Although I don't practise criminal law, I recently found myself waiting in a courtroom during a sentencing. The accused was a young man of perhaps 20, who had rather imprudently sold six grams of cannabis resin to a police officer, pocketing the grand sum of about $100. He pleaded guilty, and the crown and defence lawyers debated over whether he should spend 45 days in jail, or only 30.
The judge remarked matter-of-factly that the accused had already spent quite a bit of time in jail for one so young, and gave him 30 days.
The convicted man appeared equally nonchalant about the proceedings. He didn't look surly or rebellious. On the other hand, he didn't look contrite or penitent either. There was little doubt in my mind that this brief courtroom episode did not spell the end of his career in the cannabis trade. In fact, it seemed likely that he would continue to do business right within the jailhouse walls. A recent study found that 13 percent of the inmates in federal prisons have illegal drugs in their veins.
For the millionth time, I wondered just what this country is trying to accomplish with its drug laws. Why had we wasted everyone's time on that courtroom charade? Why do taxpayers have to pay for policemen, judges, crown counsel, prison guards and probation officers, all to accomplish precisely nothing?
Apparently, even the close scrutiny and regimentation of prison life is not sufficiently intrusive to stem the flow of mind-altering drugs to those who enjoy altering their minds. Even if we were prepared to transform the country into one gigantic jail, there's no guarantee we'd be any more successful at stamping out drug use than our existing jails have been.
The Economist magazine estimates that the U.S. has spent over $100 billion on the drug war since 1980, yet indicators such as student surveys and hospital emergency-room admissions show no significant impact on drug experimentation or abuse.
It's not just the waste of money that's objectionable. The war on drugs is creating many other harmful consequences for North American society. Canada is following the U.S. into one legislated nightmare after another, and will soon start to pay the same social price. It is time to identify those costs and weigh them against the questionable benefits of our policy of prohibition.
Perhaps the person who coined the phrase "the war on drugs" thought of it as just a catchy figure of speech. For the people involved in the drug trade, however, the resemblance to war is more real than metaphorical. Their incomes, their physical safety and indeed their very lives are endangered by the law. The war on drugs is actually a war against drug traders.
What would you expect any group of people to do if their government declared war on them? The faint of heart would quickly retire from the battle. The more ferocious ones would choose instead to defend themselves. And if the people who were warring with them had guns, as our police officers do, then it follows as day follows night that the combatants on the outlaw side of the war would have to arm themselves too.
Wars usually result in some civilian casualties. The war on drugs is no different. The innocent people who are caught in the crossfire between rival gangs (or between drug dealers and police), the children who can't play outdoors because their neighbourhoods are unsafe, the people who are mugged on the streets or whose homes are burglarized by punks looking for drug money--they are all victims not of the drug trade, but of the drug war.
There are other drugs, legal drugs--like alcohol, nicotine and caffeine--that are perhaps equally addictive and equally unhealthy, but no-one totes a gun around to safeguard a purchase of Taster's Choice. Maxwell House and Nescafe don't have shoot-'em-up turf wars. It is only when the law intervenes to prohibit the trade in such substances (as with alcohol during Prohibition), or to create territorial price differentials which reward smuggling (as with cigarettes in Canada earlier this year) that gunfire starts to become a familiar sound near trading zones.
The resemblance to real war goes further still. In the war on drugs, police have the same problem that American soldiers had in Vietnam. The enemy--drug traffickers--are visually indistinguishable from the rest of the population. They don't wear uniforms. The conflict becomes a guerilla war in which everyone is a suspect. The temptation for nervous cops to abuse their power must be strong. Racial minorities who complain that the police pick on them are probably not imagining it. The resulting racial tension is becoming palpable on the streets of our major cities.
There are worse horrors to come. The war on drugs has led inexorably to a war on guns. The anti-gun crusaders would like to disarm everyone except the military and the police. Of course, no-one expects the drug dealers to miraculously turn in their weapons. The law-abiding majority of the population, disarmed, will be sitting ducks, defenceless against violent criminals on the one hand and an ever more powerful police state on the other.
don't have to approve of drug use, but it's about time we just said no
to the war on drugs.
To sequel ("The Dark Side of the War on Drugs" )