The war on drugs is still failing after all these years


Published: Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 5:18 p.m.

You don’t hear much about the nation’s ‘‘war on drugs’’ these days. It’s a has-been, a glamourless geezer, a holdover from bygone days.

Its glitz has been stolen by the ‘‘war on terror,’’ which gets the news media hype and campaign trail rhetoric. Railing against recreational drug use and demanding that offenders be locked away is so ’90s.

But the drug war proceeds, mostly away from news cameras and photo-ops, still chewing up federal and state resources and casting criminal sanctions over entire neighborhoods.

Some four or so decades into an intensive effort to stamp out recreational drug use, billions of dollars have been spent; thousands of criminals, many of them foreigners, have been enriched; and hundreds of thousands of Americans have been imprisoned. And the use of illegal substances continues unabated.

With the nation poised on the brink of a new political era, isn’t it time to abandon the wrongheaded war on drugs? Isn’t it time to admit that this second Prohibition has been as big a failure as the last — the one aimed at alcohol?

Every war has its collateral damage, and the war on drugs is no different. As it happens, its unintended victims have been disproportionately black. The stunning rise in incarceration rates for black men began after the nation became serious about stamping out recreational drug use.

In 1954, black inmates accounted for 30 percent of the nation’s prison population, according to Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates alternative sentencing.

Fifty years later, he wrote, blacks account for almost half of all prison admissions. Much of that increase has come from arrests for drug crimes. Very few of those black men are wildly successful drug lords like the Harlem kingpin Frank Lucas, portrayed by Denzel Washington in the film ‘‘American Gangster.’’ Instead, they are usually penny-ante dealers addicted to their product.

As violent crime dropped in the ’90s, some law-and- order types argued that the harsh penalties meted out under punitive drug laws were responsible for safer streets.

But that argument is seriously undermined by a resurgence in violent crime, even as drug arrests continue. While violent offenders such as Frank Lucas deserve hefty prison sentences, there is no justification for lengthy sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Recently, criminal justice officials have begun to tacitly acknowledge the racism embedded in the drug war. Earlier last month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets federal sentencing guidelines, retroactively reduced the penalties for some crimes related to crack cocaine, reducing the stark disparity between sentences for crack cocaine, used more frequently by black Americans, and powder cocaine, more often used by whites.

A day earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that judges could deviate from harsh guidelines in sentencing drug offenders.

But the ravages of the drug war are too many to be eased by those narrow changes in policy. They won’t help victims such as Kathryn Johnston, an elderly Atlanta woman killed by local police in a hail of gunfire a year ago.

Under pressure to make drug arrests, they said, members of an Atlanta narcotics squad lied to a judge to obtain a ‘‘no knock’’ warrant for Johnston’s house, where they believed they would find illegal substances.

But the elderly woman, who lived behind barred windows, thought she was the victim of a robbery and fired on the officers. They returned fire. No drugs were found on her premises.

The nation’s so-called war on drugs recalls that old Vietnam War phrase about ‘‘burning the village’’ in order to save it. It also brings to mind Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Our war on drugs really is a war on people. That’s true insanity.

Cynthia Tucker writes for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

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