Drug Wars

by Yule Heibel on May 3, 2003

Canada needs to stick to its guns (decriminalize marijuana possession) and not be bullied into following the US’s strategy in the war on drugs. (See yesterday’s blog entry.)

An article by Sanho Tree, The War at Home, about America’s war on drugs, exposes the problems with US strategy, and might interest Canadians who worry about this country’s imminent changes in drug enforcement strategy. Tree presents these statistics:

– the entire world has 8 million prisoners

– even though it only has 1/22 of the world’s population, the US has 2 million prisoners (1/4 of the world’s jail population)

– the US has the largest penal system in the world

– approx. 1/4 of the US’s prisoners (250,000 people) are in jail for nonviolent drug offenses

– 250,000 drug prisoners is more than the European Union incarcerates for all offenses combined, even though the EU has 90 million more people than the US

– the US currently has more nonviolent drug prisoners than there were inmates in total in 1980

– the annual federal drug war budget was approx. $100 million in 1972; it’s approaching $20 billion now

Noting that “it’s the economy, stupid,” Tree writes that “our policies have made these relatively worthless commodities into substances of tremendous value,” and that drug warriors managed to do what medieval alchemists couldn’t: “turning worthless weeds into virtual gold. Some varieties of the most widely used illicit drug, marijuana, are now worth their weight in solid gold (around $350 per ounce). Cocaine and heroin are worth many, many times their equivalent weight in gold. In a world filled with tremendous poverty, greed, and desire, we cannot make these substances disappear by making them more valuable.”

With this kind of monetary incentive, Tree notes that the drug trade “evolves under Darwinian principles — survival of the fittest. Our response of increasing law enforcement ensures that the clumsy and the inefficient traffickers are weeded out while the smarter and adaptable ones tend to escape.” And: “Our policy of attacking the weakest links has caused tremendous human suffering, wasted countless lives and resources, and produced highly evolved criminal operations,” which parallels the development of organized crime during the 1920s Prohibition. Tree is a fellow at the Drug Policy Project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. (scroll to right side of browser for menu bar).

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