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Friday, February 24, 2012

Lessons from mug shots

About five years ago a tabloid, The Slammer, began appearing in local convenience stores. Basically it's a set of mug shots from the Wake and Durham County jails during the prior week, captioned by charge and surrounded by ads (mostly for bail bonds). The Slammer now publishes 17 editions throughout the nation, and I assume there are similar publications in other markets. Not to be outdone, the website of the dominant TV station in Raleigh now carries county mugshots too.

Flipping through the mugs, it doesn't take long to notice that about half of them are drug-related arrests. I don't do drugs, but one doesn't have to be a user to conclude that the national policy of prohibition of drugs is a failure -- just as prohibition of alcohol was. We are losing, or have already lost, the War on Drugs; and it's not for lack of effort, lack of resources, or lack of time. Despite the occasional big interdiction and the ongoing stream of lesser arrests, our policy of prohibition -- however well-intentioned -- is overwhelmed by demand and consequently the money that can be made.

An entire gang culture has been fueled by drug money and the thievery required to generate it. Drug violence fills the streets of many neighborhoods and renders them unsafe. Drug dealers fill our jails to the point where we can't build jails fast enough. Selective enforcement, such as allowing rich white folks into Studio 54 while treating Hispanics and African-Americans with suspicion, has fractured our society. And to top it off, do citizens understand that half of the expense of local law enforcement, courts, and jails and prisons is directly attributable to failed prohibition?

I am astonished that we continue to do what doesn't work. I don't propose laissez-faire, and I'm uncomfortable putting Johnson & Johnson or RJ Reynolds into the drug business. Nor do I think that all drugs should be legalized. I realize that drug use, like alcohol use, has serious consequences at the individual level -- and that our mental health programs are already under-funded to a tragic extent. Frankly I don't know what to do about the drug problem. But we've got to find a new approach. The strategy we've used for a hundred years clearly does not work, unless you're in the prison-building business... or the publisher of The Slammer.