Last January I retired after four years as Wyoming’s ranking official with responsibility for drug treatment and prevention. Previously I chaired the Governor’s Advisory Board on Substance Abuse. I was reluctant to take a position former colleagues may find contrary to our years of hard work. But I’ve learned too much about the science of addiction and I believe too strongly in God’s grace to be silent now. A spiritual perspective gained through study, experience and prayer requires me to argue the time has come to end to the war on drugs.
I share British columnist Johann Hari’s view. “The proponents of the "war on drugs" are well-intentioned people who believe they are saving people from the nightmare of drug addiction and making the world safer. But this self-image has turned into a faith – and like all faiths, it can only be maintained by cultivating a deliberate blindness to the evidence.”
Americans took a misstep dogmatizing counter-drug efforts as a war. The war wreaked havoc on the spiritual foundations of families and communities as politicians, judges, cops and parents marched off to wage war against their own children. Harsh drug laws are followed by even harsher laws, public health concerns sidelined while mandatory sentences replace judicial discretion.
POW’s are taken at a rate of one every 19 seconds. Prisons overflow, new ones built, costs soar. If those imprisoned for drug violations were a state, it would be the 35th largest with more than 2 million inhabitants. The White House Drug Czar reports the 2010 federal tab was $15 billion. States appropriated another $25 billion.
As with any war, there’s been extensive collateral damage, e.g. erosion of constitutional rights, disparate impact on minorities, access to education denied for minor drug offenses, youth carrying criminal records that will long impact their futures and numerous regretful foreign policy choices. Families have been broken, children left in foster care, rendered more likely to follow parents into the corrections system. Some children are endangered while others endanger.
This quagmire created a drug-based economy characterized by extreme violence. Mexico, the most sensational example, will likely become a failed state in our lifetime, on our border. Current drug policy begets high demand begetting criminal enterprises worldwide anxious to control the lucrative US market.
Light at the end of this tunnel? In a recent poll 86% said “no.” The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration connects use of drugs with perceptions of how risky they are. It’s a clear indication what we’ve been doing, all we’ve spent, threats of jail sentences, haven’t brought this war nearer a conclusion. Today only a third of American teens perceive any risk in smoking marijuana. Less than half see risk in using cocaine. More than 40% think we’ve lied about the dangers of heroin use and half see no risk in trying LSD.
Proceeds from taxing drugs and licensing fees will provide a “peace dividend” fully funding treatment and prevention. A large body of evidence counters fears that ending prohibition will result in widespread addiction. Countries relaxing or eliminating criminal penalties show the rate unchanged. A certain percentage of people who experiment will always become addicted. The vast majority will not. When they do, let’s provide health care as we would for any other disease. When drug use leads to criminal violations, address those offenses using the research-based practices that have made drug courts in this community such a success in reducing recidivism.
The war on drugs has impacted America’s spiritual foundation as negatively as slavery and the historic cruelty perpetrated on Native Americans. The time has come, as it eventually did in Viet Nam, to end the hostilities, “bring the troops home” and to put the resources we’ve dedicated to war into treatment, health care and the restoration of lives.
Rev. Rodger McDaniel is pastor of Highlands Presbyterian Church of Cheyenne and the former head of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Division of the Wyoming Department of Health.