Terror War Takes a Back Seat to War on Drugs

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