A couple of days ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a very concise op-ed by Norm Stamper, former chief of police in Seattle, on the mounting costs of the drug war:
It’s not a stretch to conclude that our draconian approach to drug use is the most injurious domestic policy since slavery. Want to cut back on prison overcrowding and save a bundle on the construction of new facilities? Open the doors, let the nonviolent drug offenders go. The huge increases in federal and state prison populations during the 1980s and ’90s (from 139 per 100,000 residents in 1980 to 482 per 100,000 in 2003) were mainly for drug convictions. In 1980, 580,900 Americans were arrested on drug charges. By 2003, that figure had ballooned to 1,678,200. We’re making more arrests for drug offenses than for murder, manslaughter, forcible rape and aggravated assault combined. Feel safer?
I’ve witnessed the devastating effects of open-air drug markets in residential neighborhoods: children recruited as runners, mules and lookouts; drug dealers and innocent citizens shot dead in firefights between rival traffickers bent on protecting or expanding their markets; dedicated narcotics officers tortured and killed in the line of duty; prisons filled with nonviolent drug offenders; and drug-related foreign policies that foster political instability, wreak health and environmental disasters, and make life even tougher for indigenous subsistence farmers in places such as Latin America and Afghanistan. All because we like our drugs—and can’t have them without breaking the law.
Nothing much to add there. His solution? “Regulated legalization”:
1) Permit private companies to compete for licenses to cultivate, harvest, manufacture, package and peddle drugs.
2) Create a new federal regulatory agency (with no apologies to libertarians or paleo-conservatives).
3) Set and enforce standards of sanitation, potency and purity.
4) Ban advertising.
5) Impose (with congressional approval) taxes, fees and fines to be used for drug-abuse prevention and treatment and to cover the costs of administering the new regulatory agency.
6) Police the industry much as alcoholic beverage control agencies keep a watch on bars and liquor stores at the state level. Such reforms would in no way excuse drug users who commit crimes: driving while impaired, providing drugs to minors, stealing an iPod or a Lexus, assaulting one’s spouse, abusing one’s child. The message is simple. Get loaded, commit a crime, do the time.
It’s too sensible a proposal to happen anytime soon—not in an age where the president takes a strong stand against medicinal marijuana—but worth bringing up every now and again.