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Another War America Cannot Afford

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Senator Obama swept into national prominence with his prescient view that an American war in Iraq was one we should not start and could not win. By 2007, years of carnage in Iraq had taught many Americans how foolish the Bush Administration's promises of a simple and flower-strewn victory were. Now President Obama has honored his campaign pledge, committing to a substantial withdrawal of American troops from Iraq within 18 months. But there is another drawn-out war America is embroiled in -- a war that was launched with rosy expectations; a war that has led to unacceptable burdens for our country. It is well past time to withdraw from this war as well.

When President Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971, American prisons held fewer than 200,000 people and the prison population was declining.

Back then, prison was seen as a last resort: mandatory minimums had been repealed, prisons were not-for-profit and less than 1 in every 1000 American adults was behind bars, few for drug crimes. This wasn't because drugs didn't exist, of course, or because Presidents like Eisenhower and Truman were soft on crime, but rather because the threat of non-violent marijuana smokers to American security was deemed unworthy of a "War".

Today, every 17 seconds an American is arrested for a drug-related crime. That's about as long as it will take you to read this sentence.

There are now more than 2.3 million Americans in jail or prison. In fact, the United States now has the world's largest prison population.

China is second, with only 1.5 million people in jail. That's right, although the American population is roughly 300 million and China's is over 1.3 billion, we have nearly 50% more people in prison than China.

Since the early days of Nixon, we have gone from having less than one adult in prison per thousand to having roughly one adult in prison per hundred, more than 500% of the global median. Who says we don't lead the world in anything anymore?

Not all of the folks in prison are there for drug offenses, of course, but more than half of federal prisoners are locked up in connection with nonviolent drug offenses, frequently for mere possession. With profits from drug crime high enough to destabilize important democracies like Mexico and fuel terrorist groups like Afghanistan's Taliban, it will surprise no one that many non-drug crimes are themselves fueled by the profits of the drug business. Despite these labeling challenges, the Federal Bureau of Prisons lists more than 50% of its convicts as drug violators. Sweeping up explosives, arson, and weapons violations into a single category makes up the next-largest Bureau of Prisons grouping, at 15% of convicts. There can be no doubt that the War on Drugs consumes an outlandish percentage of federal and state law enforcement resources.

The expense of this almost 40-year war is horrendous any way you measure it. Millions upon millions of American adults have been convicted as felons. Millions of American children have been left in single parent destitution as their fathers, and increasingly mothers, are locked up. Studies suggest as many as 70% of these children are destined to become prisoners themselves.

Thirteen million Americans live among us as convicted felons right now, and federal and state restrictions on their housing, medical, education and voting rights have greatly diminished their job prospects and their standing in civil society. As convicted felons, their ability to legally earn a living is greatly reduced, and so is their ability to pay taxes.

Not only is this a tremendous burden on their families, it is a burden on all American taxpayers.

It's difficult to measure the full economic costs of the War on Drugs, as it has been for the War in Iraq, but even a simple accounting suggests that they are staggering. The costs of hiring, training, equipping, paying and providing facilities and pensions for an appropriate portion of police and drug task force officers must be added to the costs of doing the same for corrections officers and management -- as well as the federally funded DEA. The costs of supporting struggling democracies like those in Columbia, Mexico and Afghanistan would surely be less if they weren't battling narco-fueled violence. The costs of the full drug war infrastructure run well north of $40 billion a year, with expenditures on corrections now outstripping spending on higher education in some states. Is there any wonder that cries to legalize and tax marijuana are now beginning to come from state legislators, and even law enforcement officers?

Decriminalization of all drugs is not the answer. We all know that drugs can be a scourge, as we know that other addictive substances wreak havoc in our society. Still, 76% of Americans polled by Zogby in September 2008 believe that the War on Drugs is a costly failure, and most believe that policies of narrowly targeted illegality, education and treatment should replace it.

Prohibition was repealed during the Depression of the 1930s, as the costs of enforcing draconian anti-alcohol laws became too expensive for society to bear. Today we have laws limiting alcohol use, tax revenues that result from its legal sale and a virtual elimination of violence resulting from its black-market distribution. With our economy staggering and the social, financial and strategic costs of our failed drug policies mounting, it is time for President Obama to bring an end to this ill-conceived "War". The active search for peace with principle must begin.

Bill Haney is the writer and producer of American Violet, a film based on the true story of an innocent woman arrested in a drug raid. Samuel Goldwyn Films will release the film across the country this month.

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