Editor's Note: President Barack Obama has shied away from George W. Bush's phrase "war on terror" and also is abandoning Richard Nixon's earlier phrasing "war on drugs," but are these changes much more than semantics?
In this guest essay, writer Sherwood Ross examines the consequences of the "war on drugs" and the chances that Obama might be serious about moving in a new direction:
Efforts by President Obama to put an end to the nation's failed "War on Drugs" can't come an hour too soon – if that's his intent. From his actions, it's hard to know.
Drug offenses account for about half the 200,000 Federal prison inmates behind bars, compared to just 15 percent of prisoners convicted of violent crimes involving weapons, explosives, or arson. If America leads the world with 2.3 million prisoners in all its prisons, jails, and assorted lock-ups, it is largely because we have criminalized drug addiction, not treated it.
President Richard Nixon first declared a "War on Drugs" in 1969 to dramatize his fight against drug addiction. Nixon – who had a knack for waging wars he could not win – got the country headed down a wrong road from which it may only now be just turning around.
Gil Kerlikowske, Obama's new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has renounced even the use of the phrase "War on Drugs" on grounds it favors incarceration of offenders rather than treatment. But talk is no substitute for action.
To his credit, Obama has long appeared to be open to a fresh approach. In an address at Howard University on Sept. 28, 2007, then Sen. Obama said, "I think it's time we took a hard look at the wisdom of locking up some first time nonviolent drug users for decades."
"We will give first-time, non-violent drug offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior," he added. "So let's reform this system. Let's do what's smart. Let's do what's just."
And as prison overcrowding worsens and governors currently whine they can't balance budgets, the public might get some real relief.
Last year, more than 700,000 of the country's 20-million pot smokers were arrested for marijuana possession, according to NORML, an advocacy lobby that works for decriminalization. Over the past decade, 5-million folks got arrested on marijuana charges, 90% of which were for "simple possession, not trafficking or sale," NORML says.
"Regardless of whether one is a 'drug warrior' or a 'drug legalizer," writes Bob Barr in the May 25 Atlanta Journal Constitution, "it is difficult if not impossible to defend the 38-year old war on drugs as a success."
That's because, "Illicit drugs are every bit as easy to score on America's streets and in her schools now as they were more than three decades ago. Last year, just under 84 percent of the 12th graders considered that marijuana was 'very easy' or 'fairly easy' to obtain; virtually the same as in a 1975 survey."
What accounts for the 547 percent spurt in prison population between 1970 and 2007, Barr writes, is that "the primary focus of the federal anti-drug effort has been enforcement, interdiction and incarceration as opposed to demand reduction, prevention and treatment."
Mary Ellen DiGiacomo, of the Action Committee For Women in Prison(ACWIP), of New Jersey, says, "There's long waiting lines to get into (substance abuse) programs, and they don't have drug treatment programs at most women's institutions. You get one therapist, one counselor you talk to but that does not constitute drug treatment."
This may be one reason Bureau of Justice Statistics finds two out of every three released convicts within three years wind up back inside.