Opinion: War on drugs is war on justice

August 15, 2013


It’s been a war on justice, an assault on equal protection under the law.

And a war on families, removing millions of fathers from millions of homes.

And a war on money, spilling it like water.

And a war on people of color, targeting them with drone strike efficiency.

We never call it any of those things, though all of them fit. No, we call it the War on Drugs. It is a 42-year, trillion dollar disaster that has done nothing — underscore that: absolutely nothing — to stem the inexhaustible supply of, and insatiable demand for, illegal narcotics. In the process, it has rendered this “land of the free” the biggest jailer on Earth.

So any reason to hope sanity might assert itself is cause for celebration. Monday, we got two of them, a coincidental confluence of headlines that left me wondering, albeit, fleetingly: Did the War on Drugs just end?

Well, no. Let’s not get carried away. But it is fair to say two of the biggest guns just went silent.

Gun 1: In a speech before an American Bar Association conference in San Francisco, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal prosecutors will no longer charge non-violent, low-level drug offenders with offenses that fall under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Those Kafkaesque rules, you may recall, got Kemba Smith, a college student with no criminal record, sentenced to almost 25 years without parole after she carried money for her abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend.

Gun 2: A federal judge ruled New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional. The tactic, more in line with some communist backwater than with a nation that explicitly guarantees freedom from random search and seizure, empowered cops to search anyone they deemed suspicious, no probable cause necessary. Unsurprisingly, 84 percent of those stopped were black or Hispanic, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil rights group, which says illegal drugs or weapons were found in less than 2 percent of the searches.

Michelle Alexander wrote the book on the drug war — literally. “The New Jim Crow” documents in painful, painstaking detail how policies like these have been directed disproportionately against communities of color with devastating effect.

She told me via email that Monday’s headlines leave her “cautiously optimistic” they reflect an emerging national consensus that “war on certain communities defined by race and class has proved to be both immoral and irrational, wasting billions of dollars and countless lives.”

But, she warned, “tinkering with the incarceration machine” is not enough. These are important first steps, but only that. She’d like to see the resources that have been wasted in this “war” redirected to help the communities it decimated.

“We’ve spent more than a trillion dollars destroying those communities in the War on Drugs; we can spend at least that much helping them to recover. We must build a movement for education, not incarceration; jobs, not jails. We must do justice by repairing the harm that has been done. In that process, perhaps we will finally reverse the psychology that brought us to this point and learn to care about poor people of all colors, rather than simply viewing them as the problem.”

We can only hope. At the very least, Monday’s headlines suggest maybe a sea change is underway. Maybe we’re ready to stop using criminal justice tools to solve a public health problem. Maybe we’re ready to end this “War.”

It’s about time. Indeed, it is past time. Our stubborn insistence on these foolish, unworkable policies has left families bereft, communities devastated, cops and bystanders dead, money wasted, foreign governments destabilized, distrust legitimized and justice betrayed.

We call it a War on Drugs. Truth is, drugs are about the only thing it hasn’t hurt.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


FastEddy 4 years, 8 months ago

Atta' Boy Leonard. Let 'em go. Let 'em all go and the public will be much safer. While we're at it, let's call off the war on poverty and do away with "social justice" welfare programs. Obviously, they haven't worked. Never before have we had more poor Americans despite spending trillions and trillions on poverty since the 1960s and Obama has hit the accelerator on spending for these programs. It seems the more we spend, the worse it gets.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

Something that has happened over the years is that the definition of "poverty" has changed a great deal over the years. What is considered "poverty" under Federal guidelines today would have been considered middle class 40 or 50 years ago.

With all the benefits available to people living in "poverty" today, there isn't much incentive to work if your skills are limited, because if all you can earn is minimum wage, your income will be increased by only a very small amount.

I read this somewhere a few years ago, it's not original:
"The difference between the poor people in the United States and the poor people in other countries is that the poor people in the United States have cars."

tomatogrower 4 years, 8 months ago

He is not suggesting to let them go. He is talking about this being a health issue that has turned into a crime problem. If we would start treating people for their addiction, then we would have a productive citizen, not an inmate. If we dried up the demand, then the criminals would have to find something else to do. If you sold marijuana in liquor stores, then no one would be tempted to try the other wares of the street drug dealer, and it would no longer be considered a gateway drug. The taxes from marijuana could be used to treat people addicted to other drugs. Fire some drug police and hire therapists.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

Yes, treatment is the answer. For those addicted to drugs, and gambling, and food, and sex and, and, and. Maybe universities can start pumping out therapists by the millions while Obamacare covers the cost of all that treatment. Never mind that treatment has a poor record of success. The eventual cost will make the military industrial complex look like a small time operation. And in the end, we'll still have stupid people doing stupid things.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

Treatment isn't "the answer".

There isn't one "answer" to the problem of people making bad choices. But, that doesn't mean there aren't relatively better ways to deal with that problem.

50YearResident 4 years, 8 months ago

Do you actually think we could dry up the demand for drugs by making marijuana legal? Give them the less potent stuff and make a productive citizen out of them? Treat addictions and they turn into a productive citizen? Time to wake up, it isn't going to happen.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

That approach seemed to work rather well for alcohol.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

Not 10 minutes ago I was listening to NPR about dealing with prostitution in Texas. A woman said she had been in rehab. 21 times before she got the help she needed. That's 21 failures and one success. Maybe it's worth it, maybe not. But the cost is going to be very high. Just tell us, those who ultimately will bear the costs what those costs are, so that we may an informed choice. Just saying treatment, with the impression that once treatment is given the problem is resolved, is giving a false impression.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

Rehab for what? Prostitution?

How much is it costing us now to prosecute drugs and prostitution?

jack22 4 years, 8 months ago

I heard that story, too, and it seemed to me to be more about sexual abuse and exploitation than prostitution. Prostitution is another thing that should be legal in this "free" country of ours. Unless someone is forcing someone else into prostitution I don't see why it should be illegal between two consenting adults. Same thing with marijuana, if it's not harming anyone but the user, why is it illegal? The problems with soft drugs like marijuana and prostitution are that they are illegal and are thus closely linked with crime and criminal behavior.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

The prohibition against prostitution is not Federal law, that is left up to the states. It's legal in Nevada, unless prohibited by city ordinance. And, Las Vegas is one city that prohibits it.

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

My point is that rehab. would be great, if it was successful. It's not, at least much of the time. Tomatogrower's initial comment made it sound like if we just sent someone to treatment, rather than more punitive measures such as prosecuting them, then all our problems would be solved. Tomatogrower said that rather than a criminal, we'd have a productive member of society. Not so, much of the time.

BTW - True that the story dealt with a prostitute that had been the victim of child sexual abuse and then became an addict. The treatment she received failed 21 times because it only dealt with the addiction and never dealt with the underlining sexual abuse problem. Of course, there may be as many people out there with underlining problems as there are addicts.

jack22 4 years, 8 months ago

Sure treatment doesn't work for everyone, but it's still a better option than simply putting people in prison because of their drug use. It's a shame that because of that initial abuse the woman in the interview abused drugs and nearly destroyed her life. It was treatment that ultimately got her off the streets and off drugs. Without therapy and drug treatment she would probably be dead or back in prison.

Liberty275 4 years, 8 months ago

You can't curb the demand, but legalization would undercut the gangs and cartels to the point they would be out of the drug business. Can you name the last person that was killed over a scotch whiskey deal gone bad?

jhawkinsf 4 years, 8 months ago

I may not be able to name the last person killed in a scotch whiskey deal gone bad, but barroom brawls have cost many lives over the years. Of course, policing bars is a cost passed on to all taxpayers. The health care costs associated with alcohol consumption are likewise passed on to taxpayers. And then there's lost productivity, homelessness, crime, etc.

So while we're discussing whether or not legalization is a good thing, let's at least be honest when we discuss the costs to society. Yes, incarcerating non-violent drug offenders comes at a substantial cost, but if increased drug usage is what happens with legalization, and those things I mentions are factored in, what is the savings, really?

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

Do a little research, and get back to us.

Crime related to drugs would definitely decrease with legalization, since that would lower the costs of drugs, and so there would be less need to steal to support one's habit.

How much do we spend to "police" bars?

And, how exactly are the health care costs associated with alcohol borne by taxpayers?

How much is an innocent life worth? People may kill each other in barroom brawls, but at least they're not drug gangs spraying automatic weapons and killing innocent bystanders.

Just as there's a range with alcohol consumption, from teetotalers to alcoholics in the gutter, there would be a range with drugs, I would think. Somebody can have an occasional joint and continue to be productive, just as the person who has the occasional glass of wine can. Granted, it's harder with harder drugs that are more addictive.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

It's interesting that in this entire article, there was not one mention of the violet drug cartels in Mexico and South America that supply drugs destined for the United States and a few other countries. The gunfights over turf wars have left tens of thousands dead. Many innocent people are caught in the crossfire and killed.

Because of that omission, this article seems to say that if you're not an American and get killed because of the 'War on Drugs', it doesn't matter.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

I simply assumed that the readers would realize that I was talking about how a legalized, regulated, and taxed supply of now illicit drugs would take the profit out of the suppliers of drugs. That would shut the cartels down.

50YearResident 4 years, 8 months ago

Your theory is flawed. If drugs are made legal, demand is going to skyrocket. Now where is the increased supply going to come from? Competition to supply all these now legal drug users will be just as demanding as before or more so. Prices will go up, local suppliers will pop up and the drugies will still be stealing from people to pay for their legal habit. You can bet that Obamacare isn't going to foot the bill or make hard drugs part of your mandatory drug plan.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

Didn't happen with alcohol - why would it happen with other drugs?

Competition usually means lower prices, not higher prices.

We don't have cartels supplying alcohol - we have legitimate, regulated and taxed producers, right?

jack22 4 years, 8 months ago

Come on, do you think the government is going to help overthrow the democratically elected government of Nicaragua or some similar South or Central American country and take as payment a bunch of paper money issued by the government they're trying to overthrow? Nope, a plane full of cocaine in exchange for a plane full of weapons was the easy choice. And they made Oliver North some kind of super patriot or hero for his involvement.

Haiku_Cuckoo 4 years, 8 months ago

I don't care if meth, weed and crack are legalized. If you want to use drugs, go ahead. If you steal from me in order to support your habit however, then we will have a problem. I guess that raises a question: Could legally available drugs mean more addicts?

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago


But, they'd be less likely to steal from you, since legalization will reduce the price of drugs.

jack22 4 years, 8 months ago

Pheps, it is in fact cheaper where it's been legalized. The prices in CO are already 20-30 dollars cheaper per quarter once than the price it was this time last year. Supply and demand just doesn't work with illegal products because few people ever know what the real supply is and the price is always being manipulated accordingly. If you bring competition into it, ie., the free market, prices will go down, end of story. There is no reason marijuana should cost ten or fifteen times more than cigarettes or tomatoes.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

Alcohol was cheaper after prohibition ended.

And, it's regulated and taxed. I see no reason that it would be different with marijuana.

Also, of course, it might be legal to grow pot for your own use, which would be the cheapest.

jack22 4 years, 8 months ago

Pheps, the article you linked says, "Anything we would say about federal law would be speculation," Foster said.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

"Could legally available drugs mean more addicts?"

A very large number of perfectly legal pharmacuticals are prescribed to millions of people. And, many of those drugs are highly addictive, especially Benzodiazepines. Examples of Benzodiazepines are Alprazolam (Xanax), Diazepam (Valium), Clonazepam (Klonopin), Lorazepam (Ativan), and Zolpidem (Ambien). There are many more that differ only slightly in chemical composition.

Withdrawal from Benzodiazepines is terrible, and the symptoms can last for up to six months. It takes only a couple months of daily use to become addicted.

So, based on the single example of Benzodiazepines among many other legal drugs, the answer to your question is yes, legally available drugs means more addicts. But, it's a benefit/liability issue, many people need therapeutic drugs just to get through the day. That's certainly not a good thing, but that's the way it is.

It's terribly unfortunate that so many people think they need to ingest very harmful substances to either get through the day, or just to get high.

50YearResident 4 years, 8 months ago

"Could legally available drugs mean more addicts?" It would be like opening the flood gates. If you thought it was bad in High School with all the kids experimenting with cigarettes, just wait until drugs become legal. Dumbing Down America will be at a new high! Honor rolls will be a thing of the past.

jafs 4 years, 8 months ago


It's also possible that some experiment with drugs because they're illegal, and they get a charge out of that.

All of these arguments remind me of Prohibition - we should have learned from that it's better for these sorts of things to be legal.

deec 4 years, 8 months ago

38% of Americans have already tried pot. What percentage increase are you predicting, and why?

"Gallup points to the findings as an indicator that the rise of medical marijuana legislation in states doesn't correlate with an increase of use overall, reporting that it "finds no...surge in Americans' self-reported experience with the drug. In fact, the percentage of young adults trying marijuana has declined since 1985."


jafs 4 years, 8 months ago

To be fair, medical marijuana legalization isn't the same thing as complete legalization.

And, "self reported" statistics are questionable.

jack22 4 years, 8 months ago

Yeah, it might mean more addicts at least at first. I'll tell you what though, if crack, meth, and heroin were all made legal tomorrow I wouldn't be rushing out the door to buy any and I'd bet a lot of other people feel the same way I do. If cigarettes cost 50 cents instead of 5 dollars a pack does that mean someone is going to go from smoking one pack a day to three packs a day? Maybe for some, but for the majority of people I imagine it would have no affect on their use. It sure as heck would mean less people in prison and a new revenue stream for the government via a new tax instead of the sham tax they charge people with when caught with marijuana.

Kyle Chandler 4 years, 8 months ago

If you think we are winning the WAR ON DRUGS....maybe you agree with Obama and his care more than you think.

Tell me more about how some 'small town' needs that CORPORATELY OWNED PRISON to keep everyone employed with such great ethical 'work' after you allowed your constituents to blowoff our industrial foothold in the world in the late 90's. --Hmmmm lets see, they moved the factory to country X because i couldnt let my political pride go and voted in some moron who sold the town i live in- How do I support my family?---

Pick one---

A) Sell Grass illegally (or 80 years ago - moonshine corn liquor) or B) Get those HUGE checks from Welfare (PS they arent huge and the hoops you must jump through are many) or C) Become a corporate cop putting all my buddies in jail that chose A instead of weighing down an already stressed and malnourished welfare system.

Id probably choose A, but hey what do i know.....im just a white guy in this college town that is CHOCK FULL O JOBS! Whew look at that list in the ljworld classifieds! What a bunch of lazy people!

As soon as we get another 25 million of our citizens in jail we get a BONUS!!!

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 8 months ago

This is a repeat of a comment I made on May 31, 2013:

People who are in jail or prison for drug offenses do not get paid to work at a job, and therefore they do not pay income tax. Considering that approximately 330,000 people are presently incarcerated for those offenses, that accounts for a lot of the national deficit. http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2012/dec/17/us_has_330000_drug_offenders_pri

That is in addition to the incarceration costs, which average $31,307 per inmate per year. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-3445_162-57418495/the-cost-of-a-nation-of-incarceration/

Add to that the costs spent on the enforcement for the war on drugs. The federal government spent over $15 billion dollars in 2010. In addition to that, state and local governments spent at least another 25 billion dollars. However, some of that might be for incarceration costs, those statistics do not specify whether that is included or not. http://www.drugsense.org/cms/wodclock

There is a racial aspect to the present situation as well, the following is a clip from: http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet

1) 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.

2) African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.

3) African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).
-end of clip-

I believe it would be better to legalize and heavily tax the less harmful drugs, because that would both cut a lot of costs as well as be very lucrative for both the state and federal governments. The nation simply cannot afford to continue the present policy.

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