By Mark David Blum, Esq.
Rumor has it that America has just elected Barak O’Bama as President-elect. This is in and of itself a monumental event beyond all comprehension. After all, in my life time, which spanned Jim Crow and pre-1964 Civil Rights Act, has come to a point where a Black man has been elected to the White House. I am both flabbergasted and elated. The issue is not about his race but rather that being Black did not hinder his campaign. Other reasons made his candidacy.
A couple of days after election day, I met up with leaders of the Republican Party in a nearby county for “wings and beer”. Since I don’t do beer, I stuck with my Black Label. Also I got a photograph of one of them wearing an O’Bama for President baseball cap I had stuffed in my briefcase. I am going to save it for an October surprise. During our conversation, the subject of upcoming elections was on the table and while ideas were knocked around the table, I told them what would be my platform should I be elected to Office in the Executive Branch.
Speaking hypothetically about being D.A., I said my office would organize priorities. Folks who did harm to persons or property would get my undivided attention. People who did no harm to anyone but themselves would be far down the scale of priorities. Specifically, I said I would prosecute jaywalkers before I would prosecute drug possession cases.
As fast as the words came out of my mouth, I was quickly forewarned by all at the table that I should keep that idea to myself until after I am elected. I was dead serious in retort when I suggested that each of them do the same thing; include ‘getting out of the drug war’ as part of their platform. The issue needs to be approached from a cost benefit analysis. Let the churches save people’s souls. We the taxpayer need our funds diverted elsewhere.
Rolling up my sleeves and slicing through another shot and a mouthful, I shared with them the Onondaga County experience. So we are all on the same page, in Onondaga County, only the actual drug itself is counted in prosecution; notwithstanding police charge for the full weight of everything seized. Also in Onondaga County, our Chief Administrative Judge has encouraged County Court judges to divert sentencings to State prison so as to reduce the burden on the local jail system. the biggest hogs at the tax trough is the criminal justice system. The County jail, the Justice Center, the District Attorney’s Office, the Probation Department, the Assigned Counsel Program, the Court system, Drug Courts, and the myriad of related agencies and services are among the primary consumers of County tax dollars. Estimates run into the tens of millions of dollars being spent by just one County on just one failed policy
Fiscal conservative Candidates should do the same type of analysis as did former Syracuse City Auditor, Minch Lewis. In doing so, the County would realize that the overwhelming and chief cost to all the County criminal and civil justice agencies is the enforcement of Prohibition. If County managers were to sit down and isolate the dollars being spent on a failed policy, I am confident millions of dollars could be salvaged and redirected toward more needy and productive programs. Nationally, local police spending represented 31.1% of the Nation's total justice expenditure, and State corrections accounted for the second largest portion, 23.7%." (Gifford, Sidra Lea, US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Justice Expenditure and Employment in the United States, 1999, Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, February 2002, p. 4).
City Auditor Lewis discovered at least 1/3 of the Syracuse Police Department budget (more than $10 million of $30 million total) was being spent on just drug law enforcement. Any candidate for any office, be it D.A. or Sheriff or County Executive or County Legislature, should all take a serious look following New York’s former Governor Al Smith. Back in 1918, New York State was blessed with a four-term governor and one-time presidential candidate during the era of alcohol prohibition. Governor Smith realized the futility and excessive costs of enforcing this national policy and concluded that New York was not going to participate. The governor refused to enforce the prohibition laws in New York; by not providing State police or State agencies the power to participate. In the end, only the federal government enforced prohibition in New York.
The new face of the New Republican party has to be one of Libertarian liberty and fiscal conservatism. Applauding as I do the current President-elect, at the same time I cast a wary eye toward spending. There is not a lot of hope that change is going to come to the federal debt. New York’s current governor shouted out for ideas how to cut the State budget when the idea is staring him right in the face.
I do not hope to change your attitudes toward drug use and drug abuse. “Use” is not abuse and even abuse and addiction are medical and educational issues; not criminal justice issues. “Use” is a moral question and for many, their minds are made up one way or another. Despite more than 35 years and all those dollars spent, the criminal justice model is proven as not the route.
What I feel is necessary is for the County to realize that despite the years of warfare against Americans, billions of dollars being spent, millions of people imprisoned, use remains constant. More than 108.25 million Americans aged 12 or over (46% of the US population aged 12 and over) have used an illicit drug at least once in their lifetimes. (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, US Department of Health and Human Services, Results from the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, Rockville, MD: Office of Applied Studies, Sept. 2003, p. 199, Table H.1 & p. 200, Table H.2). Also, according to the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 35.1 million Americans aged 12 or over (14.9% of the US population aged 12 and over) had used an illicit drug during the previous year. (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, US Department of Health and Human Services, Results from the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, Rockville, MD: Office of Applied Studies, Sept. 2003, p. 199, Table H.7 & p. 205).
Prohibition does not work and its social and economic costs are staggering. For example: According to the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, federal spending on the drug war in 2001 totaled $18.095 Billion, rising to $18.822 Billion in 2002 and $19.179 Billion for 2003. (Office of National Drug Control Policy, "National Drug Control Strategy: FY 2003 Budget Summary", Washington, DC: Office of the President, February 2002, Table 2, p. 6). Further, the RAND Corporation study found that additional domestic law enforcement efforts cost 15 times as much as treatment to achieve the same reduction in societal costs. (Rydell, C.P. & Everingham, S.S., Controlling Cocaine, Prepared for the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the United States Army, Santa Monica, CA: Drug Policy Research Center, RAND Corporation, 1994, p. xvi). From what I understand, New York’s last budget cut every single Department’s budget except the Department of Corrections which realized a 3% increase in funding.
Of course, changing our laws is a legislative act required of the State and Federal houses. I have no confidence that either of these two bodies will change the laws; though, hope always springs eternal. There is too much political special interest from police and prison guard unions whose incomes, retirement plans, vacation homes, and children’s education would be jeopardized if there was a change in policy. The pharmaceutical industry has a huge financial investment in maintaining the status quo. Even your income and mine is partially dependent on the continuation of this farce.
Up until recently, I have tried to make my point to end prohibition by discussing the human impact. The concerns I had over the human toll of incarceration, loss of constitutional protections through the courts’ “drug exception” to the 4th Amendment, and the concept of a “war” against Americans never seemed to have an impact. The problem is that people just do not care about human costs. Shifting the analysis to the financial costs of prohibition makes it all the more obvious that something has to be changed or we are going to continue our downward spiral of higher taxes and reduced services.
What lawmakers must consider recommend in their next budget is an allocation for an evaluation of the costs of enforcing the drug war here in Onondaga County. Take a hard look at the monies being spent in not only the criminal and civil justice systems. Also include analysis of the financial impact upon medicare, unemployment, social services, welfare, and the rest of the County’s agencies.
No, I do not advocate the use of drugs. Drugs are bad. Do not do drugs. But, as the empirical data reveals, drug use is going to continue in society. People are going to choose to live their lives and for the most part, manage to do so without any negative impact upon society. A drug user is not a drug abuser any more than an alcohol drinker is an alcoholic. The relative percentage of each defeats the argument that all drug users are abusers. While a change in policy may yield a higher percentage of drug abusers (a fact wholly disputed by experts), nevertheless, the costs of treatment are substantially lower than the costs of enforcement. Consider that domestic enforcement costs 4 times as much as treatment for a given amount of user reduction, 7 times as much for consumption reduction, and 15 times as much for societal cost reduction. (Rydell, C.P. & Everingham, S.S., Controlling Cocaine, Prepared for the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the United States Army, Santa Monica, CA: Drug Policy Research Center, RAND Corporation, 1994, p. xvi). According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, the cost of proven treatment for inmates, accompanied by education, job training and health care, would average about $6,500 per inmate. For each inmate that becomes a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen, the economic benefit is $68,800. Even if only one in 10 inmates became a law-abiding citizen after this investment, there would still be a net social gain of $3,800. (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, Behind Bars: Substance Abuse and America's Prison Population, New York, NY: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, January 8, 1998, Foreword by Joseph Califano). It has also been shown that treatment decreased welfare use by 10.7% and increased employment by 18.7% after one year, according to the 1996 National Treatment Improvement Evaluation Study. (Center for Substance Abuse and Treatment, National Treatment Improvement Evaluation Study, Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1996, p. 11).
I leave you with this final thought as you ponder that all ‘Wars’ have to come to an end. If you truly believe the War on Drugs is going to end with 100% use-free America, thirty five years of evidence has mounted to show demand is always going to be there and you cannot arrest your way out of the nation’s drug problem. At the same time, we find that we cannot keep drugs or cell phones out of our nation’s prisons. If we cannot keep such contraband out of prisons, how will we ever keep it out of a free society?
It is time to end the War. The next generation of candidates for office requires the foresight to find an exit strategy for this War on Drugs. It is the fiscally correct thing to do.
Stop arresting people for use and possession. Stop throwing people out of their homes and jobs. Stop denying people the benefit of medical attention or job training or welfare because of a drug conviction or positive drug test. Let the federal agencies come in and enforce the drug laws. Call the State Police when a felony drug arrest is made and let the State pay the cost of prosecution and maintenance. Disband the drug task forces. Redirect the monies toward the productive citizens of the County.
No Sir, we cannot change the world single-handedly. Yet, doing what we have been unsuccessfully doing for the past half century, for another 50 and hope for a different result, is just insane.
I stand ready to help. Just ask.