America spends at least $20 billion each year to fight the war on illegal
drugs. Conservative pundit William F. Buckley Jr. estimates the total
direct and indirect costs of the drug war annually at $200 billion.

A number of laws and policies have been enacted by the government in its
efforts to curb the usage of illegal drugs, but these have all been dismal
failures. Before 1920, all narcotics were legal; cocaine could even be
bought in a Sears Roebuck catalog.

Despite the availability of all these drugs, the percentage of addicts in
the United States steadily declined for two decades prior to prohibition.
Now, by the government's own calculations, under prohibition the amount has
quadrupled. Drug-trade-related crime infects our streets, and we cannot
even keep drugs out of the prisons in which we keep drug offenders.

In much the same way that alcohol prohibition gave rise to higher alcohol
consumption and organized crime associated with its trafficking, so it is
with illegal drugs. The social costs of the drug war, including excessively
harsh punishments, blatant constitutional violations and the flourishing of
a criminal drug trade in our inner cities, are piling up. For a number of
reasons, legalization is the wisest solution to drug problem.

In 1970 President Richard Nixon appointed a commission to study the health
effects, legal status and social impact of marijuana use. After more than a
year of research, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Use
concluded that marijuana should be decriminalized. Nixon did not expect to
get these results and rejected these findings.

Ten years later the National Academy of Sciences investigated the health
effects of marijuana and also concluded that marijuana should be
decriminalized. President Ronald Reagan rejected these results as well. I
bring these examples up because it shows how little of the war on drugs is
based on research or health concerns.

It is a war taken up by politicians to look uncompromising on drugs because
if anyone questions the severity of drug laws, his or her opportunistic
opponent will capitalize on it and criticize him or her as soft on drugs, a
phrase that would terrify any voter with children.

A proliferation of zero-tolerance laws have sprung up recently to continue
the government's image as tough on drugs.

Politicians claim these laws are aimed to lock up kingpins, but often
low-level users bear the brunt of these punishments. The laws proclaim a
mandatory minimum sentence for any drug offense and sweep the little fish
right along with the big fish into jail. At least 15 states have automatic
life sentences for certain marijuana offenses, and under federal law the
death penalty can be imposed for growing or selling a large amount of
marijuana, even if it is a first time offense.

All of these laws remain on the books despite the fact that there seems to
be little relation between the severity of drug laws and the rate at which
drugs are used by teenagers.

The United Kingdom, whose strict drug laws rival our own, has a marijuana
usage rate among teenagers one and a half times higher than the
Netherlands, where marijuana has been decriminalized.

The idea of harsh excessive penalties for drug use brings the Constitution
into the debate.

The Eighth Amendment visibly states that "cruel and unusual punishments"
could not be inflicted, yet life sentences for drug crimes sound fairly
cruel -- especially if the only person you are harming with a drug is yourself.

The Eighth Amendment is not the only part of the Constitution flouted in
the war on drugs.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right in "all criminal prosecutions" for
the accused to enjoy "assistance for counsel of his defense." Often in the
war on drugs, lawyers have their wires tapped and their offices searched.

The government has legally been allowed to subpoena lawyers for all the
information they know about the accused drug offender they represent,
compromising lawyer-client privilege along the way.

The Fourth Amendment states, "The right of the people to be secure in their
persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and
seizure, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon
probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly
describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be
seized." This is a very clear statement, yet it is hardly followed in the
fight against illegal drugs.

Police can obtain warrants on the flimsiest suspicions -- even the word of
an anonymous informer is often enough.

Many other informers, who lie to cut better legal deals for themselves, are
being used more and more as the drug war becomes more futile and
frustrating to fight.

Also, courts have legally upheld most of these searches when they involve
students, especially searches of lockers and university dormitories.

The most disgusting abuse of constitutional authority in the war on drugs
is the proliferation of civil forfeiture statutes Congress passed in the
1980s. Under these statutes, the federal government has the right to seize
any property at all connected to a drug offense.

For instance, a farm can be seized if one marijuana plant is found growing

When the property is seized, the legal title for the land is passed to the
government. Amazingly, eighty percent of those whose property is seized are
never even charged with a crime.

The Fifth Amendment declares that a person cannot "be deprived of life,
liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private
property be taken for public use without just compensation". It is
interesting to note that when Congress prohibited alcohol, they felt it
necessary to make a new amendment to the Constitution, since they found no
way to justify it otherwise.

Drugs are unmentioned in the Constitution, and federal statutes are now
enough to imprison drug offenders for many years.

Experts say that worldwide, the drug trade generates revenues as high as
$500 billion annually.

This is an industry that is here to stay and not going anywhere.

To correct the erosion of personal liberty and lessen the destruction that
drugs cause to people's lives, it is prudent that they be legalized. To
legalize them does not mean to endorse them, as most people who choose to
abstain from drugs do so for health reasons, not because the government
says they are bad. I also do not advocate lawlessness; drugs should not be
done in public, nor should one drive under their influence. But when a drug
user is only affecting himself, he should not be subject to any criminal

Law enforcement agencies estimate that half of all crime is drug-related
offenses, an incredible waste of the police's time and money.

The illicit drug industry provides an economic incentive for poor
inner-city kids to drop out of school and earn quick money.

Jails are overcrowded as well. In 1980 there were almost twice as many
violent offenders in federal prison as drug offenders.

Today more people are now incarcerated in the nation's prisons for
marijuana than for manslaughter or rape. The drug war is a waste of time,
tax money, resources and manpower.

It has been allowed to trample our constitutional freedoms and makes young
people resentful and disrespectful of the law. It is a cancer on our
government, and instead of treating drugs as a legal problem, we must look
at them rationally from a health-based perspective, otherwise the hysteria
surrounding drugs will spiral out of control even more than it does already.

Daniel Brody '04 hails from Long Island. He hates when the government tells
him what to do.

Pubdate: Thu, 12 Apr 2001
Source: Brown Daily Herald (RI)
Copyright: 2001 The Brown Daily Herald
Author: Daniel Brody, Herald Opinions Columnist