Another nail in the prohibition coffin?

The Washington Post has an interesting opinion piece by Peter Moskos showing an alternative system to our drug war.

As a police officer, I responded when citizens called 911 to report drug dealing. Those calls didn’t tell me much, though, because I already knew the drug corners. And what could I do? When a police car pulls up to a drug corner, the corner pulls back. Dealers, friends, addicts and lookouts walk slowly away…

But soon enough I’d have to answer another 911 call for drugs. And when I left, the crew would reconvene. One of my partners put it succinctly: “We can’t do anything. Drugs were here before I was born, and they’re going to be here after I die. All they pay us to do is herd junkies.

As I’ve said many, many times, that’s a function of our current law enforcement regime.  Departments (and officers) are rewarded for making arrests and seizures of illegal material.  The easiest people to arrest are drug users, who are committing a crime by possessing and using drugs as well as the numerous crimes of opportunity they engage in to acquire more drugs so they overwhelmingly are the ones who get arrested.

But, arrests shouldn’t be an end in themselves.  The goal should be reduced crime and increased public safety.  Making arrests the only tool we use to get there would be like…using military force to solve every diplomatic problem we encounter.

Without declaring a war, authorities there have managed to lower addiction rates, limit use and save lives. The United States, by contrast, spends $50 billion a year on its war on drugs and leads the world in illegal drug use, with millions of Americans regularly using marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy.

In Amsterdam, the red-light district is the oldest and most notorious neighborhood. Two picturesque canals frame countless small pedestrian alleyways lined with legal prostitutes, bars, porn stores and coffee shops. In 2008, I visited the local police station and asked about the neighborhood’s problems. I laughed when I heard that dealers of fake drugs were the biggest police issue — but it’s true. If fake-drug dealers are the worst problem in the red-light district, clearly somebody is doing something right.

The results are telling. In America, 37 percent of adults have tried marijuana; in the Netherlands the figure is 17 percent. Heroin usage rates are three times higher in the United States than in the Netherlands. Crystal meth, so destructive here, is almost nonexistent there. By any standard — drug usage rates, addiction, homicides, incarceration and dollars spent — America has lost the war on drugs.

Now, I’ve talked to people who give me the old “Yeah, but that wouldn’t work here.  Our population is different.”  Like all those windmills and wooden shoes makes a kindlier, gentler breed of criminal.  I’m not sure that’s it at all, however and suspect that it might have a lot more to do with all of the unexamined assumptions we have about crime, criminals and deterrence.  Of course, it’d be nice to actually try an alternate approach to see if it works without having to worry about a bunch of yahoos screeching about how we’re just coddling criminals.

But that, in itself, is a telling response.  I wonder if crime prevention figures into how most people think about criminal justice or if crime punishment is more important.

Still, the fact that these sorts of discussions are happening more frequently is a good sign.  maybe we can get away from this hamster on a wheel drug war and start the serious work of making our neighborhoods, towns and cities safer.  As Moskos says about the Dutch:

Police in the Netherlands are not involved in a drug war; they’re too busy doing real police work.

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