Three weeks ago, the Pew Center on the States released a report highlighting an appalling achievement recently reached by the United States: with 2.3 million people behind bars out of a total adult population of roughly 230 million, the US has become the first and only modern country to imprison more than 1% of its adult population. To put these numbers in context, not only does the US lead every other country in the world in percentage of adults in jail, but we lead in absolute terms as well. China, with a population of 1.3 billion citizens, had the second largest number of imprisoned adults, with 1.5 million.
Our absurdly high incarceration rate (so much for "land of the free"…) is due in large part to the disastrous War on Drugs. As of December 2007, roughly one in every five inmates in jail is there for a drug offense. In addition to the cost of jailing drug offenders, untold hours are wasted by law enforcement officers, as epitomized by the time spent on making 740,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2006 alone.
Despite its financial costs and its myriad failures (a subject deserving of its own post), thethe ongoing presidential campaign. The lone exception seems to have been the Democratic debate at Drexel University on October 30th, in which the candidates were asked their views on decriminalizing marijuana. While Sen. Chris Dodd criticized the War on Drugs for "filling our jails with people who don't belong there," both Senators Clinton and Obama expressed opposition to decriminalizing marijuana. Of all ofthe Democrats to oppose decriminalization, Obama and Clinton are a particularly ironic duo: if the United States had been more successful in pursuing drug offenders, odds are that neither Senator would be where they are today. War on Drugs has largely been absent from
Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama have made any secret of what their supporters now write off as youthful indiscretions. In his 1992 campaign, Clinton admitted that in the late 1960s, he "experimented with marijuana once or twice," though he infamously denied inhaling. In Barack Obama's first book, he discussed his own history of substance abuse, admitting that while in high school, he indulged in underage drinking, marijuana, and "a little blow when [he] could afford it." (To be sure, experimenting with drugs is not a phenomenon found solely among young Democrats: on the other side of the aisle, George W. Bush has denied using illegal drugs since 1974, and it is rumored that he was arrested for cocaine possession in 1972.)
Rather, Senators Obama and Clinton represent one of the War on Drugs' few redeeming qualities: the fact that its execution has been half-assed since its inception. Despite theof thousands of Americans now serving time in prison for drug offenses, and thethe years, only a tiny fraction of those who have actually used, bought, sold, or transported illegal drugs have actually been caught. No drug enforcement official could claim with a straight face that those behind bars are a majority ofthe unfortunate ones that were caught. hundreds millions more who have been arrested over drug offenders; they are just
While many have attacked the War on Drugs for the financial burden it imposes on the law enforcement and corrections agencies, a less noted though equally important problem is its opportunity cost. Had either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama been caught, it is impossible to say where they, or Hillary Clinton, would be today. (While I vehemently disagree with the theory that Hillary's success is attributable solely to her marriage, it is indisputable that if Bill Clinton has been jailed in his early 20s, Hillary Clinton's life would have been different than it is today.) The country is then faced with an unanswerable question: how many Barack Obamas and Bill Clintons were caught in the War on Drugs? How many now sit in prison due to a drug conviction? How many potential presidents, senators, governors, CEOs, star athletes, captivating entertainers or brilliant academics never were, because at some point their lives were derailed? Remember the numbers: 740,000 arrests in 2006 alone, just for marijuana possession.
On December 5th, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the 21st Amendment, officially ending our nation's experiment with the prohibition of alcohol (which President Roosevelt promptly followed by declaring "I think this would be a good time for a beer"). We should honor its 75th anniversary by having an open, honest and frank discussion about what the economic and personal costs of the War on Drugs have been. I'm not advocating for the immediate, unregulated legalization of all drugs, but I do believe that our country needs to reexamine its policies. Our national leaders were once able to admit that Prohibition wasn't working, and that they had made a mistake. Are today's leaders capable of the same?