"If you can't control drug use in a maximum security prison, how could you control drugs in a free society?" That question, posed by former New York prisoner Tony Papa in Breaking the Taboo, a new film about the global drug war, hit me like a ton of bricks. His simple question captured what I believe is the terminal stupidity of our government's 40-year War on Drugs.
Papa was sentenced to a 15-to-life sentence for simply passing an envelope containing four ounces of cocaine in exchange for $500 -- his first and only offense. Were his case an anomaly, perhaps only his family would care. But there are roughly 500,000 people locked up in cages today because of the drug war. Many are nonviolent, first offenders and suffer from addiction, but our government's sledgehammer approach does not consider such distinctions relevant. Everyone goes to jail -- and we pay billions to keep them there.
I do not use drugs myself, but I have long believed that people should be free to eat, drink, or ingest whatever they want so long as they do not get behind the wheel or do anything else that can endanger others. To me, it's simply a matter of personal freedom. Our government's view has been the exact opposite. During the long-running drug war, our laws have not merely eliminated an individual's freedom to use drugs, they've punished users with years of total deprivation of liberty, i.e., incarceration.
The failure of the Drug War is both clear and tragic. The United States is home to just five percent of the world's population but fully 25 percent of the world's prison population. As former U.S. Senator Jim Webb told me a couple of years ago, "What these numbers would seem to indicate is that either we have the most evil people in the world or else we are doing something very wrong." Clearly we are doing something wrong. We lock up our citizens at five times the rate of the rest of the world even though our crime rates are similar. This mass incarceration epidemic has torn apart countless families, and its impact has been disproportionately severe on minorities, a reality that should offend anyone who cares about civil rights.
I decided a couple of decades ago that I had to get involved. I began working with some of our nation's leading criminal justice reform groups to end the drug war. During this time, I also supported dozens of successful federal and state clemency applications, including that of celebrated musician and composer John Forte. After 20 years of slow progress, I believe we have arrived at a watershed moment.
The moment began last November when the residents of both Colorado and Washington State voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana among adults. For years, drug war proponents dismissed those of us fighting for sensible drug laws as a vocal and permanent minority. No longer. Majorities in both states proved that the American people are tired of failed drug war policies and ready to try a new approach.
We must seize this moment. I'm writing in the hope that you will join me and other industry figures such as Richard Branson, Russell Simmons, Sting, John Legend and Willie Nelson in supporting this cause. We recognize that many of our industry's greatest stars and executives have been involved with drugs, especially in their youth, and could have been sent to prison for 15 years (or longer) like Tony Papa. What would our business look like today had we been deprived of these creative geniuses?
We know that the War on Drugs has failed. Drugs are cheaper and more readily available than they were when this misguided war started some 30 years ago. Even staunch law enforcement allies, such as former federal prosecutor and current Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, have declared the War on Drugs a failure and proposed more cost-effective and humane ways to reduce drug abuse and crime.
Leaders in other nations have also demonstrated that different approaches can work. In Portugal, for example, policymakers found that decriminalizing small amounts of drugs for personal use resulted in a reduced demand for illicit drugs, fewer arrests, and fewer prisoners. It has been such a successful model for more than a decade that other countries in Europe and Latin America have begun to follow in Portugal's footsteps.
The time has arrived for the American public to demand bold drug reform. If federal and state lawmakers do not listen, the voters should take the matter in their own hands, as the residents of Washington and Colorado recently did.
In addition to being President of Lava Records, Jason Flom is an outspoken advocate for overall reform of our criminal-justice system. He serves on the boards of several organizations fighting for the cause, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums, The Drug Policy Alliance, The Legal Action Center, and The Innocence Project.