NEW YORK – Earlier this month a spate of reports and commentaries came out on the failure of the U.S. “war on drugs,” beginning with the Global Commission on Drug Policy flatly stating the war “has failed.”
Perusing them, I thought of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I used to go there every Christmas to visit my mother-in-law, until her death two years ago, just before her centennial birthday.
For one thing I have remembered from my last visits to that French-named town on the Mississippi was the local news: drug abuse was on the rise because of economic difficulties. That was a surprise.
Another surprise was a sizable drug treatment center we happened to pass by when my wife was driving us around the placid college town. It was something that I had not imagined, ensconced as we were in my mother-in-law’s elegant retirement home during our visit.
Neither should have been. The moment I started to check the Internet, I came upon “Narcotics abuse statistics of Cape Girardeau,” and it said, “With a population of 37,370, estimated in 2008, at least 21 percent of the citizens are deeply addicted to some form of drug or alcohol.”
In Missouri as a whole, the same site says, 7.5 percent of the population in 2005 were “victims of drug addiction or substance abuse” and another 2.5 percent alcoholics, a total of 10 percent. So, the proportion of drug and alcohol abusers of Cape, as the residents call it, is twice as high as that of the state!
Checking the matter further, I saw that, in 2009, about 21.8 million Americans aged 12 or older, or 8.7 percent of the age group, were “current (past month) illicit drug users.” That’s what the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says. The percentage was up from 8.0 percent in 2008, but there hasn’t been anything like a steady decline in the ratio since 8.3 percent in 2002, the earliest year for which the agency gives figures for the period.
The “illicit drugs” here include marijuana/hashish, cocaine, heroin, and hallucinogens. So, if something like one out of 12 people in this country are still drug addicts or abusers, what was the four-decade-old “war on drugs” all about?
The war started back in 1971 when President Richard Nixon declared: “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.”
Actually, that same year, Nixon took up another war, the one on cancer, and both have been judged failures. There is a vast difference between the two, however. The war to eradicate cancer mainly, simply, has wasted money; the one to do the same with drugs has wasted humans — not just within the United States, but also abroad — to no benefit at home and at great and growing harm outside.
At home, the war has created an arrest-and-jail paradise. The year Nixon started the “offensive,” there were less than 400,000 “adult” drug arrests; by 2007 there were more than 1.6 million, says the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s a fourfold increase, when the population rose by less than 50 percent in the meantime.
The result has been shocking. “More than one in every 100 adults is now confined in an American jail or prison,” the Pew Center reported in 2008. With that number, the U.S. is far ahead of the second-ranking country, China: 2.3 million in jail in the U.S. versus 1.6 million in China. The Chinese number excludes those politically detained, it is noted, but China has a population four times larger. The U.S. never tires of accusing China of “human rights violations,” but by jailing so many of its citizens, isn’t the U.S. violating their human rights as well?
The U.S. is also ahead of the pack in relative terms. At the end of 2008 it had “the highest prison population rate in the world, 756 per 100,000,” reports the International Center for Prison Studies in London. That was 20 percent more than the runnerup, Russia, that had 629. Japan had 63.
Even worse, there is a great racial distortion in the American eagerness to imprison their fellow citizens. To mark the 40th anniversary of the war on drugs, the American Civil Liberties Union announced: “Despite the fact that whites engage in drug offenses at a higher rate than African Americans, African Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate that is 10 times greater than that of whites.”
When it comes to what the U.S. has done and is doing abroad, the war on drugs has become another case of the American Empire breaking into other countries in muddy boots, as the Japanese might put it, and smashing them up.
To put it another way, the U.S. is like a fellow who kills his feeders saying they’re making him obese. And it pays no heed to any other’s counsel.
When the Global Commission issued a report saying, “Abandon the war and try something else,” the Obama administration responded, “No dice” — in The New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s catchy phrase.
What did the commission say? That “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”
And it urged: “End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others.”
How did Obama’s “drug czar,” director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, respond?
“Setting the record straight,” he headlined his riposte, as if the commission distorted America’s record, “The Obama administration’s efforts to reduce drug use are not born out of a culture war or drug war mentality, but out of the recognition that drug use strains our economy, health, and public safety.”
The “our” part is telling. What this country has done and is doing to Colombian farmers, Mexican people and, of course, those in Afghanistan, be damned.
Then this: “The bottom line is that balanced drug-control efforts are making a big difference.” No, they aren’t.
As far as every national decision in the U.S. is attributed to the Chief Executive, Barack Obama has chalked up another minus point for himself. Too much power and pampering accorded to the president has destroyed the vaunted “change agent.”
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.