Another Perspective

Drug War Dirty Dealings

How long can we tolerate this ugly state of affairs?

By 8.4.04

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"In the United States, there are now more than 318,000 people behind bars for violations of drug prohibition, more than the number of persons incarcerated for all crimes in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined," writes Jeffrey A. Miron, professor of economics at Boston University, in his new book Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition.

On any given day, that means that the number of people locked up in America for drug violations is just about equal to the total number of people living in Pittsburgh. The official population of Pittsburgh in the 2000 U.S. Census was 334,563.

All told, in excess of 1.5 million people are being arrested each year in the United States on drug-related charges -- overwhelmingly for possession, not selling. That's more people arrested each year for breaking U.S. drug laws than the total number of people living in Harrisburg, Buffalo, Norfolk, Durham, Spokane, and Cleveland combined.

Of these 1.5 million drug-related arrests, a full 1.2 million are for possession-only. Touching only a small fraction of the nation's estimated 28 million drug users, these arrests fall disproportionately on the poor. As Miron explains: "Many arrests for possession occur because the arrestee violated some other law -- prostitution, theft, speeding, loitering, disorderly conduct, and so on -- and was found to possess drugs. Thus, otherwise law-abiding citizens who wish to purchase and consume drugs face minimal risk of arrest or other sanction."

The cocaine in the purse of a downtown hooker, in other words, is more likely to be spotted by the cops than the cocaine in the glove compartment of those who go about their business in more leafy sections of the country. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project in Washington points to the discriminatory impact of America's war on drugs, both in terms of the consequences of inequitable enforcement and the increase in the overall number of people being jailed. "In 1980, about 40,000 Americans were locked up for drug-only offenses," writes Mauer. Now the number behind bars for drugs is eight times that high, and, reports Mauer, "three-fourths of them are black or Latino, though drug use is no higher in those groups than among whites."

Bruce Western, a sociologist at Princeton University, points to how the government's biased dealings in enforcement and sentencing have had a glaringly disproportionate impact on black men and race relations. In 1999, reports Western, 41 percent of black male high school dropouts between the ages of 22 and 30 were locked up. In 2002, reports the Justice Department, 1 in 8 black men in their 20s and early 30s were behind bars, compared with 1 in 63 white men. Today, the odds are 1 in 3 that a black male in the United States will go to prison in his lifetime. "I think," concludes Western, "that this is one of the most important developments in race relations in the last 30 years."

Disproportionately geared towards catching and jailing the poor and minorities, America's war on drugs has also proven to be especially good at rounding up the small fry while letting the big fish off the hook. "Mandatory sentences," explains Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, "are filling federal prisons with low-level offenders instead of the kingpins they were supposed to catch."

With over 2 million people now locked up, the U.S. prison population is now the largest in the world, much of it the result of the war on drugs. At over 700 per 100,000 residents, for example, the U.S. incarceration rate is more than seven times higher than the rates of incarceration in Germany or France. On top of the price of inequitable enforcement and the $33 billion that the U.S. government is spending annually to enforce drug prohibition, Miron contends that the war on drugs has been more effective in fostering corruption among public officials than in reducing drug consumption.

Arguing that the war on drugs is a poor method of reducing drug use, Miron pulls together the evidence to show how prohibition has increased the level of street violence, expanded health risks for drug users, drained criminal justice resources away from more serious crimes, diminished civil liberties, restricted the medicinal uses of drugs, generated insurrection in drug-producing countries, and speeded the transfer of massive amounts of wealth to criminals.

The costs, in short, have exceeded the benefits. Miron's answer: "Liberty and utility both recommend that prohibition end."

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.