Terror War Takes a Back Seat to War on Drugs

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Think
the Feds' self-proclaimed "war on terror" has distracted
from its much longer and costlier (but similarly self-proclaimed)
"war on drugs?" Think again.

Law
enforcement arrested a record 1,678,192 US citizens for drug abuse
violations in 2003, according to data published last week in the
FBI's annual Uniform
Crime Report
. The arrest
total surpassed the previous year's total
by more than 100,000,
and is 33 percent greater than the total number of Americans arrested
on drug charges a decade ago. Put another way, an American is now
arrested every 19 seconds for violating the nation's drug laws.

The
staggering UCR totals come just weeks after a Department
of Justice report
concluded that post-9/11 reprioritization
has forced several federal law enforcement agencies, specifically
the FBI, to shift their focus away from drug law enforcement. But
while that may be the case for the FBI, the 2003 data makes it apparent
that law enforcement in general, and state and local police in particular,
are targeting and arresting drug offenders with unprecedented gusto.

Those
offenders most likely to feel the brunt of law enforcement are small-time
marijuana offenders. According to the FBI's data, police arrested
755,187 persons in 2003 for violating pot laws. That figure is the
highest ever recorded by law enforcement, and far exceeds the total
number of arrests last year for all violent crimes combined, including
murder, manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

Of
those US citizens charged with pot violations, 88 percent – some 662,886
Americans – were charged solely with the crime of marijuana possession.
The remaining 92,301 individuals were charged with "sale/manufacture,"
a category that includes all cultivation offenses, even those where
the marijuana was grown for personal or, in some cases, medical
use.

More
than any other drug-related violation, pot arrests have increased
in recent years at a staggering clip – rising from less than 300,000
in 1991 to today's record levels. As a result, more Americans have
been arrested in the past decade on pot charges than the combined
populations of Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Montana,
North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

But
according to a forthcoming report from the NORML
Foundation
in Washington, DC, this dramatic increase in arrests
has not been associated with "reduced marijuana use, reduced
marijuana availability, a reduction in the number of new users,
… any reduction in marijuana potency, or any increases in the
price of marijuana." Rather, "marijuana arrests have [had]
the opposite effect on every major policy objective they are intended
to influence." (The same criticism could be lodged against
the drug war as a whole, as similar increases in purity and demand
and availability, along with a decrease in price, have been noted
in recent years for most other illicit drugs, specifically cocaine
and heroin.)

Nevertheless,
despite record deficits and the looming terrorism threat, neither
major party's Presidential candidate have questioned the wisdom
of spending unprecedented hours of police time and, literally, billions
of state and federal taxpayer dollars to arrest and prosecute non-violent
drug offenders. (NORML places the state and local criminal justice
costs of marijuana arrests at $7.6 billion – more than 25 percent
of the total fiscal amount states spend on all anti-drug related
enforcement; the
Feds spend an additional $21+ billion annually on the drug war
.)
They ought to be.

Voters
in more than a dozen states over the past seven years have approved
initiatives eliminating jail time for various non-violent drug offenses,
and national polls show that 3 out of 4 Americans support depenalizing
(no arrest, no jail) pot possession. In two states this November,
the electorate will decide on measures to legalize the use of marijuana
by ill patients, and Alaska voters will decide on a proposal to
legalize and regulate the private use of the drug by all adults.
In this climate, it's clear that politicians and law enforcement
are fast becoming isolated in their support for their behemoth "war
on drugs," which, having grown so gargantuan in size, now appears
destined to collapse under the force of its own weight.

October
30, 2004

Paul Armentano [send him mail]
is the senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation
in Washington, DC.

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