America, the land of the free, has become the largest incarcerator in the world. According to the US Department of Justice, in 2008, 1.6 million Americans were incarcerated in prisons; 785,000 were held in jails. That gives the United States an incarceration rate of 754 per 100,000, the highest in the world. America’s incarceration rate is four times the world average. More than the “axis of evil” (Iran, North Korea, and Syria) combined and four to seven times more people than any other Western nation. Over 7.3 million Americans—3.2 percent of the entire adult population—are under some form of correctional supervision. It is estimated that 7 percent of Americans born today will end up in either a state or federal prison sometime in their lives. How can a society ever justify directly controlling, monitoring, or caging 3.2 percent of its population?
The economy certainly can’t support that kind of waste. According to the US Department of Justice, the United States spent $68.7 billion on corrections, $46.8 billion on the judicial system, and $98.8 billion on policing in 2006. The justice system is here to correct or stop deviant behavior. The definition of deviant behavior is an alteration from the norm. If a large amount of the population engages in a non-violent behavior, it no longer becomes deviant and therefore should no longer be illegal.
So how did America, the land of the free, become the largest incarcerator in the world? One of the leading causes of overincarceration is the war on drugs, which is far simpler than most lawmakers would lead you to believe. Prohibition doesn’t work—period. The United States tried to prohibit the consumption of alcohol in the early twentieth century with the Volstead Act, and it failed miserably for the same reasons the war on drugs is failing now.
The criminalization of drugs has created a spike in drug prices that finances street gangs such as the Bloods and Crips; prison gangs, including the Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia; biker gangs, such as the Hells Angels and the Outlaws; Colombian and Mexican cartels; and Islamic terrorists. The federal government actually used to run television ads accusing drug users of funding terrorists. I wonder if the commercials stopped because the government realized its own policies gave terrorists more money than the average pothead did, or if the government just spent all its money putting people in prison and could no longer afford the campaign. I’m guessing it was the latter.
The most disgusting aspect of the drug war is that we have proof that decriminalization is the most effective way to deal with drug use. For example, while drugs are technically illegal in the Netherlands due to international treaties, the Dutch do not prosecute for the consumption or possession of small amounts, and their crime and drug consumption rates are significantly lower than those in America. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs and, as a result, dramatically reduced its prison population and cut its addict count in half; what’s more, the nation’s rate of HIV infections from drug use fell 90 percent. Switzerland’s policy of offering heroin addicts substitute drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine has led to a significant reduction in their addict counts. Given these facts, American politicians who push to keep drugs illegal are either completely ignorant or making the false claim that Americans can’t handle deciding what to put in their bodies even though many other people around the world can.
From a legal standpoint, it is unconstitutional for the federal government to pass laws that prohibit the consumption practices of individual citizens; that is a right expressly given to the states. From a logical standpoint, it is ridiculous to criminalize drugs selectively based on which ones are deemed less harmful. A panel of experts from the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs conducted a study in 2010 that ranked twenty drugs ranging from alcohol to crack cocaine based on the psychological, physical, and social problems they create. They developed a point system based on categories of harm caused to the individual and to society. The panel concluded that alcohol was most harmful to society and that crack, methamphetamine, and heroin were most harmful to the individual. When all the categories were tallied, alcohol, a legal drug, received the most overall points, making it the most harmful drug. The study said that Britain’s drug penalties, which by the way are very similar to America’s, had “little relation to the evidence of harm.”
The benefits of criminalization are hard to find. It certainly doesn’t deter people from using drugs—many still do. Nothing has changed there. If anything, the illegality has made drugs more alluring. It also hasn’t stopped people from getting them, a fact proven by researchers at the University of Michigan who concluded that the massive increase in drug arrests and convictions has not reduced the availability of drugs. In fact, a survey has shown that 90 percent of high school students claim they could easily buy marijuana, and about 50 percent say they could acquire other hard drugs, including amphetamines and cocaine.
So what is the cost of this war on drugs? According to the drug war clock, the gov usually spends about $50,754,066,257 a year. Since the 1970s, the war on drugs has cost the American taxpayer over $2 trillion. The hidden costs include increased incarceration, losses of civil rights, anti–money-laundering practices to keep drug money out of banks, and the inconvenience and losses of time due to superfluous checks inside the United States and at airports, seaports, and other points of entry and exit. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ “State Court Sentencing of Convicted Felons, 2004” report, of the 1,078,920 people convicted of felonies in the state courts that year, 362,850 were drug offenses. More than 700,000 people are arrested for marijuana possession every year, which is over 50 percent of all drug-related arrests. Public support to legalize marijuana has actually reached a majority, according to a Zogby poll in 2009. A Gallup poll also showed nearly half of Americans now support the legalization of marijuana.
Unfortunately, Americans have allowed criminalization to become commercial. Rolling Stone magazine reported that the California Correctional Peace Officers Association spent $1 million to defeat a California bill that would decriminalize marijuana, because it would have eliminated some of their jobs. The California Police Chiefs Association, alcohol producers, and the California Narcotic Officers’ Association also chipped in to defeat the bill. Paying to keep people in prison to retain jobs or make more money is reprehensible, and these organizations aren’t the only ones doing it. The two largest private prison companies in America, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO (formerly Wackenhut), are large contributors to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which pushes for restrictive laws and severe sentencing policies. ALEC recently campaigned for an Arizona law that makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and forces police officers to incarcerate people who can’t prove they entered the country legally. That law passed. The history of the criminalization of drugs may be even more disturbing than the cost associated with it. Before Nixon formally declared war on drugs in 1972, the US government had been outlawing plants and plant products for decades. Marijuana, a drug with medicinal benefits, was first made illegal in the early 1900s, without the knowledge of the general public, in order to crack down on Mexican immigrant workers and black jazz musicians. Let me read you some notable quotes from Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and one of the strongest proponents of the illegalization of marijuana:
There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the United States, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use.
This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others. …
the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races. Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.
Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.
You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.
One of the other main proponents of the illegalization of marijuana, William Randolph Hearst, had vast timber holdings that were threatened by hemp, a product cultivated from marijuana. Hemp could provide four times more paper per acre than could traditional timber. Hearst used his media empire to print sensationalized stories about marijuana to gain support for illegalization. The stories published in his newspapers attributed axe murderers’ actions to marijuana and, much like Ansligner’s statements, played on the general racism of the public. Several other wealthy timber holders jumped on the bandwagon, including the secretary of the treasury. The federal government prepared the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 in secret, based on articles from Hearst’s newspaper and statements from Anslinger. The act was introduced to Congress without giving members of Congress proper time beforehand to examine it. Over the objection of the American Medical Association, which doubted most of the claims and statistics about the dangers of the drug, the act passed. In 1967, the Marijuana Tax Act was declared unconstitutional, because anyone seeking to pay the marijuana tax would have to incriminate himself to do it.
Undeterred, Nixon’s government enacted the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. Nixon also appointed the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse to conduct a two-year study of drug use in America. Nixon assumed the report would demonize marijuana and provide support for his war on drugs, but before the report was finished, Nixon heard rumors that the commission might actually recommend legalization. He was furious so he arranged a meeting with Raymond Shaffer, the head of the commission, to influence the report, but to no avail. In 1972, the commission concluded that marijuana should be decriminalized. Despite the recommendation in the comprehensive report, Nixon declared war on drugs shortly thereafter. A fairly recent release of the Oval Office tapes of 1971–1972 shed some light on his behavior. In conversations with advisor Bob Haldeman, Nixon blamed Jews for pushing the legalization of marijuana and thought that there was a grave distinction between getting high on marijuana and drinking alcohol for fun. Although Nixon associated antiwar activism and communism with drug use, his main problem with marijuana was its status as a gateway drug. Had Nixon read the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse’s report, he would have known that claim had been thoroughly debunked. The Journal of School Health recently reported that cigarette smoking is a greater predictor of future drug use than marijuana. Nixon may have inadvertently been on to something, though. There is one way that marijuana is a gateway drug, but it’s certainly not what he thought: kids try marijuana and realize that it’s not as bad as authority figures have been telling them, so they lose trust in what the authorities say about other, harder drugs and want to see for themselves what they are like.
Let’s put this war on drugs into perspective. You’re driving down the road and a cop pulls you over. He wants to search your car. What’s he looking for? Drugs. You fly into the United States from Canada and the custom agents want to search your bags. What are they looking for? Drugs and money from the sale of drugs. IRS and DEA agents think you have dirty money. What from, you ask? Drugs. The government uses drug money as an excuse to investigate your bank accounts, your businesses, and your assets. If any of these government agents find drugs or money from drugs, it is a sure prison sentence. Sometimes even the suspicion of involvement in the sale of drugs or of laundering money from the sale of drugs can land a person in prison. Conspiracy and racketeering laws mean citizens can go to prison even if they never touched or sold drugs. All the government has to do is prove the person had some kind of involvement with people or organizations that sold drugs. Sometimes the government stretches that to mean simple friendships or legitimate businesses partnerships with people who deal drugs on the side. This whole process is a ridiculous waste. Police and DEA agents set up expensive stings, judges and lawyers prosecute and defend these cases, and prison guards have to watch all the people sent to prison—all so the government can invade our privacy and tell us what to consume. In addition, we are taking many disadvantaged entrepreneurs out of our communities. Kids who grow up in broken homes without any money see drug dealing as a way to get ahead. They realize that drug laws are bullshit and they are willing to risk life and limb to make something of themselves. Most of them work damn hard, too. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking drug dealing is any worse than bootlegging during Prohibition. Instead of putting these people in prison, we should be giving them business opportunities.
America’s sentencing laws have become more Draconian than Draco’s Athens. Giving someone a life sentence for check fraud or videotape theft, which happened in California, is outrageous. Drug dealers and smugglers can get life sentences for merely possessing plants. Thieves and burglars can get fifty, sixty years or more depending on their charges. There is no rationality to it anymore. There are so many overlapping criminal codes that people can get hundreds of years because they are charged with dozens of counts for one criminal action. The government just arbitrarily assigns numbers of years as punishments for certain crimes. In a “free country,” the removal of a person’s freedom should be the gravest decision the society could make, and as such, a reasonable commission should attempt to find just punishments for crimes.
Instead, for the last few decades the government has increased sentence severity based on the false notion that it will significantly deter crime. “Get tough on crime” sentencing started in the early 1980s in response to increased murder rates. It didn’t seem to matter to politicians that murder was the least likely crime to occur, accounting for only 10 per 100,000 cases at its highest point. The murder rate did drop to 5 per 100,000 cases after the “get tough on crime” policies were implemented, but at what cost?* Those same policies were responsible for a sixfold increase in the prison population as well. After all, America could have a crime rate of 0 percent if it just locked up all of its citizens, which seems to be the Republican Party’s plan. While a higher murder rate is sad, it affects only 5 to 10 people and their families per 100,000, while our new incarceration rate is four to seven times greater than Western European countries’ rates and Canada’s and affects 754 people per 100,000 and all of their families. The proponents of “getting tough on crime” try to justify longer imprisonment by pointing to its role in the deterrence of future crime. In order for a large sentence to do this, however, a criminal would have to analyze rationally the net reward for the crime and the net cost if he was caught. Many offenders have no idea what the punishments are for most crimes, and even if they did, they might not care; many crimes are done on impulse or are opportunity-based. The book Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship found that increased periods of incarceration during the 1990s accounted for only 25 percent of the reduction in crime. In order to be valid, the deterrence argument must show that the government’s incarceration of people for longer periods of time is less expensive than the cost of the crimes the prisoners committed. I have yet to see a reasonable study that has shown that keeping people in prison for a few additional years, at $40,000 per inmate per year, is more cost effective to society than releasing offenders after a reasonable period of incarceration.
In short, increased sentences just do not work. In fact, most studies show that the shame of getting caught, tried, and convicted is a more powerful deterrent. And alternative methods of punishment have proven to be much more effective than prison for many crimes. For most law-abiding citizens, the embarrassment of a criminal record, picking up trash with a prison work crew along the side of the road, or, at worst, a few days in jail is enough to deter them from petty crime. Those who do not have reputations to lose get stiffer sentences anyway. Obviously, after each offense the penalty increases. So what is a fair sentence? People say that money isn’t everything, yet they are willing to take the majority of a person’s life away for a monetary crime. If a man steals money from another, he has deprived his victim of resources. He has not physically injured his victim in any way. If a criminal’s motivation is financial gain, then make his punishment financial loss. Take his assets. If he has none, garnish a significant amount of his wages for a period of time. When a person’s sole goal in life is financial gain, what better punishment can there be than total destitution?