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The “counterproductive” war on drugs was the subject of a Columbia Law School Federalist Society lunch lecture by Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, held on Monday, Nov. 19.
Lynch said that he would like to see drug laws mirror the laws that regulate alcohol consumption. “You’d make them legal for adults and illegal for minors, and concentrate your government efforts on discouraging kids from using,” he said. “You’d treat drug addiction like we treat alcohol addiction, as a medical problem and not a criminal one. But, of course, you would still hold each person responsible for their actions.”
In Washington, elected officials confine their discussion of the nation’s drug policy to two areas, Lynch said. “How much more money are we going to spend on the drug war next year, and where are we going to put it?”
Unfortunately, officials never tackle the problem holistically or critically examine the results of their policies, on which the federal government spends $20 billion each year, continued Lynch, editor of “After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to Drug Policies in the 21st Century.”
Lynch catalogued some of the results of the nation’s current strategy of criminalizing drugs: Every 20 seconds a drug arrest is made in the United States; a new prison is built each week; and the United States incarcerates 2 million of its citizens, more than any other nation.
“No one can say we haven’t been persistent, but what are the results?” Lynch asked. “It hasn’t really affected supply or demand. The authorities can’t even keep drugs out of prison.”
But squandering resources is not the only problem with the drug war, Lynch said.
“The war also diminishes our public safety. Criminalization has produced a dangerous black market, with different gangs fighting over turf and innocent bystanders getting killed in the crossfire.”
He said that this violence was far more deadly than any crimes that would be committed by people on drugs — one of the arguments people make against legalization. “It’s not like Al Capone ordered people killed because he was drunk,” Lynch said. Also, the resources spent prosecuting drug offenses distract police and prosecutors from other crimes. “And with mandatory minimum sentencing for a lot of drug crimes, when prisons get overcrowded you have wardens that are forced to release violent offenders because they don’t have the discretion to release non-violent drug offenders,” Lynch added.
The Cato Institute, Lynch’s employer, is a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.