Get Onondaga County Off Drugs

By Mark David Blum, Esq.

Onondaga County is about to run almost $11 million in the red for the upcoming year. Government experts blame the fall in oil prices and subsequent reduced tax income as the primary reason. This is a huge deficit which gap will be filled by property taxpayers. Legislators offer laughable excuses that income did not meet projections. The bottom line is the County is poised to cut services and jobs, raise property taxes, and seek increased tax dollars from State and Federal governments. It appears County Government lost its’ sense of direction. This Republican dominated County leadership must be on some very good drugs to propose a budget deficit of $11 million.

One of this biggest tax hogs at the trough is the County justice system and the War on Drugs. The Sheriffs Department, Jamesville Pen, 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. In their main editorial of January 14, 2009, the Syracuse Newspapers called our drug laws, “the most unsuccessful criminal justice strategy in the state.” Clearly, the time has come for a serious and open investigation into this subject.

Onondaga County government must do the same type of analysis as did former 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 tens of millions of dollars could be salvaged and redirected toward more needy and productive programs.

This idea is not unique to New York. Back in 1918, New York State was blessed with a four-term governor and one-time presidential candidate named Al Smith. 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, the federal government did the only prohibition enforcement in New York.

I do not hope to change your attitudes toward drug use and drug abuse. For many people, their minds are made up one way or another. What I feel is necessary is for County government to realize that despite 35 years of open 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.

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 cut every single Department’s budget except the Department of Corrections, which realized an 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 I ask is an evaluation of the costs of enforcing the drug war here in Onondaga County. Look at the monies being spent in not only the criminal and civil justice systems, but also 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. 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. 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.

What I might recommend to our County Government is a directive to ‘opt-out’ of prohibition. 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 30 years ... for another 30 years and hoping for a different result is just insane.

But hey, don't take my word on it. Do the math.

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