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Illusions of Progress in the War on Drugs

As Alex Thurston wrote this morning, our strategy at the front line of the "War on Drugs’" is fundamentally flawed. In its best case scenario – the incarceration of drug dealers – little to nothing is accomplished; we make dents in an unending supply, and we nab or disperse some of the bad guys selling that supply. In the latter case, "some dealers go to jail, where they will add to overcrowding and mix with more violent criminals. Other dealers go elsewhere, meaning that another urban area will receive an influx of criminals."

With our front line strategy so dysfunctional, our rear guard’s failings should surprise no one:

More than 50 percent of the 38,000 returned to communities [paroled inmates] annually serve less than six months in prison and 22 percent of those committed directly from courts are there less than 60 days. They typically get credit for their detention at the local level prior to conviction and sentencing for the least aggressive and egregious felonies, primarily drug possession. Like the vast majority of those we incarcerate, they have narcotics or alcohol issues. Most lack high school degrees and test at an eighth-grade level.

They generally do not have sufficient time while imprisoned to take full advantage of a substance abuse treatment program even if it is available. Ditto for making significant progress on the education front or attaining job skills. After they are paroled, they need drug treatment, mental health, employment and housing services from community-based providers that consistently have been underfunded and overburdened. Small wonder, it is, that half return to prison at a hefty tab to taxpayers.

Continuing with the analogy: as the front line of our "War on Drugs" progresses, it simply recycles the "enemy." Once a POW is taken, we process him/her through our war machine, then spit it back out at the front. It is a geniusly devised machine if the end goal is perpetual war. It is very poorly designed if the goal is real progress.

But the progress is quantifiable, the law and order crowd will argue, because there are statistics offering precise numbers for perps arrested and narcotics seized.


It’s not hard to pull back the curtain on this illusion of progress; the men and women we arrest are either confined at a "hefty tab to taxpayers," or are processed and released with fewer alternatives to drug-dealing/drug-abusing than the first time around. Predictably, it’s not long before they’re at the front lines again, only to repeat the cycle. This expensive and mindless action ad infinitum is the overriding characteristic of our "war on drugs," as well as our "war on crime."

So what would constitute real progress? The answer’s in the block quote above: drug treatment, mental health treatment, and employment and housing-services. Common sense solutions to common sense problems.

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Lance Steagall

Lance Steagall