The Big Deception

An excerpt from the newsletter of Alec Karakatsanis (May 18, 2023).

Over forty years into the War on Drugs, the following are true:

  • The U.S. has spent trillions of dollars; detained tens of millions of people for hundreds of millions of years; separated tens of millions of children from parents; chemically destroyed millions of acres of rainforest and pristine ecosystems in Latin America; killed hundreds of thousands of people; stopped, searched, sexually violated, and arrested hundreds of millions of people; surveilled the communications of billions of people globally; stolen billions of dollars in property from poor people through civil forfeiture; deported hundreds of thousands of people; deprived tens of millions of people of highly effective therapeutic treatments for cancer, mental illness, PTSD, chronic pain, etc.; caused millions of people to become infected with infectious diseases; kicked millions of families out of public housing and public benefits; put tens of millions of poor people into an endless cycle of debt; and cost tens of millions of people their jobs at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars to the economy.
  • The use of prohibited drugs has increased, prohibited drugs are more potent than ever, and overdose deaths have skyrocketed to their highest levels in U.S. history.  

People in power making drug policy are not universally incompetent. Most of the people crafting U.S. drug policy know the above facts. 

Every federal, state, and local official I’ve ever spoken with has known what I just wrote.  Perhaps such fools exist, but I’ve never met a public official who believes that prosecution, punishment, and prisons are an effective way to reduce drug use, even assuming that is a genuine goal.  Throughout the entirety of my time working on crack cocaine cases, every major government and academic body had repeatedly concluded there was no policy or scientific basis for the 100:1 disparity between punishment of crack cocaine and powder cocaine. The DOJ and then Congress nonetheless enforced and reaffirmed the disparity even after Congress reduced it to 18:1 (a random number it chose for no publicly articulated reasons).

They will admit this in private, just as Nixon officials did.  A U.S. attorney prosecuting my client for a non-violent drug offense (and seeking 10 years to life in prison) once confided to me in the parking lot outside the federal courthouse that he and his colleagues knew that sending my client to prison and potentially sending their newborn child to foster care would not do anyone any good.  The Big Deception keeps the public from understanding all of the reasons that the U.S. government was doing it anyway.

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