drug abuse as the health issue it is. We must develop sound practices to house and treat the mentally ill. Mandatory sentencing requirements do not work, and this policy must be repealed. I have started an organization, soon to be incorporated as a non–profit, called Villages for the Homeless that is in the process of developing a model for treating and providing both permanent and temporary housing for those will mental illness and substance abuse issues. This will cost far less than prison and help solve a myriad of social and economic problems related to law enforcement, urbanism, and public health. Read more.