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Drug War Sanity in NJ?

For years, one of the primary criticisms of America’s expensive and self-destructive drug war has been that it leads to the incarceration of large numbers of nonviolent youths, harming their reputations and future job prospects for the rest of their lives. In his State of the State address this past week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie unveiled a new drug policy that addresses these concerns. The Wall Street Journal reports that Christie’s new plan aims to replace jail terms for nonviolent drug offenders with a stint in drug rehabilitation centers, while increasing jail penalties for violent drug dealers.

This a step in the right direction. Critics of the drug war are right to challenge it for ruining lives, perversely making it more difficult to integrate recovering addicts into society, and imposing huge costs on struggling government budgets, but a regime of complete legalization is both politically unfeasible and, from a social welfare point of view, more problematic than many legalization proponents understand.

Drugs are so powerful and their consequences can be so devastating that society cannot turn a blind eye to their production and distribution.  The drug trade will have to be regulated and powerful new drugs cannot be allowed onto the market without testing.  The question is how to reconcile the many interests and concern that drugs pose (including due regard for personal liberty) while minimizing the harm to society and vulnerable individuals.

In previous posts on the future of the drug war, Via Meadia has argued that the future of the drug war will rely less on criminal sanctions for offenders and more on social sanctions against drug use. This policy looks like a step in that direction; hopefully it will inspire other states to follow a saner drug policy as well.  We also hope that if the New Jersey legislature goes along with the governor’s proposals, changes in the law will be applied to individuals currently serving jail time for past drug violations.

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  • Mrs. Davis*

    It is difficult to see how reducing penalties for drug usage does anything other than increase use and demand resulting in higher prices and profits for suppliers. This is a step toward increased power for the cartels.

    The drug problem has no good solutions only bad ones of varying degree. We already know how prohibition works and now we’re doubling down on it.

    We legalized alcohol and it has been problematic, mostly because we do not penalize people when they may harm others when under the influence. But we no longer have rum runners and gang wars. Legalizing drugs would be no different.

  • http://funnyifnottragic.blogspot.com Robert Morris

    Mr. Mead, I applaud you for the sanest thing you’ve ever posted on the drug war. You underestimate the social costs of the drug war, however. This is a very easy thing to do so as a comfortable white person. William Stuntz’s “Collapse of American Criminal Justice” is very good on this topic. He starts from a similar stand-point as yourself, but arrives at his title and judges the drug war counter-productive. Michelle Alexander’s “New Jim Crow” also does a disturbingly good job supporting its thesis, but the intellectual gulf between the two of you may be too wide.

    Mrs. Davis, the world you describe does not match the one I live in. Perhaps you’ve racked up more than my seven years working with recovering addicts, three years studying the law, eight years living among and working with low-income populations, and 6 months witnessing first hand how our court system uses the war on drugs exclusively against the poor. If so I defer to your experience. If not, why don’t you watch some of my films: http://www.youtube.com/user/MoFreedomFoundation?blend=1&ob=video-mustangbase

  • Harold Seneker

    One good step to take in any case would be to legalize marijuana and regulate it along the lines of alcohol and tobacco. It is not addictive and it has some medical uses. The reason it can be considered a “gateway” drug is because it is illegal. That puts the trade in the hands of criminals, who have a big incentive to switch their customers over to hard drugs. Legalizing it would take the trade, which is an important source of income, away from the criminals. Plus, we culd tax it and use the money to fight hard drugs.

    As for the hard drugs – we have been fighting a war on drugs since the 1940s, and drugs have won. The crime, ruined lives and resultant social disorder caused by the drugs and the “war” are a terrible burden on society. I think it’s time to look at alternative strategies. “Medicalizing” addiction while increasing jail time for dealers sounds like an approach worth trying.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “but a regime of complete legalization is both politically unfeasible and, from a social welfare point of view, more problematic than many legalization proponents understand.”
    Nicotine is the most addictive substance I know of, and Alcohol withdrawal can kill addicts, so how bad could the social welfare problems be if legal Nicotine and Alcohol are successfully being managed with fewer smokers and alcoholics every year. I believe addiction and use of the illegal drugs would fall if legalized. Treating people as adults with the right to decide what they will or will not put into their own bodies is the Right thing. People who are treated as adults will respond as adults, and the nanny state and busy body social meddling freedom thieves can go suck wind.

  • Sober Realist

    In support of #3’s comments about marijuana’s alleged “gateway drug” status:

    The phrase “gateway drug” is not very useful.

    I would wager that most people who have tried marijuana did so after first imbibing an alcoholic drink at an earlier point in their lives. Does this make alcohol a “gateway drug”? If so, should we criminalize alcohol use, despite its horrific impact on public health? Of course not! We already tried that a few decades ago and it was a failure.

    There has never even been a medically verified death due to marijuana overdose. Meanwhile, an average of approximately three Americans die of accidental alcohol poisoning each day!
    (http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-1/110-120.htm)

    Real progress on a common-sense, alcohol-type legalization and regulation of marijuana will require the support of thoughtful conservatives like Professor Mead. I hope his views will continue to evolve in the right direction.

  • Corlyss

    Americans are too wedded to a Drug Article of Faith that says drugs=road to hell. Some of us think that taking away the sanctions removes the “forbidden fruit” aspect of their attraction. If nothing else legalizing drugs would take the money out of the trade. It’s the money, folks, that creates entrepreneurial gangs. No money=no gangs, or at least smaller less deadly gangs. Penalties for non-violent drug offenders are unreasonable in comparison to the crime and they result in harmless people clogging the prisons, driving up the cost of incarceration, and increasing the size and power of the state. We can’t even keep the violent offenders in jail because the non-violent offenders clog up the prisons creating overcrowding conditions that the ACLU feasts on. The overcrowding allows federal judges to loose violent offenders on society in the name of low-lifes’ civil rights.

    I don’t see any changes in my lifetime in this goatrope. There’s too much money in drugs for change to merit much attention. Back in the mid 80s NPR did a report on drug money in Florida. Then it was estimated to equal the money taken in by the state from citrus crops and tourism. At 1/3 of Florida’s income, ain’t no way anyone was going to seriously interfere with it. That’s why the “War on Drugs” has come a cropper. It’s not really because of demand in the US. It’s because saner policies = less money up and down the system, from the pols who maintain the legislative system, to the coppers and judges who enforce the drug laws, to the high-end realtors, jewelers, and auto dealers who rake in the money and the state that wallows in the taxes paid by same. It’s a win-win for too many people.

  • Eurydice

    I’m all for lightening the load on the penal system, but what do you mean by “social sanctions against drug use”? Because it seems to me that the kind of social sanctions that would discourage drug use would also damage a person’s reputation and job prospects. So, maybe the “primary criticism” of our current drug war isn’t how it’s damaging our youth, but how it’s damaging our wallets.

  • Mrs. Davis

    @! Mr. Morris, Given my dearth of involvement with drugs, I’ll gladly defer to your more extensive experience. But I’ve never found the chickenhawk argument persuasive. If you could explain where we disagree, it might be helpful, but I can’t fathom it from your comment or the third of your You Tubes.

  • Joe H.

    I was arrested forty years ago, at the age of 18, for selling a single tablet of LSD and less than 1/2 ounce of marijuana. It was in a southern state, but the reaction of the law enforcement and judicial sectors was somewhat consistent with what was happening around the country at that time. In fact, was then percieved as a frightening new trend (the hippie/counterculture/drug movement) was touching middle class white families everywhere.

    The federal government, under President Nixon, drafted model legislation for the states to adopt and offered the carrot of federal funding through LEIA. My state and city got on board, and we had out first big drug operation. I was one of well over a hundred arrested in that effort.

    No one really knew what to do, and the default response was to come down hard and nip this thing in the bud before it got out of hand. Cases were prosecuted with little, if any, lieniency. Many first offenders were sent to prison.

    I recieved a five year sentence, and spent a year and a half in state prison. I was able to get out on educational release after that, but it was real prison, no country club.

    I’ve been able to overcome most of the negative repercussions, even getting elected to public office. For some, including the prosecuting attorney who handled my case, mine has been a testimony that “it doesn’t always have to turn out badly”. I give credit to my God for His redemptive mercy.

    I agree with Walter’s assessment of the issue. Changes have been made since I experienced the system first hand forty years ago, but mostly for pragmatic or management reasons. More are needed, and perhaps Governor Christie’s efforts will help lead the way. I would like to see laws changed so that rights aren’t taken away, with little if any chance of restoration, for non-violent crimes that are less significant and impactful in scale and scope. I would like to see constitutional rights, including Second Amendment rights, protected under those circumstances.

  • Mark Michael

    Perhaps the “solution” to reducing the widespread use of drugs in America lies more with changing the culture than with changing laws, law enforcement, and punishment. That’s easy to say, but hard to do. Saturday’s WSj had a big article by Charles Murray on his latest book. The WSJ review is headlined, “The New American Divide – The ideal of an ‘American way of life’ is fading as the working class falls further away from institutions like marriage and religion and the upper class becomes more isolated. Charles Murray on what’s cleaving America and why.”

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204301404577170733817181646.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

    It contrasts an upper-income neighborhood it calls “Belmont” in the Boston metro area with a lower-income neighborhood he calls “Fishtown” in the Philadelphia metro area (both fictional). In the 1960s, the percentage of each neighborhood who were married was little different: 94% for Belmont and 84% for Fishtown. By 2010, it was 83% for Belmont and 48% for Fishtown. The married-couple family had broken down in Fishtown, but not the (mostly) college-educated Belmont. (Both were predominantly white, non-Hispanic populations – to keep the racial dimension out of it. His analysis was restricted to white people between 30 and 49 years old.)

    Surprisingly, secularism went up more in Fishtown than in Belmont! For Fishtown it went from 38% to 59% and for Belmont it went from 29% to 40%. Based on how college-educated people talk, you’d think it would be the reverse: “those blue-collar workers would cling to their guns, their religion,…” and the white collar workers would Move On.

    What does this have to do with drug use? There will always be some addictive behavior in any culture, the question is, How much, and what measures can best control it, without being too draconian in scope? One crude measure is the number of people incarcerated in the 1960s vs. today. In the 1960s there were about 250,000 people in all of our jails, prisons, lockups. In 2010, it was 2.3 million, almost 10 times as many. If you normalize it to population it’s still 7 times more today. The crime rates today and in the 1960s probably are about the same (we’ve had falling crime rates for the last 15+ years). As noted by other commenters, lots of those incarcerated are there for drug-related crimes.

    The consequences of this broken family structure on the number of the young (mostly males) that get involved in various criminal activities is pretty well documented. The children of single mothers commit crimes at large factors higher than those raised in married-couple families. (I forget the exact statistics: 5 to 1? 10 to 1? It’s between those ratios, if I recall correctly.)

    Restoring marriage as the norm and recreating social stigma for single motherhood would take substantial changes to the culture and the messages the elite send to the rest of us. It seems to be a “reverse” double standard: We believe in marriage ourselves, but the rest of you, no problem. Have babies out of wedlock! It’s okay. (Or maybe, “You don’t have the discipline to follow our example: get an education, get a job, and then get married and have kids!”)

    The rest of the article is pretty interesting. I’ll cease commenting on it. But it might hold clue for the best way and hardest way to change our drug abuse situation.

  • http://funnyifnottragic.blogspot.com Robert Morris

    @ Mrs. Davis- your first paragraph is precisely backwards. The illegality of drugs creates the demand the black market can satisfy. If the penalties are higher, the price goes up, there is more money to be made, and people are more willing to kill for those larger rewards.

    Drug laws have only ever been enforced against the poor. See this: http://hammeroftruth.com/2011/operation-ivy-league-drug-case-shows-money-corrupting-justice/
    So even if the market worked the way you describe it, our current approach is totally ineffectual, unjust, and frankly a bit evil.

    There are easy and good solutions to the drug war. Allow states to go their own way on the drug war. Some will legalize pot, and some will do medical marijuana. Nobody will legalize anything other than pot. If they want, states should be allowed to pursue Portugal’s incredibly successful decriminalization of other substances. Different approaches will work for different states. Each state will be able to copy the most successful elements of the other states’ programs. Along the way my belief is that crime and prison populations will fall steadily. I could be wrong, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The land of the free should not be locking up half a million more of its citizens than Communist China, a totalitarian state three times the US’s size.

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