Statistics show drug war is a failure

by Shawn Heller and Brian Gralnick

Danielle Gonzales' Oct. 14 opinion piece protesting New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson's visit with GW's Students for Sensible Drug Policy was filled with misleading statements and counterproductive mudslinging, like much pro-prohibition rhetoric.

The writer labeled the governor a buffoon and stated, all right-minded citizens of New Mexico have never taken him seriously. This is a strange accusation to make about the only governor in the history of New Mexico to be reelected to a second term.

The author claims we are winning the War on Drugs and that Governor Johnson's efforts to create an honest discourse in the country around reform is a danger in and of itself. She points out that the quantity of drugs seized in this country has skyrocketed, 26 percent in 1998 from 1997. While drug seizures have increased dramatically, the street price for drugs is at a record low and drug purity is at a record high, indicating that drug importation rates have also increased.

Are we winning the drug war? Are the drugs gone? What have we won? We have won the largest prison population in the world. We have won a constitution of eroded rights and a clogged criminal justice system. Sadly, we have not won a single drug-free high school in this country. But according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, we have won a 2000-percent increase in first-time drug use along with a 2000-percent increase in its budget.

The fact is the drug war is failing everyone and costing many people their lives, their families and their money. This is seen in President Clinton's recent allocation of $200 million to merely reduce, not eliminate, drug use in prisons. Prisons have guards, guns, dogs, 20-foot high walls and barbed-wire fences, yet they are full of drugs. If we can't even keep drugs out of our prisons, how can we ever expect to keep them out of our country?

When can we look at alternatives? Will it ever be safe to discuss these pressing issues, or should we stick our heads in the sand and let our government continue its commitment to failure?

Barry McCaffrey, the national drug czar, traveled to New Mexico last week to defend prohibition of illegal drugs. He also blasted Johnson for daring to question whether there is a better way to deal with drugs. The governor was slammed for simply discussing the issue of drug policy. Where would this country be if we did not discuss important social issues of our time? We would probably still have slaves, women would have no rights, and democracy would be reserved for wealthy white males.

There is no doubt that drug education and rehabilitation should be our top priority in the effort to curb the harmful consequences of drug use. However, treatment and education continue to take a second seat to punitive approaches in this country. Recent studies show that 48 percent of the need for drug treatment is unmet in the United States. Study after study has shown that Drug Abuse Resistance Education, the cornerstone of our drug education strategy, is ineffective at best.

In 1988 Congress passed a resolution proclaiming its goal of a drug-free America by 1995. The year 1995 has come and gone, but the drugs have not. Still we are led to believe drug prohibition is working. Governor Johnson joined the ranks of Walter Cronkite, Milton Friedman, Kurt Schmoke, William F. Buckley and others in calling for a re-evaluation of our drug war priorities.

As these national figures and students join together and press for reform, we will start to move toward a more sensible drug policy.

-Shawn Heller is president and Brian Gralnick is treasurer of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy.

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