We live in a nation awash with illegal drugs. A marijuana arrest is made every 42 seconds. We are fighting a "war on drugs" that is a huge drain of taxpayers' money, but has produced no evidence that it reduces use of illegal recreational drugs. How did we get to this point?
In 1971, President Richard Nixon denounced drug use as "public enemy No. 1 and established a "blue ribbon commission" under the chairmanship of former Pennsylvania governor Raymond P. Shafer with a broad mandate to research and report on the issue of marijuana (spelled "marihuana"). The result, the US National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, immediately set up more than 50 projects, from a study of the drug's effects on people to a survey of law enforcement in six metropolitan jurisdictions.
Nixon himself was outspoken in his statement that the nation needed a "rational and equitable public response to the use and misuse of drugs" and "an independent nonpartisan appraisal of the nature of marihuana and the consequences of its use."
He also wanted "a similar appraisal of the abuse of all drugs, and for appropriate recommendations for public policy."
A year later, the commission released its recommendation: Congress should amend federal law to decriminalize the personal use and possession of cannabis and the casual distribution of small amounts for no or insignificant remuneration, and state legislatures should do the same.
They also found that marijuana didn't meet the criteria of a Schedule I controlled substance, which would make it, like heroin, an illegal substance lacking any medicinal value.
The commission concluded: "criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in an effort to discourage use. … The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior."
Since the report ran counter to his personal beliefs, Nixon refused to read it, shelved it, categorized marijuana as a Schedule I substance and declared an "all out war" on drugs.
Since then, some 21.5 million Americans have been arrested and prosecuted for violation of laws against marijuana. More than 80 percent of those arrested were charged only with possession, not sale. The cost of Nixon's "war on drugs," which intensified under Reagan and continues to this day, now exceeds $1 trillion.
The war on drugs has failed. It has had no significant effect on the use and availability of drugs.
Over 42 percent of this country's adults have tried marijuana. Between 1998 and 2008, marijuana use increased by 8.5 percent, cocaine by 27 percent, and opiates by 34.5 percent.
According to a recent United Nations study, the United States has the highest per capita use of marijuana and cocaine in the world.
As of 2008, drug overdoses were the second leading cause of accidental death in this country.
Heroin overdose deaths increased from 1,725 in 1999 to 3,278 in 2009. In 1980 approximately 50,000 citizens were in prison for drug offenses.
Today that figure exceeds half a million, mostly for simple possession. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners.
A recent article headlined, "The War on Drugs is Over, Drugs Won." It's time we admitted this and accepted and acted upon the recommendations of the Shafer Report.
Based on the experience of others, we could expect less drug use and increased tax revenue, a "win-win" situation. There are powerful interests, however, that don't want this to happen, but that's a subject for another article.
Harry Peck is a retired attorney who lives near Tumacacori. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org