For 40 years the U.S. government has been fighting the War on Drugs and for 40 years the American taxpayer has been asked to pay a higher and higher price for a completely ineffective program. Even Republican darling Chris Christie has called the War on Drugs a failure.
While the goal of eliminating drugs is admirable, the tactics used by the government have been too focused on punishment and inadvertently escalated the crisis we set out to prevent by creating an environment that led to massive profits for the drug lords. These profits were used to increase the sophistication of the drug cartels, which in turn required additional investments in the preventative measures necessary for law enforcement to fight the drug war.
This never-ending cycle costs taxpayers more than $55 billion in 2011, which is equal to the budget for all of homeland security. Aside from the monetary costs, the War on Drugs has also cost tens of thousands of lives.
At this point it is fair to say we are not winning the war and that alternative ideas should be considered. Over a decade ago Portugal decided to make a radical shift in policy and has experienced remarkable results.
According to a report by the Cato Institute, Portugal moved to decriminalize drugs and focus on treatment programs with the following results:
“In certain key demographic segments,
drug usage has decreased in absolute terms in the
decriminalization framework, even as usage across
the EU continues to increase, including in those
states that continue to take the hardest line in
criminalizing drug possession and usage.”
Chris Christie, who supports a similar program for New Jersey, recently stated, “It costs us $49,000 a year to warehouse a prisoner in New Jersey state prisons last year. A full year of inpatient drug treatment costs $24,000 a year.”
So we have an option that cuts the cost to the American taxpayer while simultaneously reducing drug usage that some Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians agree works, yet politicians including the president insist that the War on Drugs is working.
This is partially due to polling that shows support for legalization of marijuana topping opposition for the first time in recent history, but it also has a lot to do with the privatization of the prison industry. Private prisons have poured millions of dollars into maintaining the status quo because the War on Drugs is good business.
As more and more people become aware of the advantages of shifting our drug policy and it becomes politically advantageous, the laws will change but the thrust for increased privatization and the increased influence of corporations in politics will make that change increasingly difficult.