Jon Holmes has served as chairman of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts Drug Policy Task Force, and received the Humanist of the Year Award from the Ethical Society of Boston. He is just about the only "advisor" on these pages whom we haven't personally met. However, after reading this speech we were so blown away by its courage and common sense, we immediately called him for permission to reprint it here. Considering over 600,000 Americans are arrested annually for marijuana possession alone, the so-called "War on (some) Drugs" is both a major power/profit center for Big Bodies and a clear violation of our civil liberties as adults in a free society. Most of all, it is a national disgrace that we have not yet risen up against this hypocrsiy in revulsion and contempt. To get involved, see the links below.
In our younger days, many of us worked hard and took great personal risks to stop our government's murderous assault on the peoples of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia. Now, in our maturity, we find that our government has declared war on our own citizens. Government and its servant media, like the New York Times, call it the "war on drugs," but it is our people, and not the drugs, who are dying.
Highest Rate of IncarcerationOver the past 20 years, succeeding administrations have looted over $500 billion, half a trillion dollars, 10 percent of our nation's entire net worth, from our schools, our hospitals and other public services, to squander on weapons, personnel, and prisons. The U.S. now has by far the world's highest rate of incarceration, double that of the former Soviet Union and almost triple that of South Africa, four times the rate of Canada's imprisonment and 10 times that of the Netherlands. Half of these American prisoners are drug offenders, and the overcrowding is so severe that virtually every state and county in the country is under court order for overcrowding. Violent felons must frequently be turned loose on our streets to make room for non-predatory first-time drug offenders.
Meanwhile, during this past decade of stern prohibition, poisonings are up and tens of thousands of innocents have been gunned down in our inner cities. Yet even with this war in place, three million more Americans have become addicted to heroin or cocaine in the last five years because the drugs are more plentiful and less expensive than ever. The price of a gram of cocaine is one-third of what it was ten years ago, when the most recent version of this drug war began. The price of a pure milligram of heroin from 1982 to 1992, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, has declined from $22 per milligram to $1.54. That's the net result of the war on drugs.
In 1992, we spent $80 billion on criminal justice nationwide, not including the social services to families of inmates who were formerly taxpaying and self-supporting. With a 700-percent increase in drug arrests, our prison population has doubled in a decade. The number of female prisoners has tripled, leaving 167,000 more children motherless in America. Racial tension has increased due to the inequities of a war in which blacks use only 10 percent of illicit drugs, but constitute 64 percent of all mandatory minimum sentences. On this war footing, our states now spend significantly more on criminal justice than on housing and the environment combined, and nearly as much as on health care.
Unremarkably, the Brooking Institution released a study recently predicting that at the present rate, half the population in the United States would be imprisoned and the other half would be guarding them by the year 2053.
The fuel for this scandal are the United States sentencing guidelines and the mandatory minimum sentences at the federal and state level. In 1984, in response to criticism about unequal punishment for similar offenders, Congress passed the Sentencing Reform Act, authorizing the guidelines. These create sentencing levels from 1 to 40. In drug cases the level is determined by the amount and type of the substance involved, level one being a probation offense, and level 40, life imprisonment. The guidelines prohibit individualized sentences by excluding factors such as age, health, family circumstances, social environment and education. The only way to lessen a sentence from its set level is by informing on or entrapping others. And these days, of course, more then half our drug busts are of people entrapped by our government. The government is not going out and buying drugs from people, the government is going out and selling drugs to people on credit.
The First Casualty of War Is the TruthBut let us look at this problem at its simplest level, close to home. The Boston Globe claims that marijuana prohibition is seldom enforced and if so, with minimal penalties in Massachusetts. Perhaps they fail to read these stories in their own paper:
Waltham: A 75-year old man is arrested with his nephew, who was growing a single pot plant in the man's basement without his knowledge. After years of legal expense to avoid the confiscation of his house, the government settled by taking the last of his $10,000 lifesavings instead. The nephew, a certified incompetent who spends most of his life in various state mental health programs, is now in jail. He should be in a hospital.
In Hanover, an environmental activist serves one year in prison on a plea bargain for cultivating five pounds of cannabis.
Obviously, the crime and punishments described here are insupportable -- except in the cloud of disinformation and propaganda spewed by the drug warriors. As one famous journalist pointed out, "The first casualty of war is the truth."
While drug related emergency room admissions continue to rise, fewer than 2,500 people actually die each year from the use of illegal drugs, compared to 150,000 drinkers and 400,000 smokers. Of those 2,500, most were also alcohol-related, many were suicides, and perhaps half were poisonings and accidental overdoses, just as in the days of bathtub gin. There is no clear and present danger from the substances, only from the laws which attempt to prohibit them. The government probably doesn't want you to know that 20 percent of the users do 80 percent of the illegal drugs. Some of those respond to treatment, but most eventually mature out of addiction on their own. No form of treatment works unless the addict believes in it.
The other thing the government will not tell you is that the addiction experience is very different in a non-repressive regime. America had no drug laws until 1914. We had addicts of course, but those addicts were not a danger to society. They were productive members of the society, they maintained homes, they paid their taxes, they were good citizens. What the DEA will tell you is that if we legalized drugs, we're going to get "Needle Park", as they had in Zurich. Well, in Zurich, of course, all drugs are still illegal. They created one little haven in which all the junkies from all over Europe could go and get the drugs they wanted and discard the needles in a public spot -- not a good idea. No, certainly not an example of decriminalization.
They should perhaps take a look at Amsterdam, where certainly marijuana is available in the coffee shops there and hashish as well. And both cocaine and heroine have been effectively decriminalized, so that people are not arrested. Well, their rate of drug use for all three of those substances has declined over the past five years, not to mention their rate of AIDS infection.
The government probably doesn't want you to know certain facts about interdicting the drug supply. One is that there is damn little the governments of Columbia or Peru or Lebanon or Afghanistan can do to stem the production. Their economies are in terrible shape, and the underground dope dollar represents half of their exports. The original plant materials, which they've grown for thousands of years in those locations, can be grown anywhere. So if the government of those countries comes down heavily enough, it moves to another section of the country; if that government continues to come down heavily, it moves next-door. Brazil has thus recently become a major supplier of cocaine to the United States.
The vast profits of prohibition encourage the corruption of ordinary people as couriers. Drug dealers look for pregnant women, for the elderly, for people driving mobile homes, anybody who doesn't look like a drug dealer, and they put them to work. Some people cannot refuse that kind of money.
The other street fact is that drug dealers use younger and younger sales people as time goes by, so the upshot of prohibition is to encourage the corruption of younger and younger people.
Among the economic facts the government doesn't want to deal with are that prohibition is a big business, and it is entrenched as the Pentagon was during Vietnam. Enormous vested interests and contracts and salaries and information budgets and forfeiture proceeds and yes, bribes, are involved. As Gore Vidal said, "fighting drugs is nearly as big a business as pushing them."
Failure of the Criminal Justice ApproachSo where do we go to begin to untangle this mess? After years of repression and political stagnation, we believe there's fresh hope for ending the tyranny of the laws prohibiting possession and the use of the cannabis plant, certainly, for the medicinal, industrial, and recreational purposes. The demographics are favorable, with the baby boomers now becoming a voting majority. People are disgusted with the obvious failure of the criminal justice approach to the public health problem of substance abuse. The media seems to be taking a new look at the issue, with a few exceptions here and there.
Our new but growing movement here, the anti-prohibition movement, is surrounded by enemies, highly placed, thoroughly certified, richly rewarded, and entirely well meaning. Our peace movement is poor, though rich in spirit. Our peace movement is quite literally outgunned as the United States of America, the nation I love, uses its awesome power once again in an all out war against a defenseless civilian population, this time our own. Do I dare to call us a peace movement? We are not the ones who coined the term "war on drugs." This war was handed down to us by our political leaders. We only pay for it with our taxes, our general economic disruption, and the lives of our children in our cities and towns. We could, I suppose, call ourselves a freedom movement. We hope that you will support and join us in this effort. Thank you very much.