Public Losing Its Stomach For Drug War

Public Losing Its Stomach For Drug War
Posted by FoM on December 20, 2000 at 06:44:18 PT
By Bill Wallace, Chronicle Staff Writer
Source: San Francisco Chronicle 
While the federal government continues to soldier on with its 30-year war on drugs, the U.S. public has gone increasingly AWOL. Popular support for the anti-drug campaign has eroded in recent years, and opinion polls show that a growing number of residents believe the effort has been ineffective. At the same time, a number of states have taken steps to decriminalize drug offenses -- sometimes in direct conflict with federal drug control policies. 
Perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of this shift in public opinion came this fall, when California voters overwhelmingly supported Proposition 36, a measure that weeds out drug abusers from the courts and jails, and channels them into less-expensive substance abuse treatment programs. Despite strong opposition by almost every prosecutor and law enforcement agency in the state, voters passed the controversial measure by a lopsided 2- to-1 ratio. The vote came only two years after an equally large majority voted to legalize the medical use of marijuana. And at the same time Californians were passing Proposition 36, voters in four other states -- Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts and Nevada -- were adopting their own measures aimed at decriminalizing drug offenses. "Americans are tired of wasting billions of dollars on a drug war that is not working, especially when clear pragmatic alternatives exist," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Lindesmith Center, a foundation based in New York that supports reform of the nation's drug control policies. In all, 27 states have laws on the books recognizing marijuana as an acceptable medical treatment for patients with certain types of illnesses. In addition, within the past decade, 17 states have passed measures intended to decriminalize various drug offenses. The primary reason for the growing antagonism toward the drug war is a recognition that the campaign has consumed a vast amount of governmental resources but has produced few measurable results. In the past 10 years, the federal government has spent $112 billion on anti- drug efforts, while state and local agencies have spent tens of billions more. Nearly a million kilos of cocaine and crack have been seized and almost 13 million people have been arrested. Yet drugs remain as available as ever -- so much so that prices have dropped dramatically. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a gram of 60 percent pure cocaine that cost $191.35 in 1986 went for less than a quarter of that in 1998. Despite the historically low price and ready availability, cocaine usage in the U.S. population has dropped sharply from the 5.7 million estimated users during the cocaine craze of the mid-1980s. Since 1992, the number of users has remained relatively stable at about 1.5 million. In addition, the violent crime wave associated with the initial appearance of crack cocaine in the early 1980s has ebbed, and homicides -- which reached an all-time high in 1993 -- also have dropped steadily since then. In fact, last year saw the lowest homicide rate since the '60s. Public awareness of those trends was reflected in the passage of Proposition 36, says San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan, one of the few law enforcement officers in California to endorse the measure. "All of the votes in recent years to reduce the penalties for marijuana usage, particularly in the Western states, all of that is part of the shift," Hallinan said. "There's no question that it's happening everywhere -- that people are beginning to re-examine the war on drugs . . . . It seems to me that people are increasingly convinced that drug addiction and drug abuse are primarily a medical problem, not a law enforcement problem." For much of the past 30 years -- and particularly during the crime spike of the late 1980s and early '90s -- public opinion overwhelmingly supported the get-tough approach to drugs. But in recent years the views of residents have shifted significantly. According to surveys by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, support for legalization of marijuana has nearly doubled since 1990, even though two-thirds of those polled believe that it should remain illegal. ""Support (for legalization) went up in the '70s and back down in the '80s,'' said Tom Smith, director of social survey for the university. ""But since 1990, it has been going up steadily  from 16 to 33 percent this year.'' "When you see a doubling of support for anything in a decade, that indicates a pretty substantial shift of public opinion about it." Gallup polls show similar changes. In a 1995 survey, Americans ranked illicit drugs as the No. 2 problem facing the country. In a similar Gallup survey three years later, drugs had dropped to fourth place. There has been a corresponding increase in the number of people who simply believe that the drug war has been ineffective. Note: Support grows in U.S. for decriminalization.E-mail Bill Wallace at: bwallace sfchronicle.comSource: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)Author: Bill Wallace, Chronicle Staff WriterPublished: Wednesday, December 20, 2000 Copyright: 2000 San Francisco ChronicleContact: chronletters Website: Article By Bill WallaceElection Results Show U.S. Tiring Of War on Drugs
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