The Casualties of the War on Drugs Have Faces

dove and stars
The face you see here is mine.

In future issues of this page, you'll see the faces of people who've been wounded far more seriously than I. However, in this first issue, I put my own face here, to make the point that we are all casualties in this senseless war, no matter who we are. I don't use illegal drugs. I've never been arrested for anything; I've never even gotten a speeding ticket, though I've been a licensed driver for 30 years. But I've still been hurt by the war on drugs, and here's a description of my wounds. They are your wounds, too.

The war has hurt us financially. A substantial part of our taxes goes directly to fund the war on drugs: law enforcement costs, trial costs, and incarceration of offenders. The indirect costs may be higher. We pay higher taxes in general, because of the war. The illegal drug trade is a multi-billion dollar untaxed industry. Because the drug lords do not pay taxes, you and I must make up the difference. And all of us suffer because the war has weakened America's economy. Thousands of otherwise productive citizens rot in jails, instead of making a contribution to the economy. Billions of dollars annually are siphoned from our economy by the drug lords and taken elsewhere. Our medical costs are higher because of the war. If drugs were legal, taxed commodities, those taxes could be used to defray the cost of treating people with drug addictions, but now much of the cost of treating these often indigent people is transferred to the hospital bills of people who can pay. The costs of insuring our cars and homes are higher, both because of the artificially inflated prices for illegal drugs (which cause drug-using thieves to steal far more than they would if drugs were legal) and because such thieves are released from jail early, to make room for otherwise-harmless drug offenders. There are many other, more subtle costs to us all.

The war is destroying the Bill of Rights. For almost 200 years the Bill of Rights protected Americans--to a degree citizens of other countries could only envy--from unnecessary government intrusion into their lives. But the war on drugs has resulted in such an erosion of personal liberty that it may already be too late to save our historic Constitutional protections. A number of our most basic rights as free citizens have been diminished or even obliterated. It's strange to think that many of the intolerable abuses of authority which caused the American colonialists to revolt against the crown are today being practiced by our own government. For example, the right to be secure in our homes against illegal search and seizure is gone, probably forever. In a practice which began as a way to deny drug kingpins the enjoyment of their ill-gotten gains, police organizations all over America routinely seize the assets of persons suspected of crimes. In many cases, these persons have not even been charged with any crime, let alone been convicted of any wrongdoing. And if you think you are not vulnerable to this unConstitutional practice because you have never had anything to do with illegal drugs, you are dead wrong. As is inevitable when government abuses of power are permitted to operate in even a limited arena, the practice has generalized. Civil forfeiture is now being used against persons suspected of crimes ranging from theft to wetland dredging.

Freedom of speech, the most essential right of a free people, has been attacked by various drug warriors, including Rep. Gerald B. Solomon, who has introduced a bill to revoke the non-profit status of any organization which disagrees with him on the morality of the war, and another bill to deny federal funds to any scientist or organization whose research might prove useful to those who want to end the war.

Conservative voters might be surprised to learn that the drug warriors have even attacked the 2nd Amendment guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms. Drug offenders found in possession of firearms at the time of their arrests are vulnerable to greatly-increased sentences, even if the firearm in evidence is a rusty old shotgun inherited from a parent and unfired for twenty years.

Cruel and unusual punishments have become commonplace. The infamous and absurd mandatory minimum laws have resulted in multi-year sentences for a number of first-time non-violent drug offenders. Particularly tragic are the sentences of those whose criminal acts were at best tangential to the actual "crimes"--one young woman who received a twenty year sentence did nothing worse than take a telephone message for her dealer boyfriend.

Recent Congressional action has attacked the 4th Amendment; which has heretofore protected Americans fron the abuse of warrantless and frivolous searches. If this legislation holds up in court, evidence obtained in warrantless searches will henceforward be usable in court. Again, the excuse for this attack upon the freedoms so many generations of Americans took for granted was, of course, the war on drugs.

The drug warriors show no signs of moderation in their pursuit of power. If the Constitution is to be saved, the war must somehow end.

The war has made us afraid. Any violent conflict engenders fear, in both combatants and bystanders. The war on drugs is no exception. And fear breeds anger and an acceleration of violence. Drug sellers are afraid of police, of competitors, of people who might try to take the large amounts of cash they're forced to carry. They respond by arming themselves and lashing out preemptively. The same can be said of police organizations, from the local city police to the Drug Enforcement Administration, to the FBI. Over the several decades the was has lasted, the police have become noticeably more brutal in their interactions with citizens. There was a time when most law-abiding Americans saw the police as both helpful and civil, and as admirable upholders of just laws. This is no longer the case; even the most law-abiding of citizens must now look on the police with justifiable wariness. As with many aspects of the drug war, the brutality and irresponsibility associated with drug warriors has generalized to law enforcement as a whole. The people who died at Waco and Ruby Ridge, and in many less-publicized cases were not convicted of any crimes, but that did not save them.

Most tragic of all are the innocent bystanders who have been made afraid--with good reason--by the war. In many poor neighborhoods, it is actively dangerous to go outside one's house, and not completely safe to stay inside. A number of young children have been killed in crossfires between rival gangs, for example. The enormous profits produced by the illegal drug trade are the reason these gangs are now armed with automatic weapons instead of the switchblades and zipguns that formerly characterized gang warfare. The firepower acquired by these criminal gangs is a direct and deadly result of the war on drugs.

Our faith in the goodness and rationality of our government has been mortally wounded. Very few Americans still trust the government, and even fewer trust our legal institutions. The war on drugs has corrupted the justice system from top to bottom. No rational person would believe that the massive amounts of drugs imported into this country could safely reach their destinations without the active collusion of numerous government officials--and this view is constantly borne out by the arrests of police officers, Customs officials, and other government functionaries for drug-related corruption.

The selective enforcement of the drug laws breed contempt for our judicial institutions and disillusionment with the government. Americans are bombarded daily by revelations of drug use among movie stars, musicians, and sports figures, but it's extremely rare for any of these high-profile offenders to go to prison. Our two most powerful politicians, President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich have both admitted to using illegal drugs, but neither ever went to jail, unlike thousands of others who were less fortunate. Were drug use a real crime, like murder or rape, would these two ever have been elected to the positions they now hold? And yet, many non-violent, first-time drug offenders are serving longer sentences than many murderers and rapists, who are often given early release to make room for these relatively harmless "criminals." The foolishness and venality of this policy serves only to further convince Americans that their government is run by amoral idiots. This dangerous and dispiriting perception is one of the worst societal consequences of the war on drugs.

Are we winning the war? Perhaps many Americans would find these casualties acceptable, if we were winning the war against drug abuse. But we aren't. The most reliable barometer of abuse, drug-related emergency room admissions, indicates that we are not stopping people from using drugs. The falling street prices of drugs such as crack and heroin show that our expensive and divisive efforts to reduce the supply of drugs have failed. No matter how much we spend, no matter how many people we put in jail, things just seem to get worse, and our politicians seem unwilling to even consider any other approach to reducing the harmful effects of drug abuse.

We're losing the war, but apparently our leaders intend for us to fight on until we've shed our last drop of blood. There must be a better way.

If you know of a prisoner of the war who would like to have his or her picture and case history featured here, please write to me at:

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