Nearly everyone seems to agree that the war on drugs has been a disaster, but little progress in ending it has been made. Many mainstream figures, including current drug czar (and retired four-star general) Barry McCaffrey and former drug czar (and New York City Police Commissioner) Lee Brown, have questioned the overreliance on incarceration. Yet more than 400,000 people are behind bars for drug offenses. The federal government has spent more than $110 billion fighting drugs since 1988, and the proposed budget for the next fiscal year is $17.8 billion. Treatment programs, meanwhile, are still unavailable for almost two-thirds of the people who want them (though treatment is always available for those who can pay outright or have insurance coverage).
Why has reform been so slow in coming?
One reason is that the opposition is not as organized or cohesive as it could be. The drug policy reform movement comprises a broad spectrum of advocacy groups whose objectives are often at odds. Some advocates of legalization, for instance, want to expand the right to privacy to protect drug use, while drug treatment providers emphasize abstinence. Some treatment providers, moreover, support drug courts as a means of sending offenders to treatment instead of prison, whereas criminal justice reform groups question whether these courts expand the net of the criminal justice system by bringing in defendants who wouldn’t have been prosecuted in the first place.
Drug reform advocates don’t have a single defining issue, in the way that desegregation helped focus the civil rights movement. Indeed, the drug issues that attract mainstream support are frequently viewed as unrelated to the drug policy debate. One example is the campaign, led by libertarians, for asset-forfeiture reform in Congress, which has attracted a broad coalition in large part because the seizure of assets can be framed as a property issue. And successful campaigns in six states to legalize the medical use of marijuana have appealed to the voters’ compassion for sick and dying patients, not to their interest in drug policy.
For the most part, even when it has seemed that government agencies are on their side, reformers have been unable to overcome political opposition. In 1995, for example, the US Sentencing Commission–an independent, permanent agency established by Congress to develop a detailed system of sentencing guidelines for federal criminal offenses–released a report recommending an end to the racially discriminatory 100-to-1 disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine. The 200-page report was full of evidence documenting the injustice of this disparity, and the proposed change was embraced by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Congressional Black Caucus and criminal justice and drug policy reform groups. Nonetheless, the White House submitted draft legislation to Congress to keep the disparity intact. For an Administration determined to take back the crime issue from the Republicans, the crack/powder debate was an opportunity to appear tough on crime. The Sentencing Commission did little to make its recommendations understood because it was not set up to engage in advocacy. The commissioners themselves acknowledged that they had failed to promote their findings effectively because they believed that “good government would carry the day.”
At the federal level, most reform efforts are reactive, attacking one bad bill after another–in large part because many horrendous bills are introduced. Reformers have pushed for more dollars for treatment, but under the current budget arrangement drug treatment is forced to compete with other important health issues. In order to have an impact, reformers need a long-range strategy that addresses the political obstacles to reform and alters the very structure of the drug budget.