Fighting Drugs: A Kinder, Gentler, Cheaper Way
time, critics have been saying that the war hasn't been going
well, has forced us to overextend ourselves and is gobbling up
far too many tax dollars. But many of them were skeptical about
this effort from the start. The surprise is that President Bush
now seems to be moving their way on the war.
war in Iraq -- the war on drugs.
the administration took a consistently hard line against recreational
substances and those who use them -- vigorously opposing state
medical marijuana intiatives, objecting when Canada considered
decriminalizing marijuana and accusing potheads of subsidizing
terrorism. But lately, it has changed its tone.
In a House
committee hearing in February, Bush drug czar John Walters stressed
the need to focus on major drug traffickers instead of individual
users. He lamented the consequences of "taking generation after
generation of young men, especially poor, minority young men in
our cities, and putting them in jail. And I think citizens rightly
say, 'Can't we stop this?' "
have not exactly gotten soft-hearted toward heroin addicts. But
they have begun to grasp the conflict between fighting the same
old drug war and getting control of federal spending. In fact,
the president's budget for next year proposes to cut about $1
billion out of various federal anti-drug programs, including measures
that fund law enforcement efforts. Groups like the American Conservative
Union, Citizens Against Government Waste, Americans for Tax Reform
and the National Taxpayers Union have endorsed the cuts.
is coming to grips with something that many states have had to
face in recent years: The drug war, as it's been fought up to
now, costs too much and accomplishes too little. Several states,
caught in a budget vise, have backed away from mass lockups in
favor of kinder, gentler and cheaper options.
shift came in California in 2000, when voters approved Proposition
36, which mandated that nonviolent, low-level drug offenders get
probation and treatment instead of incarceration. Since then,
up to 100,000 offenders have been diverted from prison, and the
state's savings are estimated at $1.5 billion over five years.
36 is the single biggest piece of sentencing reform in the United
States since the repeal of Prohibition," says Ethan Nadelmann,
executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Last year, the
Maryland General Assembly embraced the same reform.
not pay much attention to what goes on in blue states like those,
but red states like Arizona and Kansas have followed suit. And
the president can hardly fail to notice when the trend spreads
to his home ground.
1991 and 1996, Texas tripled the size of its prison system to
make room for all the criminals it wanted to lock away. But two
years ago, a state budget crisis forced the legislature to reconsider.
At that point,
State Rep. Ray Allen, a conservative Republican who chairs the
House Corrections Committee, says he discovered that Texas prisons
had some 4,000 inmates charged with minor drug felonies. Considering
the state was spending $2 a day to supervise people on probation,
compared with $40 a day to keep them in prison, he introduced
a bill mandating probation and treatment for first-time offenders
caught with small amounts of illicit substances.
we'd catch hell for it," he said in a phone interview the other
day. But one former prosecutor in the House, also a Republican,
said, "I've sent 1,000 people to prison for these types of offenses,
and I don't feel too good about it." To Allen's surprise, the
bill passed both houses without dissent and was signed by Republican
Gov. Rick Perry.
the logjam," says Allen, "was when Republicans who had been tough
on crime looked at the fiscal impact and saw that policies that
felt good were fiscally unsustainable." By diverting some drug
offenders from prison, he says, Texas has saved $51 million, and
the savings will grow.
see the shift as going soft on crime by any means -- just the
opposite. Considering the 4,000 prison beds that were then occupied
by minor drug offenders, Allen explains, "we as a legislature
decided we wanted rapists, robbers and murderers to occupy those
are awash in money, as many were in the 1990s, they don't have
to choose between policies that are wasteful and those that are
worth their cost. But those days are gone, which means the drug
war's days may be numbered.
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