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Dump the 'drug war'

Posted: June 17, 2011 1:48 p.m.
Updated: June 20, 2011 5:00 a.m.

When David Simon, creator of HBO's late dramatic crime series "The Wire," heard through news media that Atty. Gen. Eric Holder wanted to see the series return for a sixth season, he offered the nation's top prosecutor a deal

He'll start working on a sequel season, Simon responded in an email to the Times of London, "if the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanizing drug prohibition."

Holder was not available for comment, but it's a safe bet that Simon's deal asks too much of the Obama administration. Despite their declarations to the contrary, Team Obama appears to be stuck in the same old 40-year-old rut better known as the "war on drugs."

That's how long it has been since President Richard M. Nixon on June 17, 1971, announced $155 million in new anti-drug funding that he would later call "the war on drugs." A third of the funds would go after drug traffickers and two-thirds of it would be aimed at treatment and rehabilitation. That's called a balanced approach, but it didn't last long.

The lock-'em-up side surged with the new mandatory-minimum sentencing under Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, largely in reaction to the rise of a crack cocaine epidemic and related street violence.

Among the results, a 100-to-one sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses that boosted incarceration rates, particularly of African Americans -- producing statistics that Michelle Alexander, an Ohio State University legal scholar, calls "The New Jim Crow" in her well-researched book with that title.

I come not to praise drug use. I condemn it. But some drug fights work better than others do.

A new report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, President Ronald Reagan's secretary of state George Shultz, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker and former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, calls the global war on drugs a costly failure "with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world."

They urged the Obama administration and other governments to try new ways of legalizing and regulating drugs, especially marijuana, to deny profits to drug cartels and focus law enforcement on violent offenders. The White House immediately responded: No way.

So did the government of Mexico, which is allied with the U.S. in a war against drug cartels that have killed more than 38,000 people in Mexico in the past five years.

Obama's drug office fired back with statistics that claimed huge declines in drug use since the peak of the late 1970s. But correlations between those declines and the drug war are highly disputed. What's indisputable is the increased incarceration of millions of Americans, many for simple possession.

To his credit, Holder has called for the U.S. Sentencing Commission to release some of the 12,000 federal prisoners who were sentenced or arrested for crack cocaine before Congress changed the sentencing law last year to reduce the crack-powder disparity. Holder recommended early release for 5,500 prisoners whose crimes did not involve the use of weapons and who did not have long criminal histories. The releases, which could begin later this year, would be a good start.

But why, we may reasonably ask, should people be subject to prison terms at all if their only offense is the use of illegal substances?

"Drug addiction should be handled as a health issue," says Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The organization released a report Tuesday that finds the Obama administration carrying on the drug war as usual. That includes Drug Enforcement Administration raids of legal medical marijuana clinics at a higher rate than the George W. Bush administration did, despite pronouncements that states would be allowed to govern themselves on that issue.

LEAP favors drug legalization and strict regulation. That means, arrest the sellers and send users to treatment. "It's easier to beat a drug addiction," Franklin observed, "than to beat the devastating impact of a prison sentence."

Franklin is a former narcotics officer with the Maryland and Baltimore police departments. He finds it tragic that Obama, the first president to be elected after revealing youthful drug indiscretions, has not done more to help today's nonviolent offenders get a second chance. So do I.

(Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail responses may be sent to cpage@tribune.com.)

 

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