This article was originally published in EcoSalon. Visit their site by clicking here. In a time of financial, social and ecological challenges, there’s no excuse for the War on Drugs.
Unless you’re a Central-American druglord or have a vested financial interest in the privatized prison complex, you likely agree that the U.S. “War on Drugs” is an unequivocal failure. Since the early ’70s, the federal government has funneled a staggering one trillion dollars into stamping out the drug trade, but by all accounts, the black market for banned substances flourishes, fresh blood spills in brutal trafficking conflicts, and jails burst at the seams with nonviolent offenders.
What if the U.S. decriminalized drugs and put an end to this unwinnable war? In what ways could we usefully redistribute the inconceivable amount of money that would suddenly be freed up? I’m a writer, not a wonk, but my proposals are no more far-fetched than the existing (and embarrassing) status quo. And top narcotics experts agree. From safer streets to healthier people to greener cities, I’d like to offer seven things our tax dollars could do instead of funding the War on Drugs:
1. Treat Addiction as a Public Health Issue.
Tobacco and alcohol are two of the world’s most addictive and deadly substances. The damage to personal and community health far surpasses that of any illicit drug. And yet, the U.S. already tried banning alcohol. Remember Prohibition? It didn’t work. In fact, when alcohol was pushed underground, its profits shot through the roof. Why is it that we still employ prohibition on other substances if it doesn’t work? Instead of criminalizing people strung-out on crack, why not make an investment in public health to cure and rehabilitate our population, rather than further degrading sick people by putting them into a violent, isolating prison system? The Bureau of Prisons reports that the annual cost for treatment from a drug court costs as little as $900, while locking somebody up in a Federal prison runs a hefty $25,000. What would you rather your tax dollars fund?
2. Super-Maximum Skate Parks.
With the mass release of approximately 400,000 drug offenders from America’s federal and state penitentiaries, these facilities would suddenly be empty of inmates. It wouldn’t make sense to let these concrete structures go to waste, so why not transform them into indoor skate-parks? The rails, ramps, and runways come pre-installed. Instead of locking up rebellious youth, let them skate, which can actually reduce crime rates among at-risk kids by providing them with a constructive outlet and bonding opportunities. And, while you’re at it, issue an open invitation for all the graffiti artists to decorate.
3. Mobilize a Green Army.
Currently, we have a $10 billion army executing the drug war. Why not repurpose these forces as an army that’s mobilized to fight the environmental crisis? All the prison guards, border guards, and drug-enforcement agents could be conscripted; these jobs could also be opportunities for rehabilitated addicts to reintegrate into the workforce. Our green service men and women could be doing positive work to “protect our country” as an eco-development mega-army. Instead of buying automatic-weapons and Hummers to battle drug gangs, we could purchase supplies to install solar panels, low-flush toilets, and motion-sensitive light-fixtures. We could build massive wind-turbine fields and organic, permaculture farms. We could construct inner-city urban gardens that produce fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income communities.
4. Get off Your Ass & Groove.
A nation is only as healthy as its body politic. Today, the American people suffer from an epidemic of lifestyle diseases: diabetes, cancer, obesity, heart disease, and more. Our culture is one of too much cheap food and too little physical activity. Instead of throwing good money after bad into the futile war on drugs, what if we were instead creating health-based infrastructures that would promote lifelong wellness? Bike-secure causeways along primary traffic lanes, free bike-share programs to encourage alternative transportation, modern gymnasium facilities within walking distance of major neighborhoods, outdoor swimming pools, public dance halls with free tango lessons, on-site office yoga classes. Too bad we don’t have enough money to implement these sorts of programs; our government is too busy spending hundreds of millions to crop-dust coca farms in Columbia with carcinogenic herbicides.
5. Oxycotin Obstruction.
Prescription drugs like Oxycotin and Vicodin kill more people than all illegal drugs combined. The New York Times reports that legal pharmaceuticals kill three times as many people as illegal drugs. Pharmacies across the country are instituting heavy security to protect their supply (and employees), from desperate, violent addicts. Maybe we could use some drug war loot to create a national registry for prescription drugs, so that people can’t go “doctor shopping?” In many states, there’s no system for stopping an addict from visiting multiple doctors who prescribe multiple prescriptions, which the patient in turn sells on the street for $80 per pill, or else just ingests with abandon until he overdoses. Right now, Governor Jeb Bush is blocking prescription-drug registries in Florida because he thinks they cost too much and are an invasion of privacy. I wonder if political contributions from pharmaceutical companies have anything to do with this?
6. Meditation Mandates.
Imagine for a moment an overcrowded, notoriously violent correctional facility just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. It is filled with rapists, murderers, and other perpetrators of brutal, vicious crimes. The facility is so violence-riddled that an ongoing lawsuit claims conditions here are so dangerous they violate prisoners’ constitutional rights. Wouldn’t you be surprised if one of the inmates here, a man serving life without parole, exudes calm, saying that he claims responsibility for his crime and has cultivated inner peace? He’s not alone. A novel, in-prison intervention program in San Francisco is transforming lives from the inside out through Buddhist group meditation practice hosted several times a week. As a result of this pilot, another life-without-parole inmate says, “I had a lot of anger issues, and this has given me a way to deal with it.” This model could be instituted on a broad scale in prisons and schools for a wide swath of at-risk populations, helping people cultivate self control, while reducing violence and the lure to self-medicate.
7. Fabric of Society.
Public pensions, health care, bridges, education, state parks, clean water. We should restore funding for all that stuff we’re cutting that’s essential for a functioning society. Why haven’t we heard anything about cutting drug war funds? Why is it we talk about getting rid of NPR, PBS, Planned Parenthood, the NEA, and food stamps before calling to attention the exponentially more money wasted on drug enforcement? Currently, the biggest cash-crop in our country (cannabis), goes untaxed, while the fourth-largest cause for imprisonment is marijuana-related. Why are we letting drug lords reap the profits rather than funding our public schools with the proceeds? As Prohibition and current conditions demonstrate, people will continue to use, so why not let them do so to a useful, civic-minded end?