Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has called for decriminalizing possession of marijuana (which he first did in 1977 while President) and ending the U.S. war on drugs. Briefly, the war on drugs has cost billions of dollars, imprisoned thousands of people (mostly minorities), and proven ineffectual.
More than three of every 100 adult Americans is in prison or on parole, seven times the rate in Europe. Are Americans that much more prone to break the law than in Europe? Are American law enforcement efforts that much better than European efforts? Or, has the war on drugs produced unanticipated adverse consequences?
Meanwhile, global consumption of opiates has increased 34.5 percent, cocaine 27 percent and cannabis 8.5 percent from 1998 to 2008.
President Carter, an evangelical Christian, is not endorsing the use of mind-altering drugs but calling for public policies that make sense (and cents!). Incarcerating a person for one year costs between $25,000 and $50,000. Decriminalizing marijuana would allow the government to tax marijuana sales, creating another revenue stream for cash strapped state and local governments.
My wife and I spend several weeks a year in Europe, often renting an apartment. Pick pockets can be a problem in isolated areas, e.g., public squares and train stations in Rome. We walk miles in London, Paris, and other cities, visiting tourist sites and other, less commonly visited areas. Unlike during our visits to major U.S. cities, we have yet to feel a threat to our personal safety when abroad.
Historically, the consumption of opiates soared in the U.S. following the Civil War. Wounded veterans relied on morphine, which is highly addictive, to ease their pain. Veterans with less visible wounds (like the then unknown problem of post-traumatic stress disorder) and other people developed drug dependencies. Coke derived its name and gained much of its popularity because its original formula included a small amount of cocaine. Other factors (time, changing the formula for coke, persons not wanting to become like the addicts they observed) ameliorated the situation then and will work now.
Clearly, consuming mind-altering hallucinogenic drugs does not lead to the good life for healthy people. A person in great pain from incurable cancer exemplifies a reasonable exception to that generalization. However, waging a war on drugs has not proven an effective aid in dissuading people from using illegal drugs and has imposed great financial and even greater social costs on the U.S.
Few short cuts exist for human transformation. The path to eudemonia, socially and individually, is often fraught with danger and temptation. Effectively encouraging people to refuse to use illegal drugs requires that people have realistic expectations of being able to attain a better life, healthy relationships, and healthy self-respect.
Sadly, in some American cities young black men have few positive opportunities for legitimate success. Good jobs simply do not exist in our urban ghettos. Consequently, a disproportionate number of young military enlistees are black males from these cities. They routinely and without drama would tell me that they had enlisted because their odds for survival in the military were better than their odds for survival at home. Failing to address these growing social problems sets the stage for future violence and social disruption.
In a recent series of comments on a Wall Street Journal article, AARP Pivots on Social Security Benefit Cut (click on the comments tab), I argued that morality is both social and individual. Social morality encompasses our responsibility to provide a minimum standard of living for the elderly as well as to afford a realistic opportunity for earning a decent standard of life to every resident.
The problems of healthy relationships and self-respect are issues that public policy can address but also issues that the Church must tackle. Salvation in the world’s major religions is best understood as transformation for a better life today rather than as an amorphous future hope. The crisis in family life today is not the advent of same sex marriages (which is a good thing) but in the number of single parent households and the number of children who grow up without the father’s active involvement and support. Religious groups must stop chasing shibboleths and start engaging the real issues.