The War on Drugs - time to hoist the white flag

Tuesday, January 9, 2001 at 1:00am

When I was a schoolgirl, I learned that America was great because we had never lost a war. From the Revolutionary War through World War II, America always won.

Those were the good old days. Today America is losing a major war, the War on Drugs. If anyone needs to be convinced, go see the new movie Traffic. It is a devastating portrait of the War on Drugs in which, as the ad says, there are no winners, only losers.

The War's real-life losers include America's young people who are ingesting larger amounts of cheaper and stronger drugs, African-American men who fill our jails, residents of ghetto neighborhoods who are victimized by drug-related violence, poor drug-growing peasants in South America, and cancer victims undergoing chemotherapy and unable to obtain medicinal marijuana to alleviate their pain. And most importantly, the tax-paying citizens of America, who are footing the bill for this travesty.

How did we get into this horrible mess? For decades, federal, state and local governments have been kicking in doors and locking people up, often violating civil and other human rights in the name of protecting people from illegal drugs. Our drug control laws have focused largely on criminalization and punishment, not on education and rehabilitation.

The legacy of the War on Drugs is violence, racial injustice, corruption in government, and a huge, untaxed black-market economy run by organized criminals.

Drug war politics makes it impossible to institute a clean needle program; this impedes public health efforts to stem the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases. The environment is destroyed as South American peasants move their coca plantations deeper into the rain forests to avoid detection. Our prisons are dangerously overcrowded with hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders.

Scarce resources better spent on education and economic development are squandered on ever more expensive and ineffective interdiction efforts.

All of this in the name of the highly unrealistic goal of creating a drug-free America.

What would it take to win the War on Drugs?

We would need to stop drug production in other countries. U.N. agencies estimate annual revenues generated from illegal drugs at $400 billion, with a quarter of this in the United States. In its best year, the Drug Enforcement Administration working with foreign governments seized about 1 percent of the worldwide drug crop. In many South American countries, drug production is an economic necessity. If it ceased, several nations would suffer a major economic collapse.

There is no credible evidence to suggest any possibility of drug production being eliminated in other countries.

To win the War on Drugs, we would need to stop drugs at the border. In 1988, Sterling Johnson, the federal prosecutor for New York, stated that police would have to increase drug seizures by at least 1,400 percent to have any impact at all on the drug market.

There is no credible evidence anywhere that we could stop, or even greatly reduce, the flow or smuggling of drugs into the United States.

And to win the War on Drugs, we would need to stop the sale of drugs within the United States. This would require the potential imprisonment of millions of drug dealers in America. Most of the prisons and jails in the United States are already filled past capacity. Twenty-four states are under federal court orders to release prisoners because of overcrowding. Arresting all of the drug dealers would require constructing five new prison beds for every one that now exists.

Here in Tennessee, we don't have enough tax dollars to build more prisons. According to recent state Department of Corrections figures, Tennessee currently has around 1,880 drug felons under lock and key. At the cost of $16,589 a year to house each offender, this adds up to over $31 million a year.

The Corrections Oversight Committee issued a recent report that said Tennessee will need to build 4,789 more prison beds over the next 10 years. The price tag for a proposed prison housing 1,675 inmates is estimated at $70 million, which means Tennessee will need to spend more than $200 million on prisons in the coming decade.

Tough drug laws have done all they can do, and they have not solved the problem. There is no credible evidence that we could stop or even greatly reduce the sale of drugs within the United States.

What is the solution? The first step is to hoist the white flag and admit that we have lost the war.

Nell Levin is a longtime social activist and a concerned citizen. She can be reached at

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