Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Sept. 10, 11 or 12
Prisons are overcrowded, costly and ineffective as a deterrent to drug use. The United States imprisons more of its population than any nation on Earth, mostly due to stiff sentences for drug crimes. About 20 percent of all state inmates and 60 percent of federal prisoners are drug offenders, according to the ACLU, and a staggering 96 percent of all Life without Parole sentences is for nonviolent drug convictions.
Most Americans support marijuana legalization, according to Gallup polling, which also has tracked attitudes about the “war on drugs” in the last 40 years and found the percentage that sees progress has dropped. Already, apart from medical use, marijuana is essentially legal in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington; a misdemeanor in 20 other states.
Politicians from libertarian Republican Rand Paul to centrist Democrat Hillary Clinton have conceded the need for a new approach, and Republican governors ranging from Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry to Mitch Daniels and John Kasich are discussing sentencing reforms generally. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has sponsored the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug-related crimes, and conservative Republican Newt Gingrich and progressive commentator Van Jones have teamed up to call for sentencing reform.
The FBI’s most recent crime report estimates that 13 percent of all arrests are drug-related. Of all drug arrests, almost half were for marijuana. In Illinois, 94.9 percent of all arrests in 2013 were for nonviolent offenses: 114,000. Excluding serious charges unrelated to drugs (such as burglary and arson), that’s still 80,000 arrests. Even using the FBI’s 13-percent benchmark, almost 16,000 people arrested in Illinois were for drug offenses.
Launched in the 1970s during the Nixon administration, the “war on drugs” gained steam under President Reagan but accelerated under President Clinton, when “tough on crime” laws took sentencing judgment out of the hands of actual judges. In 1994, Clinton and Congressional Democrats helped pass the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, when then-First Lady Clinton sought to bolster the White House’s law-and-order standing by stating, "We need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders.”
Meanwhile, there’s a real drug war – with Big Pharma, the pharmaceutical industry that imposes the world’s highest prices for prescriptions – despite taxpayer support funding research and development. Prescription drug prices last year were up 11 percent from 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal, while inflation was less than 1 percent.
“Our drug costs are out of control because that’s the way the pharmaceutical companies want it,” said U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “Other countries have national health insurance … able to negotiate better prices. In this country, however, drug lobbyists have been able to block Medicare from negotiating better prices on behalf of the American people.”
Sanders wants to help make life-saving prescription prices reasonable by repealing the ban on negotiating bulk discounts for seniors; letting Americans buy cheaper drugs on-line from Canada; stripping patent protection from companies fraudulently manufacturing or selling drugs; stopping the practice of companies paying competitors to postpone introducing cheaper generic alternatives; and requiring disclosure of public support for drugs’ research and development while companies invest in packaging and marketing.
As to the failed “war on drugs,” even churches are starting to stand against the campaign, which has led to public health problems, violent drug trafficking, wasted tax money and innumerable lives lost or incarcerated in overcrowded prisons, according to the United Methodist Church’s New England Annual Conference, representing 600 congregations, which this summer voted to support “seeking means other than prohibition to address the problem of substance abuse; and is further resolved to support the mission of the international educational organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) to reduce the multitude of unintended harmful consequences resulting from fighting the war on drugs and to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime and addiction by ending drug prohibition.”
LEAP director Neill Franklin added, “Jesus concerned himself with the plight of the poor and marginalized in his society. In our society, the story of the poor and marginalized is one of mass incarceration, racial injustice, and the breakdown of families caused by the War on Drugs.”
The Methodists’ action follows similar calls last year by Christian clergy in Nashville, Tenn., and Gary, Ind.
Yes, it’s time for a ceasefire in one “war” and true engagement concerning unaffordable prescription drugs that aren’t just expensive, but exploitative.
[PICTURED: Graphic from freedomsphoenix.com.]