Saturday, March 22, 2008


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.

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?


Garbo said...

The last paragraph is definitely on target. The question should not be whether or not drugs are good or bad, but how drug policy should function. Too often politicians from across the political spectrum get caught up in debates over whether or not something is good or bad rather than what should be done about it. Simply saying "Drugs are bad" and "Just say no" works about as well for the nation's drug abuse problem as abstinence-only sex education prevents pregnancy and STDs. It ignores how people actually act.

It is simply unrealistic to issue a blanket condemnation of an act without looking at what motivates individuals to perform such acts. Nor does public policy benefit from lack of nuance, which is precisely what happens when the debate centers on good or bad instead of how best to resolve the issue.

Garbo said...

It also looks like Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) has offered a bill to legalize small amounts of marijuana. More details can be found here.

hot zone said...

Lang, I expect better from you. Right out of the gate you are spouting misinformation.

America does have the largest official prison population, but do you think China is being honest in their reporting? Hongda Harry Wu, prisoner for nineteen years and author of Laogai: The Chinese Gulag, certainly doesn't think so. In fact, he speculates that there as many as sixteen to twenty million prisoners. Which beats America in both percentage of population and absolute terms.

Though having the moral high ground over China isn't too hard and I agree that we need to end the War on Drug, I can't let you get away with sloppy statements like that.

ebl2009 said...

I take issue with a few points Lang makes while suggesting a compromise position:

First, the initial normative claim that our incarceration rates are 'absurdly high' has no empirical grounding. Absurdly high in comparison to what? Other countries? Maybe the United States, per capita, has a larger number of drug users than any other country with comparably effective law enforcement and judicial mechanisms. Unless we know the drug usage rates of other countries, then we can't make a claim of absurdity; indeed, while you might be right that the War on Drugs is a bad policy approach in general, arguing that just because something is elevated makes it absurd is just that.

Second, Lang points to the myriad of failures of the War on Drugs policy as a reason why the policy should be altered. Part of the rationale for this argument is both the high costs and the lack of payoff from those costs. From these premises, you assert that a less stringent policy should be adopted, one that would decrease the number of incarcerated drug users (it's worth noting here that it likely wouldn't decrease the number of drug users, just the number of imprisoned ones).

It's not clear that reducing the stringency of the terms imposed by the War on Drugs would have a positive effect (I am not sure whether having drug users on the streets is better than having them in jail but the topic of regulation is certainly a good one to discuss in the future), nor that increasing the penalties/enforcement mechanisms of the policy wouldn't be more effective.

This point of effectiveness leads to my alternate plan that I think could bridge the two positions (need to reduce number of drug-related incarcerations with the need to ensure that drug users are free to proceed with their nefarious activities [as you can probably tell, I'm a big fan of Rousseau and the importance he places on the moral good of the polity]). The aspect of the War on Drugs that Lang does not consider in his post is the international aspect. For the better part of the past decade, the United States has supported the War on Drugs in South America through Plan Colombia, spending nearly 5 billion dollars to aid destruction of illicit crops in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and other South and Central American countries.

However, as this plan has proceeded, the numbers of hectares of cultivated coca crops and other drug-producing plants has actually increased faster than they did before the implementation of the anti-drug program. This suggests a serious flaw in the program itself and also the possibility that fixes could be effected which would solve Lang's problem of jailed population (by reducing the drug flow and therefore the incarceration rates due to drugs in the U.S.) while not letting drug users run rampant in the U.S.

Obviously more research (on my part and the U.S. part - I've looked at the State Department's numbers on drug production under Plan Colombia but not recently) should be done, but this offers a way to bridge the divide.