For 30 years, I served as an elected prosecutor in a metropolitan county. I became president of both the state and national prosecutors’ associations. Over time, I came to question our “war against drugs.” The goals of our drug war are well-intentioned. But its ineffectiveness and cost have harmed our society in both monetary and human terms. After spending billions of dollars and convicting thousands of drug users, we still have a significant drug problem. If we objectively measure our success in reducing drug use primarily through the tools of the criminal justice system, it is a failed strategy.
Police and prosecutors see many, perhaps even the majority, of crimes being motivated or influenced by the use of alcohol or drugs. In addition, these and other addictive substances, such as tobacco, cost the users and society many adverse health effects, billions of dollars and thousands of lives. So reducing drug use is important.
The question is how to most effectively reduce drug use, knowing what we do after all these years. Criminal penalties have not been effective and are often more destructive than the use of drugs. Drug use is not a “Ten Commandments” crime. It is a public health problem.
When we prosecute people for drug use, we end up harming them and their families more than the drug use alone would have injured them. Generally, people convicted of drug use are not bad people by reason of their drug use. Drug use is not per se morally reprehensible; it is bad judgment often made by young people and compounded by addiction. We all make bad judgments as we are maturing. The argument that we have to prosecute these users to stop drug use would be compelling if it were true, but experience tells us it is not effective.
Except for drug use, the criminal justice system is generally reactive. A robbery is reported and police react to the call. But police make their own strategic decisions about which communities or individuals to target in enforcing drug laws. Often, those decisions target economically deprived communities and people of color rather than affluent white communities, creating racial disparity in enforcement.
How best to reduce drug use? Begin by eliminating or significantly reducing criminal penalties for drug use and adopting a public health approach. Some of the billions spent on criminal justice could be reallocated to public health, where a number of strategies have demonstrated some success in dealing with alcohol and tobacco.
Change will be met by resistance from law enforcement and others. We must remember that the criminal justice system, while it means well, has a huge stake in the status quo. Decriminalization does not mean approval of drug use.
There are two social experiments helpful in considering what would happen if drug use were decriminalized. In our nation’s own history, when alcohol use was decriminalized in 1933, there was not an explosion of alcohol use. The end of Prohibition is generally recognized as a success, not greatly increasing alcohol consumption but increasing tax revenue and decreasing the criminal violence associated with Prohibition. We also have an opportunity currently to see the effects of the decriminalization of marijuana use in Colorado and Washington.
The experience with Portugal decriminalizing drug use in 2001 is also instructive. For an analysis of that initiative not significantly increasing drug use, see “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal” at cato.org.
Internationally, a group of distinguished leaders from more than 15 countries created the Global Commission on Drug Policy to begin the decriminalization discussion.
When an ineffective government policy hurts people, costs enormous amounts of money and does not solve the problem, we owe it to ourselves to discuss whether a change in policy is appropriate.
Robert M.A. Johnson, of Ramsey, is a former Anoka County attorney.