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The Drug War vs. Public Health and Safety


Many Americans recognize that the drug war has jailed hundreds of thousands of people whose sole crime was to possess substances that politicians did not approve of. However, this is only the start of the casualty list of the drug war. Many other Americans have suffered who themselves had little or nothing to do with narcotics.

Foolish drug regulations are the leading cause for the spread of AIDS among heterosexuals. Drug laws spread AIDS through government regulations that prohibit users from buying clean needles for heroin injections. (Hypodermic needles are banned in many cities as “drug paraphernalia.”) As a result, the same needles are shared by dozens of heroin users, spreading AIDS like wildfire. Roughly half of New York City’s 250,000 heroin users are thought to carry the AIDS virus. One-third of all AIDS cases are now tied directly to the injection of drugs. In Baltimore, Maryland, 42% of AIDS cases are drug-related. In Hartford, Connecticut, an estimated 70% of AIDS cases are related to intravenous drug use. The vast majority of heterosexuals with AIDS are hard-core drug users. And most young children who have AIDS contracted it from a mother or father who was a drug user or who had sexual intercourse with a drug user. Daniel Lazare observed in the Village Voice: “The state could not have designed a more effective policy for spreading the AIDS virus if it had tried.”

The federal government reports that heroin use kills fewer than 3,000 Americans a year. Assuming that almost all of the infected New York heroin users will eventually die of AIDS, regulations that make heroin use less safe could easily kill more than 30 times as many people as the heroin itself.

A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that intravenous drug users who were also diabetic had an AIDS rate much less than half of that of non-diabetic intravenous drug users because the diabetics had access to an ample supply of clean needles. A Yale University study found that needle-exchange programs reduced new HIV infections by 33% among participants.

Yet many people have been arrested for illicit possession of hypodermic needles after they sought to offer clean needles to heroin addicts. In December 1991, President George Bush opposed needle-exchange programs because they would “harm traditional values” — as if spreading AIDS somehow promotes traditional values. Modern drug warriors are treading the moral high road paved in the 1920s, when some prohibition agents were happy that moonshiners sold wood alcohol that blinded and killed people, since that discouraged alcohol consumption.

The drug war has also been a significant factor in reviving tuberculosis as a serious threat to American health. Being sent to jail for drug possession, especially in places such as New York City, gives a person an excellent chance to acquire tuberculosis or AIDS. The Annals of Internal Medicine reported:

“Three medical groups warn that massively overcrowded conditions in jails and prisons are creating a public health emergency. That is true in other states, said Kim M. Thorburn, president of the American Correctional Health Services Association and an author of the report. Prison overcrowding has serious public health consequences. . . . In virtually every prison and big city jail, two and in some cases three inmates are routinely confined to cells built to accommodate one person. That makes prisons ideal breeding grounds for potentially lethal diseases such as AIDS, hepatitis B and especially tuberculosis.”

John Raba, M.D., director of ambulatory services at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, said:

“By cramming more people who are [infected with tuberculosis and HIV] into tremendously overcrowded facilities that were not built to provide the ventilation needed for preventing the spread of respiratory diseases, we have set the table for a terrible dinner of tuberculosis to serve the public.”

The war on drugs has meant a vast diversion of law enforcement from protecting citizens from violence to attempting to control how they use their own bodies. In 1990, for the first time, the number of people sentenced to prison for drug crimes exceeded the number of people sentenced for violent crimes. Almost 19,000 state and local law-enforcement officials are assigned to the drug war on a full-time basis — at a time when most big cities have record numbers of unsolved murders on the books. Focusing law-enforcement resources on drug violations means fewer police to protect Americans against other crimes. Florida State University economists Bruce Benson and David Rasmussen, in a study published in Contemporary Policy Issues, concluded:

“Cracking down on drugs unintentionally fosters theft, burglary and other property crimes because law enforcement resources are diverted. . . . Between 1982 and 1987, when Florida police focused on drug law enforcement, drug arrests rose 90%, while total arrests rose only 32%. Property crimes escalated, with robbery rates rising 34% and auto thefts by 65%. As more resources are allocated to fight drug crime, the chance of arrest for property crime falls.”

The Washington Post reported in late 1990: “Florida released 130,000 felons early to make room in state prisons — largely for new drug offenders.” Forty thousand of the early releases went on to commit new crimes.

Florida has been plagued by repeated “horror stories” about early-release inmates who committed sensational crimes. In July 1988, Bryan Keith Smith went on a headline-producing crime spree — murdering a restaurant dishwasher, a motel clerk, and a convenience-store clerk in three armed robberies that started 12 days after he was released under the program.

Florida cleared room for drug offenders by giving early release to Walter Ross Lewis, who had been convicted of raping a 63-year-old woman and pistol-whipping a bus driver. Lewis capitalized on parole to stab a pregnant woman to death.

In 1992, Florida granted early release to 140 former prisoners convicted of murder, attempted murder, and child abuse. Drug expert James Ostrowki observed: “In a world of scarce prison resources, sending a drug offender to prison for one year is equivalent to freeing a violent criminal to commit 40 robberies, 7 assaults, 110 burglaries, and 25 auto thefts.”

The American Bar Association, in a special report, concluded:

“While drug use is decreasing and violent crime is increasing, the criminal justice system is directing more of its resources to drug offenses and less to violent crime — resulting in an increasing proportion of persons imprisoned for drug offenses and a decreasing proportion imprisoned for violent crimes.”

President Bush, in a June 29, 1992, speech dedicating a new Drug Enforcement Agency office building, declared: “I am delighted to be here to salute the greatest freedom fighters any nation could have, people who provide freedom from violence and freedom from drugs and freedom from fear.”

But people are killing each other over drugs not because of the drugs themselves but because of the illegal nature of the drug business. Drug laws epitomize how government punishment of a victimless crime makes life less safe for almost all Americans.

Nobel laureate Milton Friedman observed that the homicide rate soared after President Richard M. Nixon launched the war on drugs and estimated that the war on drugs is currently causing an extra 5,000 homicides per year. Friedman estimated that for each person who died from the drugs themselves, there were two people who died from drug-related violence and ten people who were shot or stabbed.

A 1984 study by the New York State Division of Substance Abuse Services estimated that the average urban heroin user commits 160 nondrug crimes a year, including 6 robberies, 18 burglaries, 51 shopliftings, 16 other larcenies, 35 con games, and 27 acts of prostitution.

Dallas Police Chief Bill Rathburn observed that boosting the price of illegal drugs can backfire: “With those who are committing crime to support their drug habit, you force them to commit more crime.” In New York City, drug addicts have begun tearing up and stealing copper cables from the subway lines to sell to scrap dealers for quick cash, causing subway breakdowns that delay scores of thousands of riders.

A 1993 Justice Department report entitled “Drugs, Crime and the Justice System” concluded that there was scant evidence that drug use by itself causes crime.

Yet, despite the high social costs of drug prohibition, politicians are continuing to sound the drumbeat for even harsher penalties. Newt Gingrich, shortly after winning reelection to a second term as House Speaker, announced, “There are no good excuses for selling drugs. There should be no tolerance for drug dealers.” Gingrich announced plans to introduce a bill “that says if you cross the American border with a commercial quantity of illegal drugs and the jury finds it’s the first time you’ve ever done it, you get life without parole; if the jury finds you’re a professional narcotics trafficker who has crossed our border repeatedly, you get a mandatory death penalty, to send the signal we’re ready to save our children.” Gingrich did not say whether the federal government or state government should be responsible for providing the firing squads at border crossings such as Tijuana.

How much social chaos should America endure in politicians’ quixotic effort to achieve absolute control over how individuals use their own bodies? According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 67 million Americans have used marijuana at least once in their lifetime, and more than 22 million Americans have used cocaine at least once in their lifetime. Thirty-six percent of the U.S. population over the age 12 have used illicit drugs at least once in their lifetime. Given the pervasive use of illicit drugs, it is time both to stop demonizing drug use and to admit that government punishments cannot end drug abuse.

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    James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.