ACLU Urges Congress to Reconsider Destructive Drug War Strategy

June 16, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, June 16, 1999

WASHINGTON — Testifying before a House subcommittee, the American Civil Liberties Union today told lawmakers that the most effective way to control drug abuse is through regulation, not incarceration.

“Our 85-year experiment with criminal prohibition of drugs has not solved the problems it was meant to solve and has created other serious problems resulting from the excessive and unprincipled use of the government’s police power,” ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser told the House panel.

Rather than continue to criminalize drug use, Glasser urged Congress to begin the “difficult process” of developing a system for regulating the availability of drugs.

Testfiying before the Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources panel of the House Government Reform Committee, Glasser noted that since 1973, when the harsh Rockefeller-era drug laws were passed, the use of criminal sanctions has increased exponentially. Incarceration has gone up from a few hundred thousand to more than 1.7 million; between 1985 and 1995, 85 percent of that increase was due to drug convictions, the bulk of them for nonviolent crimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

People of color are paying the highest price for this strategy, Glasser said, because of the “stunning and unjustifiable” racial disparities in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, as well as other racial disparities in how drug laws are enforced. Citing federal government statistics, he noted that only 13 percent of monthly drug users are black, but 37 percent are arrested for possession; 55 percent are convicted of possession, and 74 percent are imprisoned for possession.

Glasser also charged that federal criminalization of drug crimes is clogging the court system. About half of all federal drug arrests are for marijuana — more than 80 percent of them for simple possession. Civil asset forfeiture — what one historian has called a government license to steal — is widespread at both federal and state levels, allowing law enforcement to seize the cars, homes and property of people accused of drug crimes, even if they are never convicted.

“The government has demonized all drug use without differentiation, has systematically and hysterically resisted science and has turned millions of stable and productive citizens into criminals,” Glasser said.

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