Law and motion days in District Court provide a front row seat to America’s failed war on drugs.
This past Monday was no different. It’s a sad affair every time.
Two young ladies who came before Judge Robert Lane stood out more than any of the other poor souls in court that morning. One was dressed in jailhouse clothes, shackles connecting her wrists to her waist. She had this face that could stop a train, a really pretty young woman. Young and vibrant and yet she also has a nasty drug problem and was in jail because of it.
She started crying when Judge Lane asked her if she had any kids. She has five, including a 4-month-old that was exposed to her mother’s drug use inside the womb.
It was sentencing day, and the young woman was facing at least three months in prison — or if she chose to wait for a bed at the Salvation Army’s in-house rehabilitation center, she could likely stay in jail for six months waiting for it to open up. She chose prison and the shorter sentence. Rehabilitation went out the window.
The other young woman who stood out on Monday was a familiar face at the courthouse — she had various scrapes with the law, nothing too major, and admitted that many of them were due to her methamphetamine use. She not only stood out for being a familiar — and again a very vibrant looking young woman — but also because she was very, very pregnant. This time the judge asked how long she’d been sober. She answered that it had been six weeks since she last used meth. He then asked when the baby was due. She said March.
I just shook my head. Another baby abused in the womb by a careless, selfish drug user.
After a quick sentence of probation that I believe involved drug court, the woman walked out of the court room; but not before Lane asked her if she might need closer attention, maybe an in-patient rehab. She declined the offer, wiped tears away from her cheeks and walked away. I bet $100 she will be back in court or in jail before summer, baby or not.
Multiply these two women by several hundred and you have what has become a carousel of social deterioration that plays out week in and week out. The crowded courts of Pahrump, Nye County, Nevada serve as its theater of destruction.
Go to the courthouse on Monday afternoons, when drug court is in session in Judge Kimberly Wanker’s courtroom, and it’s a veritable circus of kids and adults, many of whom congregate outside, smoking their cigarettes, laughing and talking, waiting for court, no doubt counting down the days when they can get as far away from that place as humanly possible. A pathetic low number of these neighbors of ours will actually quit using drugs.
And yet, these are the people who are actually getting what help is available. The truly lost often appear on our front pages or in the crime corner police briefs — these are the drug court dropouts, habitual burglars and thieves, the insane Barbara Bells, the relentless pushers who never seem to serve any real time in jail but are arrested over and over and over. These truly hopeless strain our court systems, law enforcement resources, they devalue our community, crowd our schools with neglected children. They force all of us to come out of pocket so that they can get high every day until they are jailed or dead.
The war on drugs is meant to stop these people long enough to give the rest of us some respite. But the war, started by Richard Nixon in 1971, is a total, utter, unambiguous failure. It’s worse than prohibition. Exhibit A can be found every Monday in our own courthouse. More than a third of criminal cases filed in Nye County last year involved drugs, in one form or another — either actual possession or property crimes to support a habit. That’s astounding and embarrassing and also par for the course.
The conservative Wall Street Journal recently published a lengthy screed blasting the federal government — and plenty of others — for failing to win the war on drugs. The piece was headlined, “Have We Lost the War on Drugs?”
The resounding conclusion was yes, game over, drugs won.
Particularly interesting in the story is the argument that 40 years of war on drugs has reduced prices, increased demand, increased profits for dealers and cartels, wrecked havoc on families, particularly among ethnic minorities, reduced the availability of treatment (the argument being that a drunk can easily find treatment as can a smoker, but a drug addict is admitting illegal activity whenever they seek treatment and therefore many don’t), and generally cost far, far, far more in treasure and in lives than society has benefitted. According to the article, in 1980, the U.S. had a prison population of 330,000. Today it is 1.6 million, many of them hard core drug abusers. Add to that carnage the blood of 50,000 dead Mexicans caught in the crossfire of warring cartels and their corrupt political puppets, all for the advantage of profiting from this country’s insatiable appetite to get high, and the war on drugs becomes a more horrifying spectacle than some real armed conflicts.
The authors of the WSJ article — in a way only economists can do — offered some potential advantages to decriminalizing drugs in this country. Among the more notable was that full decriminalization (the kind where even drug trafficking is allowed — can they compete against corporate America?) would immediately lower drug prices, provide new taxing revenue, but also reduce prison populations across the country, encourage inner-city kids to stay in school (why sell drugs if you can’t make any money doing it is the rationale here), actually reduce addiction rates, though more people are likely to use at first, and numerous other social benefits. Now, the authors admit new issues may emerge — the war on drugs failed precisely because addiction is such a complex issue — drug consumption would likely increase, for one. But destroying the underworld markets for drugs, at least from the seller’s standpoint, would very quickly reduce the criminal aspects of the trade. The bloodshed would end, or at least subside. Court caseloads would be reduced. The savings could go toward meaningful treatment instead of endless prosecution and incarceration.
Almost two dozen states have significantly decriminalized marijuana use in the last few years. I think that’s a big first step — it wasn’t long ago in Nevada where even a single marijuana seed on your car floorboard landed you in serious trouble.
Times have changed. The drug war has clearly failed. And it’s high time this country looked for better ways to deal with its drug problem than courts, cops and jails.