If Congress decided tomorrow to "fix" the war on drugs, would it know where to start? Probably not. After 40 years of rubber-stamping bad policy at the behest of scaremongers, quacks, drug czars, and DEA administrators, Congress would need a guide to undoing its own misdeeds.
Today, the Drug Policy Alliance released just such a guide. "An Exit Strategy for the Failed War on Drugs: A Federal Legislative Guide" isn't a radical manifesto. Rather, the group' prefers a shift toward policies "that reduce both the harms associated with drug misuse and the harms associated with U.S. drug policy. Key performance measurements should focus on the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drugs and drug prohibition, not drug use per se."
The 64-page report contains 75 recommendations. Some of them are pretty tame ("Commission an independent body to analyze all drug policy options"), some of them some have already been proposed by members of Congress ("Expand the mandatory minimum safety valve provision"), and some of them have broad overlap with other issues libertarians care about ("Eliminate federal licensing restrictions and encourage states to also do so").
If you want to read all 75 recommendations, you can do so at the end of this post. In the meantime, here are six very modest yet important recommendations for improving U.S. drug policy:
1.) Conduct racial, fiscal and health impact assessments before passing new drug legislation: "A number of states are now requiring racial impact statements before criminal justice-related bills can be passed," says DPA. "At least one state requires not just a fiscal impact statement before passing drug war legislation, but an assessment of how much incarcerating someone will cost, versus less-costly sentencing alternatives. Congress already requires through its PAYGO rules that new spending be offset. A similar rule should be adopted to ensure legislation increasing the number of federal prisoners (or expanding the length of time they will stay behind bars) is paid for somehow. It would be especially innovative to assess how the legislation might unintentionally increase the harms associated with drug use (by leading traffickers to switch to even more dangerous manufacturing methods, or by making it more likely for people who use drugs to inject the drug instead of smoking it)."
2.) Reform or eliminate federal law enforcement block grants to the states: "Federal law enforcement grant programs, such as the Byrne-JAG program, are fueling over-incarceration at the local level, especially when they fund regional narcotics task forces that focus on low-level drug arrests," says DPA. "Because many regional narcotics task forces are funded through a combination of federal grant money and asset forfeiture, they can be unaccountable to local elected officials and prone to corruption and civil rights abuses."
3.) Reform and limit the use of confidential informants: "Because police operations are often driven by arrest quotas, informants are primarily used to apprehend low-level, nonviolent drug offenders rather than to dismantle serious drug trafficking organizations," says DPA. "Federal (and most state) laws do not require the corroboration of an informant's information to support a conviction. As a result, the government's use of informants is largely secretive, unregulated and unaccountable….To curtail these problems, the evidentiary standard that is required to convict a person for a drug law violation must be strengthened so that a conviction cannot occur unless the commission of the crime is supported by evidence other than the eyewitness testimony of a law enforcement official, or an individual acting on behalf of law enforcement officers."
4.) Reform drug courts and other treatment diversion programs: "Drug courts receiving federal money should be required to allow the use of methadone, buprenorphine and other evidence-based replacement therapies," says DPA. "They should also be required to incorporate health measures – not simply abstinence – into program goals, so that people going through drug courts are rewarded for using less drugs, holding down a job, and improving their health, and are not punished simply for failing a drug test. Importantly, drug courts should be reserved for people charged with more serious offenses than merely drug possession, and should be designed to operate on a pre-plea, preadjudication basis. Congress should also fund pilot diversion programs that place treatment decisions within public health systems rather than the criminal justice system."
5.) Eliminate discrimination against firearm owners who use marijuana or other drugs: "The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATF) recently sent letters to firearm dealers in the state of Montana threatening to fine or prosecute people who sold firearms to cancer, AIDS and other medical marijuana patients, even though marijuana is legal for medical use in that state.218 The agency also threatened to arrest medical marijuana patients who own firearms," says DPA. "In the same way people who use marijuana or other drugs should not be deprived of housing, school loans or other benefits allowed to people who misuse alcohol, they should not be subject to different firearms rules either."
6.) Discourage punitive, zero tolerance programs in schools and focus scarce resources on professional, counseling, intervention and therapy: "Federal funding incentives from the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program to the No Child Left Behind Act encourage the use of zero tolerance policies, despite evidence that children removed from their learning environment through suspension or expulsion are more likely to drop out, use drugs, and enter the juvenile justice system," says DPA. "Federal money is better spent on practical education and restorative, not exclusionary, practices."
Read the rest of DPA's suggestions in the below report.