Monday, June 18 , 2018, 4:31 pm | Fair 69º


Harris Sherline: The War on Drugs

It may be time to recognize that what we've been doing isn't working. Is it time to try legalization?

Albert Einstein is credited with making the observation that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline
That’s what the government appears to be doing with the War on Drugs, as the nation’s drug problem continues to expand. The war was launched by President Richard M. Nixon in 1971, and after 37 years of increasingly draconian punishment and confiscatory laws, we don’t seem to be any closer to winning. If anything, the problem is worse, much worse.

The Drug War Clock notes the following facts, among others, about the War on Drugs:

» The U.S. government spent more than $19 billion in 2003 on the War on Drugs, at a rate of about $600 per second ... State and local governments spent at least another $30 billion.

» Arrests for drug violations in 2008 are expected to exceed the 1.8 million arrests of 2006. Law enforcement made more arrests for drug law violations in 2006 (13.1 percent of the total number of arrests) than for any other offense.

» Police arrested an estimated 829,625 persons for cannabis violations in 2006, the highest annual total ever recorded in the United States, according to statistics compiled by the FBI. Of those charged with cannabis violations, approximately 89 percent, 738,915 Americans were charged with possession only. An American is now arrested for violating cannabis laws every 38 seconds.

» Since 1995, the U.S. prison population has grown an average of 43,266 inmates per year. About 25 percent are sentenced for drug law violations.

» Nearly 4,000 new HIV infections can be prevented before the year 2009 if the federal ban on needle exchange funding is lifted this year.

Another consequence of the War on Drugs is forfeiture of property that’s connected with violations of drug laws. Property has often been confiscated and sold, even though the owner was not involved in any way. They do not even have to be accused or charged with a crime. The police are able to go to court and, without a trial, obtain a court order to confiscate the property of someone who is suspected of a drug crime. The mere fact that the property is involved in some way is sufficient.

The theory that makes forfeiture possible is based on “a technicality in the law that allows the government to claim it is suing only the item of property, not the property’s owner.”

The late Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., noted in 1993 that “80 percent of the people whose property (was) seized by the federal government under drug laws (were) never formally charged with any crime.”

Research literature on the subject is replete with examples of U.S. citizens whose property has been confiscated and sold by law enforcement officials at every level of government — federal, state and local — often without having been convicted of any crime, while between 1980 and 1985, incarceration for drug-law violations in the United States grew tenfold.

Dealing with America’s drug problem is complicated, involving such considerations as mandatory sentencing laws that can incarcerate people for many years for simple “possession” to dealing with those who abuse destructive drugs, such as cocaine, crack, ecstasy, heroin, meth or morphine.

After Britain relaxed the penalties for the possession of cannabis in 2004, within three years the use of marijuana dropped to a 10-year low.

One of the consequences of keeping drugs illegal has been an increase in illegal production and distribution around the world, from the opium growers and processors in Afghanistan to the drug warlords in Mexico and Latin America, who corrupt governments and authorities, as happened in Columbia.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that what we have been doing hasn’t worked and consider a new approach. People go ballistic when the idea of making certain drugs legal and taxing the products is broached, but it may have merit. I know, there are arguments that drug use is a slippery slope and opening the door to their use will lead to abusing the really bad stuff, but why not give it a try? At least the tax dollars could be used to treat users and pay the cost of policing, to say nothing of huge savings in the costs of incarcerating thousands of people whose only crime is simple possession.

Furthermore, we could help consumers and the farming industry in a major way by allowing farmers to grow and sell hemp, which our drug laws currently prevent because of the mistaken belief that it contains an ingredient that can be readily used as cannabis.

Alcohol use remains legal, in spite of the fact that abusing it often results in injury or death. It’s generally recognized as a health problem and treated accordingly. Why not try doing the same with drugs?

Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his own blog,

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