Another Perspective

Drug Wars and Deficits

The DEA wastes money and undercuts our rights.

By 11.4.13


Conservatives claim to want to cut the deficit, but they rarely agree on specific programs to cut other than those for poor people. Well, how about cutting a program that hurts poor people? More, it’s a program which has government destroying several of our most basic rights. Worst, it has been a colossal failure.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is fighting a failed war, and they’re fighting dirty. President Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs in 1971 to end drug violence and drug abuse. Forty-two years later, we still have drug use, more violence and more people in our prisons, and the drug trade is stronger than ever. Meanwhile, the DEA has resorted to treating all Americans like criminals through massive surveillance of our phone data going all the way back to 1987.

The DEA’s surveillance program, called the Hemisphere Project, which was launched in 2007, gives the agency access to potentially billions of telephone numbers and information related to calls, including the caller’s location. Agency officials don’t even have to obtain a warrant to look through these records; all they need is an administrative subpoena. The program operates in secrecy. While the Hemisphere Project is not technically classified, investigators are told not to refer to it in official documents.

Government surveillance is a heated topic right now, following revelations earlier this year that the National Security Administration (NSA) collects massive amounts of data on private citizens. The main difference is that the NSA collects data for national security purposes, especially counterterrorism efforts; the DEA’s surveillance is meant specifically to fight domestic crimes.

All of this flies in the face of our constitutional rights to due process and to privacy. More, it’s not even effective. Despite all the best efforts of the DEA and other law enforcement officials, the war on drugs has turned out to be a $1 trillion failure. Yet we are pouring more money into it every year — in 2013 alone, the White House requested $25.6 billion to keep the fight going — and to allow the DEA to treat us all like criminals.

One of the most devastating results of the war on drugs has been a massive increase in our prison population. In 1980, about 50,000 people were in jail for non-violent, drug-related offenses. Today, more than 500,000 prisoners are serving sentences for drug-related crimes. The United States has a prison population of 2.2 million people, more than any other nation in the world — or one in four of the world’s prison population. Incarcerations aren’t solving our problems, and they’re costing taxpayers. In 2011 alone, housing all these prisoners cost the U.S. $52 billion. Thankfully, some relief from harsh drug laws may come from bipartisan legislation now in both houses of Congress which gives judges flexibility to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses.

More, the war on drugs unfairly targets the poor and minorities, especially African Americans, even though they don’t use drugs any more than any other demographic. Black Americans are arrested as much as 10 times more often than white people for drug offenses. They account for 37 percent of drug arrests, even though they represent only 14 percent of regular drug users. Rather than developing programs and methods to help people struggling with addiction, the war on drugs has abandoned far too many people to a life of violence and fear.

Meanwhile, the global drug trade continues to thrive. Drugs are cheaper, more accessible and of better quality today than they were 42 years ago when the war on drugs began. The drug trade is worth an estimated $350 billion per year. Government efforts to fight drugs have simply fueled the business by driving black market prices and drawing in unscrupulous people eager to make money.

Despite the threat of jail time, more people are admitting to using drugs, especially marijuana. In a recent Gallup poll, 38 percent of respondents admitted to smoking marijuana. Use of hard drugs has remained relatively stable over the past two decades.

The war on drugs, and by extension the DEA’s phone surveillance program, was started to make Americans safer. The end goal is a laudable one: getting rid of drug addiction and the violence that too often accompanies substance abuse. Unfortunately, just as our government found with Prohibition, making something illegal doesn’t make it go away; it simply drives it underground and makes it more dangerous and harder to regulate.

Massive surveillance of Americans’ phone call data is not the way to correct the problem. This simply turns all of us into suspects, violating our right to privacy and making a mockery of due process. The war on drugs is not working, not because the government doesn’t have enough resources, but because it’s a bad idea to begin with. We need to scrap the program and start over with something completely new. 

We must end the war on drugs. It has cost us dearly, and it’s doing no good. Instead, we should focus our resources and legal efforts on programs to help people deal with their addictions. Portugal, for example, has decriminalized drugs and proven that humane treatment alternatives for addicts do not increase drug use. According to a recent Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana. We should legalize it and tax it like anything else. It is estimated the tax revenue from illegal drugs could generate about $46.7 billion per year.

The programs our tax dollars pay for should benefit us and make America a better place to live. The war on drugs has done nothing to decrease drug use, and drug violence has escalated over the years. Yet instead of acknowledging that it’s time to try something new, the DEA has resorted to spying on Americans, in an ends-justifies-the-means approach. While the Hemisphere Project may have met with some success in fighting individual battles, it has not brought us any closer to a definitive conclusion of the war on drugs.

The American people deserve better. We have a right to privacy. We have a right to due process under the law. We have a right to expect that our tax dollars will be put to good use enacting policies that benefit us and our children, making America a safer place to live. The war on drugs has failed. It’s time to admit it and come up with solutions that will really work.

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About the Author

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)TM, the U.S.