The War on Drugs: A Failed Experiment, by Paula Mallea ****

This is a dry read, but the content makes it worthwhile. Mallea has some important things to say, and it’s time to sit up and take notice.

Awhile back, Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow. It was (and is) a wake-up call for Americans who have not been paying attention to the fact that drugs are now the pretext for incarcerating an unprecedented proportion of young Black men in the USA. They emerge, Alexander points out, stripped of their citizenship rights, to vote, to hold office, and in some cases if they are convicted a third time, they are packed away for life. Those who go back into the work force have a harder time finding a job and often settle for low-paying, menial jobs. Those whose pride cries out against it head right back into underground ways of making a buck, and the cycle continues.

I don’t generally cite so extensively from another author when reviewing a book, but Mallea grabs the baton where Alexander has stopped, and she takes it across the finish line. Alexander has shown us the problem, and Mallea has a great solution. Let’s stop endlessly pursuing drug users and abusers. Let the madness cease.

Mallea points out that African-Americans use crack less frequently than Caucasians, but they are incarcerated for this offense far oftener than white people. I did not see statistics regarding other countries and their under-served minorities, in the cases were these exist, but Mallea is primarily making a case for what the USA should do, and she maintains her focus, avoids side issues. When she mentions policy and practice in other nations, it is to show that the War on Drugs has affected other nations adversely, and that there is an international trend, with some exceptions, toward decriminalization or even legalization of what are now illegal drugs. If the US were to make changes, we’d have plenty of company.

The war on drugs is a failure if the object truly is to stop people from using illegal drugs. Mallea’s documentation is nearly as lengthy as her narrative. It is clear that she understands her proposition will be a tough sell, and she has rolled up her sleeves and proven her case well.

For this reviewer, teaching in high poverty schools and raising teenagers–white, Asian, and Black–in the city of Seattle has provided evidence enough. If I didn’t value the privacy of my family and former students, I could write my own book. So to be fair, I should mention that Mallea didn’t have to convince me; I was already convinced. But for those more skeptical but willing to look at the data, she has painted an extremely compelling argument.

Because in making drugs either a minor offense, punishable by a fine as many locales punish violations of open container laws, a great deal of money can be saved by federal and local governments. If legalized, some sort of quality control can ensure that fewer people ingest rat poison when they think they are taking a barbiturate. Education and treatment plans are more effective if those who wish to be treated don’t fear arrest when they come forward to seek help. The money saved in chasing America’s Black youth and packing them off to become denizens of the ever-growing prison system could instead be used for treatment facilities. It’s both economically sensible and humanitarian.

But what of those who don’t want treatment?

Again, it doesn’t change anything in the long run for those people, just as Prohibition would not have kept your Aunt Millie from getting drunk enough to fall forward into the eggnog at holiday gatherings. But very few people–especially youth–are actually rehabilitated by prison. The data on this is thick on the ground, but Mallea’s bibliography and footnotes should convince you if you don’t already know this.

What is more, 50% of the abuse is due to prescription drugs that have fallen into the wrong hands. Those of us who have legitimate prescriptions for controlled substances (this is me speaking, not the author) have noticed that we have to do everything except strip naked and write our name in blood when we fill those prescriptions. and it is because there are individuals out there who lack any sense of obligation to the greater good, and procure those drugs through theft or fraud, then sell them on the street. In some cases, people who legitimately have the drugs and need them sell them anyway out of economic desperation: she cites the case of a truck driver who sold two Oxycontin to a woman he thought was a prostitute so that he could put fuel in his truck. Bad news for him! She was an undercover cop, and he was under arrest.

The War on Drugs is more like a Frankenstein monster that has orbited out of control. It’s time to seek a saner solution.

Here in Seattle, Mallea’s postulation has proved correct so far, at least in regard to decriminalization of marijuana. Let’s be a little braver, probe a little deeper. Most huge social changes appear frightening at the outset, and yet later we look back, as we do now at the choice to end Prohibition, and wonder why the change wasn’t made sooner.

But don’t take my word for it. Look at what Paula Mallea has to say. Look at the logical, well laid out arguments, and then check the footnotes. Her data is excellent and from a wide variety of sources. With this much information in favor of what she proposes, what seems like a radical idea at first becomes an obvious solution.

Highly recommended.

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