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June 2005
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Shooting fish in a barrel

OK, sometimes I just need a little entertainment, and a column comes along that does the trick very nicely. In this case, it’s an OpEd by former Niles Police Chief Ray Giovannelli in the Journal Online (Northwest Chicago Suburbs): How To Win The War On Drugs (with a title like that, I had to check it out).

Finally, a court case decision I can live with.

Recently, the United States Supreme Court kept alive the federal government’s authority to enforce marijuana laws, even if states legalize it. In spite of this decision, the small but vocal groups of drug users and/or elitists – such as George Soros – who have been lobbying for drug legalization since the 1970’s, will continue their campaign.

Note the absense of the word “medical” in the description of the Supreme Court decision. And “drug users and/or elitists”? WTF? What would be the motivation for “elitists” to push for drug legalization? Ah, this is Ray’s way of explaining why so many intelligent non-drug users advocate reform — they must be part of this bizarre group of “elitists.”
He then lists our arguments:

Their points of logic include:

* The drug war has failed.

* We have filled our prisons with first-time, non-violent drug offenders.

* If drugs were legalized, drug dealers would go out of business.

* Some drugs, especially marijuana, are medicinal.

* We are spending an inordinate amount of money on the drug war.

Let’s take a closer look at this litany of allegations.

OK, not bad. Not exactly how I would have framed it, but a reasonable list. Let’s see how he takes us down.

First, as for the failing drug war, in 1979 the United States hit its peak of drug use for the 20th century. Approximately 24 million citizens were drug users. By 1992, due to the combined efforts of law enforcement, prevention and treatment, the number of drug users declined to about 11.4 million. That’s over 50 percent, despite some increases in marijuana use by high school students over the past few years (source: International Association of Chiefs of Police).

Just imagine, if we could reduce gang violence, teen pregnancy or HIV/AIDS by over 50 percent in a little over a decade. Could anyone in their right mind call that a failure and demand we stop the campaign?

Seems like a reasonable argument, right? Until you do a little further digging.
First, data on trends of drug use over time are horribly unreliable. They rely on self-reporting (which often reflects on public view at the time), and they are hit by changes in methodology (even the government charts have a bold line through them showing this). Plus, you can pick and choose figures to support just about anything.
Take a look at this Drug Use Trends Factsheet from the White House ONDCP. (there is plenty of other data out there, but this is useful enough for this purpose). If you look at overall population drug use in the past month, then Ray’s figures seem close to being correct (14.1% in 1979, down to 7.1% in 2001). But let’s have some fun with these numbers for ourselves:

  • Lifetime drug use has gone up from 31.7% in 1979 to 41.7% in 2001
  • Lifetime drug use for those 35 and older has gone up from 11.8% in 1979 to 38.4% in 2001 – more than tripled!
  • Past month drug use has gone up from 5.9% in 1993 to 7.1% in 2001
  • Past month marijuana use for those 12-17 has gone up from 3.4% in 1992 to 8.0% in 2001.
  • Past month cocaine use by High School seniors has gone up from 1.9% in 1975 to 2.1% in 2001
  • Past month drug use by 8th graders has gone up from 3.2% in 1991 to 9.2% in 2001.

There are all sorts of games you can play with the numbers. But if you spend some time with them like I have, there’s no way that you can see justification for declaring “victory” in the war on drugs.
The other point Ray makes there (about HIV or teen pregnancy) is just plain ignorant. You can’t compare them. And this is largely because Ray is talking about drug use, not drug abuse. Unfortunately, the government does a very poor job of tracking drug abuse (they don’t want to acknowledge the existence of non-abusive use), but I would bet that it may have actually increased as a result of the drug war (certainly not decreased). So a more fitting analogy for Ray to use would be as if the government had managed to reduce people having sex by 50%, yet the rates of HIV and teen pregnancy remained the same. (That would certainly not be cause for rejoicing.)

Second, as for the idea that it’s a bad thing to fill our prisons with self-proclaimed first-time users and non-violent offenders, our nation is experiencing a very low crime rate phenomenon for the past several years which has run concomitant with high prison populations. Simple coincidence? I don’t think so.

“I don’t think so”? That’s the justification for putting non-violent offenders in jail? (and note the sarcastic “self-proclaimed”) Is it possible that there might be other reasons? For example, the crime trend went sharply down from 1993 until about 2001 when it started to reverse and climb again. Might that relate to the state of the economy and jobs?

Third, to the assertion that legalizing drugs will put dealers out of business. To accomplish this, they have to be assuming that the legalization will be total, that is, no restrictions or conditions at all. Marijuana, cocaine, heroin, etc., sold over-the-counter, because applying restrictions will require illicit sources for users and defeat their claim that dealers will simply disappear into history. By the way, fools do not run drug cartels. These are shrewd, criminally minded people who will devise other ways to hurt you.

This is just bizarre. Of course, you can apply restrictions. It’s called regulation, and we do it with cigarettes and alcohol and lots of other things. You can regulate it and tax it and condition it like crazy — you just have to make it easy enough to get so that it’s not profitable to sell on the black market. That allows for much more regulation than we have now (particularly related to age). And the other argument is equally bizarre — we’d better let the drug cartels continue to sell drugs, or else they’ll find some even worse fiendish thing to do to us, just because they like hurting us (not because of profits or anything).

Fourth, medical marijuana? Maybe, but if so will it require a doctor’s prescription or some other regulations? If the answer is yes, those who do not need the drug for medical purposes will have to break the law to get it.

Huh? I have no idea what he’s saying here. I think it’s that we shouldn’t allow medical marijuana (after all earlier said “Finally, a court case decision I can live with”), in part because recreational users will have to break the law… No. I’m lost here.

Lastly, they claim the cost of the drug war is too high.

Government was created to provide internal and external security for its citizens. Drugs are a threat to both. The portion of the federal budget spent on our entire criminal justice system is about one-to-two percent. This is hardly an excessive portion of that budget to spend for an essential government service as mandated by the constitution. Furthermore, the war on drugs only accounts for a fraction of entire criminal justice system.

Drugs are a threat to our security? That’s actually impossible, unless we fear a day when marijuana plants, left unchecked, will uproot themselves and march on Washington, ripping apart the White House brick by brick, like the Ents at Isengard. (Ah, let me savor that thought for a moment…)
What he may mean is that the profits from illegal drugs can fund criminals and terrorists — that’s a problem with prohibition, not drugs.
I also love the fact that he calls it “an essential government service as mandated by the constitution”! Is this what the constitution mandates?
He concludes (and this is where it gets really loopy):

I hope you can sense the lunacy in this effort to turn loose the deadly substances that have torn the fabric of our society and threatened future generations with the ravages that afflicted those of the ’60’s, ’70’s and ’80’s. Ultimate victory over drug use can be achieved by education, research, treatment, enforcement and efforts as simple as public outrage, similar to that directed toward tobacco use, or a citizen’s demanding a nation-wide, up-or-down vote on the issue of legalizing drugs.

Oh, yeah, the ravages of the 60’s and 70’s and 80’s. Remember when all those druggies grew up and became… stockbrokers. Oh, yeah, and Presidents. (But I love the colorful language: “turn loose the deadly substances that have torn the fabric of our society and threatened future generations with the ravages that afflicted…” Very nice.)
But we can win! If we just have “a nation-wide, up-or-down vote on the issue of legalizing drugs.” Again, may I say: WTF? This up-or-down vote meme has gotten so pervasive that now Ray is suggesting a national vote on drug legalization? How would this work? Put it on the ballot of all 50 states? I’d love to see the wording on that one.
Well, that’s it for this OpEd, folks. Been fun. A big hand to Ray Giovannelli (who has his own column called “Giovannelli Central”). Former Chief of Police. Ignorant, but funny.

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