Mark O’Brien: War on Drugs needn’t be a bust

In the 1800s Americans could legally smoke opium. Then Chinese people came to California and started taking jobs from native-born Americans. California couldn’t kick out the Chinese, but they could take away their their opium, and that’s when the state banned opium.

Until the 1900s, Americans could legally smoke marijuana. But when Mexicans started moving to the United States and taking jobs from native-born Americans, government got involved. It could’t kick out the Mexicans, but they banned marijuana, which many Mexicans used.

Heroin and cocaine were low on the radar until blacks began moving in large numbers from the South to the North, where they took jobs that white folks might want. Crackdowns on cocaine and heroin soon followed.

Ditto the much harsher punishments required for crack cocaine than for powdered cocaine. Crack cocaine is just a form of powdered cocaine, but it’s associated mostly with black people while powdered cocaine is used primarily by white people.

These tidbits are contained in “The House I Live In,” a documentary that looks at the twisted course taken by America’s War on Drugs.

When President Richard Nixon officially declared the War on Drugs more than 40 years ago, the documentary points out, only one-third of the money was to be used for law enforcement. The other two-thirds wen to rehabilitation programs.

But politicians and cops know you get better headlines for putting people in prison than for providing rehab, so the money soon migrated to the law enforcement side.

The documentary tells us something we all know: The War on Drugs is a bust.

“Our insane regime of drug laws have caused us to spend $1 trillion over 40 years, conducting 45 million drug arrests, and with what to show for it? A complete record of failure. Drugs are cheaper, purer, more available now, and used by younger and younger people than ever before,” says  the movie’s director, Eugene Jarecki, in an interview with Forbes.

His comments are seconded by many people, on the right as well as the left.

But who will do something about it?

Not Florida’s politicians. It might cost them votes and campaign donations.

But the citizens can do something: Put measures on the ballot to amend Florida’s laws.

California voters did that just last month, approving a measure that could lead to the release of 10,000 nonviolent prisoners. Nonviolent felonies like shoplifting and drug possession will be reduced to misdemeanors. In addition to those released, an estimated 40,000 defendants will be eligible for misdemeanor rather than felony convictions.

It’s about time; California is locked in a long-running and expensive dispute with the courts over its jam-packed prisons.

The savings – hundreds of millions of dollars – will be used for education, mental health and addiction services, an acknowledgement that drug abuse is a health problem.

California is far from alone. Other states also have taken action, with mixed results, as fivethirtyeight.com shows.

But at least the results are better than Florida’s approach of lock ’em up and leave ’em there.

Arkansas: In 2011, the state began allowing nonviolent offenders to be sentenced to work with the Department of Community Corrections rather than be incarcerated. The prison population dropped, but then bounced back after the state enacted tougher rules on parole violators.

Georgia: A 2012 law allows alternative sentencing for low-level nonviolent offenders. The state’s prison population fell 14 percent and its crime rate dropped 4 percent.

Kentucky: Since 2011, the state has let minor drug offenders be sentenced to probation and treatment. The prison population increased by 9 percent in 2012, but the The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project reports that Kentucky saved $29 million and a net 872 prison beds annually by the end of 2013 because of the law. Kentucky’s crime rate rose 3 percent between 2011 and 2013.

Texas: The state’s 2007 budget allocated $241 million for treatment-oriented programs for nonviolent offenders, which resulted in a 4.5 percent decrease in the state’s incarceration rate by 2008. The state has since saved an estimated $2 billion; its  crime rate dropped 11 percent between 2007 and 2012.

There are plenty of examples of what works elsewhere; Florida needs to adopt the best practices; we could be saving lives and money.

Mark O’Brien is a writer who lives in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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