Of the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated, about 1.95 million, or 85 percent of them, are there on account of drug charges. And about a third of the remaining are incarcerated for committing crimes while under the influence of drugs. This is according to Wikipedia and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
This is a huge and serious problem — which is not only a problem of the United States, but is an important international problem that is caused primarily by the U.S. It is probably the most important sociological problem of all; much more important than that of job creation, a problem that economists say is insolvable and one which no politician will influence. Yet, it is completely ignored by all politicians.
There seems to be a solution worthy of discussion. Why not let the government supervise and legitimatize the importation and distribution of all drugs?
I can hear the screams of agony now. This would increase the size of government and allow it to participate in an immoral activity. Well, I argue that the government is involved at the moment to a much greater extent for the incarceration of these individuals. We must not only furnish guards, administrators of prisons and social workers for them, but we must furnish them with food, clothing, medical and dental services, and even funerary services sometimes. All of this is extremely expensive — I have heard as much as $90,000 per inmate. I think that is extreme, but it must be above $50,000.
It would be cheaper not to incarcerate them, but force them to consider rehabilitation and reform. I realize that, in most cases, reform and rehabilitation is impractical — but it is more reasonable to treat drug addiction as the sickness it is and not as a crime requiring automatic incarceration.
By legitimatizing the importation of drugs, the growing of the source of those drugs (e.g., cocaine and opium) would also become legitimatized, thereby freeing up thousands, perhaps millions, of acres for food production.
Also, it would eliminate the drug lords of Mexico and other countries, saving hundreds of lives. It would save thousands, perhaps millions, of illegal dollars being used by gangsters in all countries concerned.
Much of crime would be eliminated, for crimes committed by drug addicts for the purpose of obtaining drugs would be almost entirely be eliminated if they could obtain them by prescription instead of from illegal drug dealers. Addicts would be identified and publicized as being such, and treated as patients rather than criminals.
I admit that my "solution" is a gross oversimplification of the problem, but it is worthy of consideration and discussion because the problem is growing exponentially. As it is, we are burying our heads in the sand.
In the 60-year period from 1920 to 1980, the prison population increased from about 20,000 to 500,000. From 1980 to 2006, it increased from 500,000 to 2.3 million. Most of that increase is due to drugs. In the former 60 years, the increase was 480,000. In the latter 26 years, the increase was 1.8 million.
Something must be done and we must realize that there is a serious problem. We cannot ignore the problem as we have in the past.
If people wish to drug themselves to death, they will do it in any case. The least we can do is to try to prevent it.
— By Ralph Wiltse, Tribune community columnist