Vice Squad
Tuesday, July 27, 2004
The War on Drugs in Bloomington, IN

On Sunday, July 25, my local paper has initiated a three-part series on the war on drugs. Perhaps this was prompted in part by the fact (described in the first installment of the series) that drug arrests in Bloomington had gone up from 200-250 per year in the second half of 1990’s to almost 400 in 2003. (Bloomington has about 70,000 population, presumably not counting out-of-town students.) While most of the arrests during all these years have been for possession, the felony drug-dealing arrests have increased much more rapidly since 2000. Most, if not all, of this increase in arrests has been apparently due to stepped up enforcement. Interestingly, much of the cost of greater police resources devoted to drug enforcement has been paid for by federal grant money and sales of property seized in drug operations.

The second part of the series asks if the greater resources devoted to fighting the drug war have been worth it in terms of reduced crime. While it is true that violent crime reported to Bloomington Police Department has declined quite a bit (from about 150 cases per year in the late 1990’s to 69 in 2003) the role of the greater enforcement of drug laws in this trend is unclear. In fact, the article cites Peter Reuter of the RAND Corporation saying that he hadn’t heard of any scholarly finding linking increased cocaine (and presumably other drug-related) arrests to a reduction in violent crime. In fairness, the police do not claim any such proven link although they certainly hope it exists. The police do, however, suggest that the greater enforcement helps some of the drug users to reduce abuse. A narcotics detective at IU Police Department claimed that some people he had arrested thanked him later. (I wonder if they did so in person or by sending him a “Thank you” note.) Whether this is true or not, the only proponents of the “war” mentioned in either the first or the second article are the law enforcement personnel. Among the opponents, both articles cite Hal Pepinsky, a criminal justice professor at IU. One memorable quote says, “Making a war on people in order to save them doesn’t help.” Indeed, how many of the about 300 people arrested in Bloomington for drug possession in 2003 (about half of them for possession of marijuana) have felt that they had been helped by those arrests?

The final installment of the series talks about some of the costs of the war on drugs and presents the arguments of the local substance abuse treatment centers that the resources in the war on drugs are largely misdirected. It is estimated that keeping the nonviolent drug offenders in the prison system will cost the state of Indiana about $111 million. The amount spent by the state and federal government on the treatment of drug addicts is gong to be less than half of that. The article also mentions favorably the establishment of drug treatment courts that focus on treatment rather than incarceration. Since 1999 when such a court was established in Monroe County, in which Bloomington is located, the two year program for nonviolent, felony drug offenders has diverted 140 people from the system.

In general, the three installments create an impression that the drug war is not going too well (surprise, surprise!). Similarly, a brief editorial in today’s issue of the paper talks about the need for an adjustment of the “drug strategies.” The editorial calls for treating the nonviolent drug offenders “for their health issues” rather than imprisoning them and speaks against the system of mandatory penalties.

Unfortunately, neither the articles nor the editorial ask forcefully whether most of the nonviolent drug users require any attention from the state at all. For example, here is a striking description from one of the “profiles of former drug abusers” that accompany today’s article. He was first arrested for in 1992 after a raid of his home and imprisoned for five years, presumably for possession. As a result, his son “grew up without a father or mother during his teenage years.” In 2003, he was arrested again for felony drug possession. Meanwhile, the offender never had a record of any other crime or violence. And when he was out of prison he always had a job. Why was there any need to put the person in jail or even to force him to be treated for anything? I understand that sometimes ex ante punishments such as for speeding or drunk driving might be justified, but FIVE YEARS in prison just for possession without any other offenses? (Perhaps this is not quite like Bush's preventive war doctrine, but it comes pretty close and it is perpetrated on our own citizens.) Moreover, when drug-related violence is present, isn’t it often due at least in part to the policy of prohibition and not to the drugs themselves? And, of course, it would have been helpful if the article mentioned explicitly that the costs of the war on drugs in Indiana are much, much greater than the $111 million mentioned above. Still, it’s a good sign that our paper has decided at least to raise the issue about whether this war is a good policy. Let’s hope newspapers in other small Midwestern towns and elsewhere follow suit.

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