This country is in serious debt. Our future depends not only on how much we spend but on how wisely we spend. One of our greatest national money holes and policy failures has been our drug policy.
The state and federal costs of the drug war, as we wage it, are approximately $75 billion per year. When collateral costs of drug use are included, such as treatment for drug-addicted babies, foster care payments, crime and accidents, the cost is closer to $500 billion. Our best efforts have failed and the U.S. has the highest drug use rates in the developed world.
The drug war drives up the profitability of dealing drugs, allowing cartels to become very wealthy and powerful. The drug war in Mexico cost the lives of more than 16,000 people in 2011 alone and displaced upward of 1.6 million. Violence and economic instability has placed additional pressure on Mexican citizens to immigrate to the U.S. both illegally and legally.
It's better to live in the U.S. as an illegal immigrant than live in fear of drug cartels made rich by American drug policy and armed by the inability of the U.S. and Mexico to close the borders to gun traffic.
The drug war also exacts a price from our national soul. The United States imprisons 725 people out of every 100,000. By comparison, China imprisons 218 people per 100,000. The U.S. has only 5 percent of the world's population yet 1 in 4 prisoners on earth are in American prisons.
This is a scary statistic coming from the land of liberty. The rise of prison privatization makes this statistic even more worrisome. Privatizing prisons gives corporations an incentive to lobby for policies that send people to jail.
So should we make drugs legal? We could consider that. I doubt that option is politically viable. Even California voters, a state with a "medical" marijuana system, rejected legalizing marijuana. There is also a reasonable concern that we could replace drug crime with an even higher drug addiction rate.
In asking whether or not we should legalize drugs we could look at what some European nations have done. Portugal has no criminal penalties for drug possession. Portugal once had the highest heroin use in Europe. It stopped imprisoning people for drug possession and instead spent the money on rehab and counseling.
Portugal has seen a significant drop in drug use as addicts are no longer afraid to seek treatment. Presently, it even has the lowest lifetime marijuana use rates for persons over age 15 in the European Union.
So is legalization the answer? Not necessarily. All drugs are illegal in Sweden and drug laws are strictly enforced. Sweden, too, has very low rates of drug use and addiction. Sweden, however, avoids sending people to jail for drug use. Instead people are referred for drug counseling, which can be mandatory.
In Sweden people who have serious addiction and or mental health problems can be taken off the street and put into treatment. This helps protect the person, any real or potential children, and society.
In the United States we give them a meal at Thanksgiving and occasionally they are given a meal by a homeless ministry. Charity is wonderful, but these people need intense treatment not a Sunday meal. Hunger is just a symptom; addiction or mental illness is the disease. The needs of the severely addicted and or mentally ill are often beyond the abilities of local churches to handle.
Many people consider helping the ill outside the responsibility of government. People with extreme addictions are slowly committing suicide. Surely we can use public resources to prevent a suicide in process.
Spending money wisely can save money. Portugal and Sweden drastically reduced the financial and emotional burdens that drugs placed on their societies.
To get the right answer we have to ask the right questions. The question shouldn't be if drugs should be legal. Instead we must answer how to reduce drug abuse.
Sweden and Portugal's answer was simple; don't use jails and harsh punishments to treat the symptoms of drug use. Instead, use counseling to treat the disease of addiction itself.
Brandon Givens is a Hall County resident and regular columnist.