One of the reasons John McCain says he is touring Colombia and Mexico this week is to underscore the importance of the "War on Drugs." Just as McCain wants to continue Bush's failed policies in the "War on Terror," he wants to continue Bush's failed policies in the "War on Drugs" as well.
Though the failures of the "War on Drugs" are more silent and insidious than his dramatic failures in the Middle East, the two have much in common. Both have involved an over-reliance on, and often reckless use of, military force to solve problems for which military power is not appropriate. And both result in massive diversions of attention and energy from the real source of a problem into "crusades" that actually made matters worse.
Of course the central fallacy of the "War on Drugs" is that drug addiction is not essentially a military or law enforcement problem. It is a medical problem. Today America spends billions of dollars on enforcement, interdiction, eradication and the incarceration of those who sell and use drugs. Yet at the same time there are long waiting lists to get into serious drug rehab programs.
We've known for years that by far the most cost effective way of cutting drug use is through treatment and education. A recent study by the Justice Policy Institute found that investments in drug treatment and education are 10 to 15 times more effective at cutting drug use than the same amount spent on law enforcement aimed at drugs.
In the mid 1990's the RAND Corporation did a study that found that to get a one-percent reduction in cocaine use it would cost $2,062,000,000 in "Source-Country Control" -- eradication programs like those McCain went to Colombia to laud this week. The study found you could get the same reduction in cocaine use for only $155,000,000 spent on education and treatment. Yet the federal "drug war budget" allocates five times more on enforcement than on treatment -- and that doesn't even count most of the military action in Colombia.
In the early years of the Bush presidency I traveled to Colombia with my wife, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, and several other Members of Congress. We accompanied the Ambassador and some of her staff on a trip to Putumayo, the center of cocaine cultivation in Colombia, to meet with a large group of campesinos from the surrounding area. The night before we left Bogata for Putumayo, a delegation of Governors from southern Colombia met with us to beg the Members of Congress to stop the fumigation program that the United States was financing in an attempt to kill coca plants.
That was not the Bush plan. On the way to the meeting I sat next to the embassy "fumigation czar." He explained that while fumigation activities had been restricted under Clinton, under Bush they were free to fumigate as much acreage as as they pleased.
The stupidity of the fumigation policy became clear when we met with hundreds of local people who had assembled in a community center in Putumayo. We heard story after story of legitimate crops being killed by indiscriminate aerial fumigation. We talked to dozens of farmers who said they grew coca because it was the only way to make any money. We talked to many local people who told us that if the crops were fumigated, they would simply move further into the jungle and tear down more rainforest.
The results are in. Last week a United Nations study revealed that coca cultivation in Colombia is at an all-time high. Last year alone, Colombian peasants devoted 27% more land to growing coca than last year. The study found that this occurred despite "record" US-backed eradication efforts. Cultivation had simply shifted to smaller, less productive spots in more remote areas. Coca farmers were "aggressively" tearing down rainforest to make way for crops and laboratories. In addition, production had shifted from Colombia to Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.
In other words, all those billions for Colombian drug eradication, that McCain would continue to spend, have meant nothing when it comes to reducing the consumption of drugs on the streets and in the high schools of America.
Of course the Bush-McCain strategy in the "War on Drugs" has many other victims. Quite apart from the millions of Americans who go without treatment, there are hundreds of thousands more who are locked up for their drug use. An example: fifty-two percent of those incarcerated in Illinois prisons for drug offenses are there for "possession." That's kind of like the Medieval practice of burning people at the stake because they were mentally ill and possessed by "demons".
The massive mandatory minimum drug penalties of the "War on Drugs" don't simply send people to jail for a few months - but for huge chunks of their lives.
I met a guy a few years ago who was doing his second round in prison for using drugs. Not selling....using.
He said, "Hell...I've been a speed-freak since I was a hippy in the 60's." (He's now about 60). "After my first stint in prison, I was clean for a number of years," he said. "Then my mom died and I just couldn't handle the emotional pressure...so I started up again."
He was ultimately arrested and convicted of "conspiracy." He had been in contact with, and bought drugs from, a guy who sold meth--that was his element in the conspiracy. No one accused him of selling drugs himself. He was just a user. He has never been accused of a violent crime as a result of his drug use.
Doesn't matter. He got eight years in Federal Prison. What he needed was drug treatment.
The price of these policies to our broader society has been breathtaking. The entire correctional system had about 550,000 inmates in 1985. Today, it has 2.6 million-- mostly because of mandatory minimums and major limitations on the use of parole at both the state and federal level.
The cost of the system has gone from $9 billion a year in 1985 to $60 billion a year today.
The prison system doesn't focus on rehabilitation or education, either. It basically warehouses inmates and in many cases makes them more inclined to commit real crimes. Today the recidivism rate is 67%. Two-thirds of inmates will return to prison after being released.
As a result of these policies, one in three black men can expect to serve time in jail or prison at some point in his life, and at any given time one in nine African American men between 18 and 29 years of age is behind bars.
Our "War on Drugs" is one of the main reasons why America puts a higher percentage of its population behind bars than any other society on earth. A shocking twenty-five percent of prisoners in the World are in the US, even though we have only 5% of the world's population. That is shameful for the land of the free.
The bottom line is simple. America simply can't afford to allow McCain to continue Bush's "War on Drugs" for four more years.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win", available on Amazon.com.