Are You High?

By Mark David Blum, Esq.

A national survey found that, “Niagara County residents paid the nation's highest percentage of property taxes followed by Monroe, Onondaga, Wayne and Chautauqua counties. Fort Bend, Indiana is ranked sixth, and New York's Erie, Schenectady, Cayuga and Chemung counties round out the Top 10.” Here in Onondaga County, we are living in one of the least populated, least productive Counties in the United States and still pay the third highest property taxes in the Nation.

The county budget is a disaster. One of the biggest hogs at the tax trough is the criminal justice system. The Sheriffs Department, Jamesville, 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.

Lawmakers 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 the 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). 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.

This idea is not unique to me nor is it the battle cry of the pothead. 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, only the federal government enforced prohibition in New York.

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).

A directive from the County Legislature should issue to County government to ‘opt-out’ of prohibition. Stop arresting people for use and possession. Police and prosecutors can and should exercise their discretion against making an arrest. 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, 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. This forced morality is a luxury County taxpayers can no longer afford.

In addition to solving our tax woes, lawmakers likewise could end the ethnic cleansing underway in Onondaga County as a result of this same War on Drugs. Here are the hard data: Whether you agree with me or not, you cannot disagree with the cold reality.

Arrest rates and corresponding arrest ratios that were calculated for Onondaga County were then compared with statewide averages with a few nearby counties. … Specifically, the arrest rate ratios indicate that the chances of arrest for black residents in Onondaga County are substantially greater in Onondaga County than nearby counties or the state as a whole. … During the years of the study, the arrest rate ratios indicate that chances of being arrested for drug felonies or drug sales are 20 to 40 times greater for black residents.”

According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Statistics, arrest rates for black residents within New York State as a whole are about 4 to 5 times higher than that for white residents. … The unique nature of street drug markets in urban areas has sometimes been offered as an explanation of why minorities experience higher drug arrest rates than whites. Statistical evidence indicates that drug use patterns within these two racial groups are similar. However, the corresponding arrest rate ratios in Onondaga County are significantly higher than the arrest ratios in Erie or Monroe counties and also significantly higher than those for NY State as a whole. … These large differences in arrest rate ratios for Onondaga County have persisted over the time period included in this evaluation (1995-2004). This raises important questions, especially given the similar characteristics of the counties included in this assessment—Onondaga, Monroe, and Erie all have diverse urban, suburban, and rural communities.”

Rush Limbaugh, a man I absolutely detest on so many levels, however did say it best. “The solution is not to free the Blacks, but to arrest more White people.” Clearly there is no way that police and the State could handle the prosecution and incarceration of every single drug user, abuser, seller, buyer, transporter, and their support industries. More people would be in prison than there would be persons to guard them.

Something about the Drug War, the law itself, and the actions by police here in Upstate New York is causing tremendous loss of life and freedom. An entire generation lost; their spouses, children, and later release from prison drive millions onto welfare roles. They are shut out of social services, housing, education, and the right to vote. If the law was applied fairly, then the discussion would be different but it is not and we all pay the price.

The total cost, in human life, dollars, and common sense increases exponentially to where it has lost all connection to reality.

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