Politics & Policy

On Drugs, It’s Back to War

Jeff Sessions speaks during a news conference at the federal courthouse New York (Reuters: Shannon Stapleton)

Jeff Sessions wants to get tough in the war on drugs. The problem with his line of thinking is that managing the duplex problem of drug abuse and drug trafficking is not a war, however much the rhetoric of war may be mistaken for the fact of war, and the Trump administration’s get-tough posture is unlikely to produce the desired result.

Sessions has overturned an Obama-era policy under which the Justice Department instructed prosecutors to forgo pursuing the most severe provable charges in certain federal drug cases involving low-level traffickers and non-violent offenders. Sessions says that his move represents a return to enforcing the laws as passed by Congress. In this he is, regrettably, correct. While Sessions’s overturning the Obama-era policy positions the government to pursue a counterproductive course of action, the fundamental problem here is not sentencing procedures or the limits of prosecutorial discretion.

The problem with the war on drugs is the war on drugs.

To believe, as we long have, that the decriminalization of some drugs is preferable to the prohibition of them is not to adopt a stance of moral neutrality on the issue of drug abuse and drug addiction. It is instead a concession to reality, which even politicians must take into account from time to time. The reality is that drug prohibition has not produced the desired results; that it is not an effective means of managing drug abuse or drug addiction; that it creates enormously powerful economic incentives for domestic trafficking operations and allied cartels abroad; that incarceration is in many cases not the best way to turn a drug user or drug dealer into a citizen; that the human and financial costs of fighting a “war” on drugs are enormous, and that the martial rhetoric and assumptions associated with that effort are a menace to privacy and civil liberties; that fighting drug crime has become a ready excuse for police and prosecutors to abuse tools such as civil-asset forfeiture; that our focus on winning the so-called war distracts us from the much more important business of winning the peace by helping addicts and offenders reenter society as productive and valued citizens.

Addiction imposes terrible costs on individuals and their families and communities. But government does not have a very good record for managing that problem. Consider the most recent chapter in the war on drugs, in which government contributed mightily to the creation of a class of prescription-opioid users and then took the lead in converting them into heroin users by its stupid and tardy over-correction of earlier laxity. The police power is too blunt an instrument with which to operate on the souls of the sick and the lost.

None of this represents a call for the blanket legalization of recreational drugs today or tomorrow. What is instead necessary is an approach that takes into account the complexity of the problem, one that makes fine distinctions between recreational users, addicts, low-level traffickers and desultory distributors, professional criminals and crime syndicates, and international drug cartels. We need policies that better account for the differences in classes of drugs as well, and not just the old marijuana-vs.-heroin issue: The current drug-abuse crisis involves legal prescription drugs, not Colombian imports.

We have failed mental-health systems at home and failed states abroad, radically different problems that require radically different solutions.

As our friends at Right on Crime sometimes put it, it is possible to be tough and smart at the same time. The approach being followed by Sessions and the Trump administration is one of those two things at best. But even if he were to come around on the question, there is only so much that an attorney general can do: He is, as he says, enforcing the law of the land. It is up to Congress to give him a better set of drug laws to enforce, and we urge them to act on this responsibility.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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