Looks like the War on Drugs is back. The Washington Post reported Sunday that the new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is preparing a return to the same hardline strategies that have so spectacularly failed to reduce drug use since 1971. Indeed, the nation has spent more than a trillion dollars, made itself the biggest jailer on the planet and yet seen the use, availability and quality of drugs rise like a rocket from a launch pad while the cost dropped like a watermelon from a skyscraper.
That’s why it was welcome news when President Obama quietly dismantled much of the machinery of the drug war. His Department of Justice radically scaled back federal involvement in so-called “civil asset forfeitures,” a program wherein police confiscate your cash and require you to prove it’s not drug money before you can get it back. The Obama DOJ looked the other way as states liberalized marijuana laws. It also extended clemency to incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders and declined to seek harsh mandatory minimum sentences for the ones facing trial.
It made sense, so it couldn’t last. Back in February, Donald Trump himself announced that there would be a new drug war and it would be “ruthless.” Leaving aside that the old drug war was hardly ice cream and roses, there is no reason to believe being more “ruthless” will help.
After all, you can be beheaded for drug-related offenses in Saudi Arabia. Yet the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that in 2008 – the most recent year for which statistics seem to be available – the Saudis seized 12.8 tons of amphetamines.
So much for ruthless.
There is a reason the 18th Amendment, the one outlawing liquor, was the only one ever repealed: Prohibition doesn’t work. You cannot arrest people out of wanting what is bad for them. But, as we’ve seen with liquor and tobacco, you might be able to educate, legislate and persuade them into wanting it less.
Diane Goldstein, a retired lieutenant commander with the Redondo Beach Police Department, calls the new drug war “a horrible idea.” Goldstein is an executive board member of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group of law enforcement veterans who think that in asking police to solve a medical problem, we’ve made a costly mistake.
She cites a 1994 Rand Corporation study which said that using health care strategies to combat drugs “returns seven times the value for every dollar spent on it to the taxpayer. Shouldn’t we be looking at what is not just cost effective, but also returns better results for people who are impacted by chronic substance abuse?” Problem is, that wouldn’t allow some of us to brag how “ruthless” they are.
African Americans, who have been locked up at obscene rates, even though whites are the nation’s biggest users and sellers of drugs, should regard this new “war” as a clear and present danger. Pot users of all colors in states where marijuana is now legal should feel the same; from now on, the feds will no longer be looking the other way.
They, and anyone else who is appalled by this, should tell that to the attorney general. You'll find an online contact form at: https://www.justice.gov/doj/webform/your-message-department-justice. The DOJ comment line is: 202-353-1555. The main switchboard is: 202-514-2000. And here’s the street address: U.S. Department of Justice, 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20530-0001.
However you register your opinion, please do. We’ve already had a War on Drugs. And one was more than enough.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.