Soon after his election in 1981, former US president Ronald Reagan declared his War on Drugs.
This grand idea, that a nation can wage a just war against a social evil, inspired Americans in a way that former president Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty had failed to do.
The War on Drugs was, after all, a far simpler proposition. Ending poverty would require a great upheaval in American society, demanding a deeper commitment to public education, public health care, and welfare, as well as job creation and minimum-wage laws, to name but a few.
To fight drugs, according to Reagan and his formidable first lady Nancy, only two steps were required. The individual American could Just Say No, while the state needed only to increase its rate of incarceration for those who just said yes.
Starting in 1982, America began to lock people up at an unprecedented rate, and one that has been accelerating ever since.
Today, one in every 150 Americans is in prison. This represents not only the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world, but the largest number overall. By no means are all of these prisoners in for drug offences – the War on Drugs heralded a whole new get-tough-on-crime attitude among American lawmakers and citizens, spawning the War on Crime, with tougher sentences, more mandatory minimums, and more powers for police.
The effect, if not the intent, of these so-called wars, is deeply racist.
According to Human Rights Watch, there are 12 US states in which more than 10 per cent of African American men are imprisoned. For Latino men the figures are slightly lower, but still many times higher than for white Americans. There are no states in which rates of imprisonment are not racially skewed.
By any reasonable standard, the War on Drugs has been an abject failure. According to Nationamster.com, the United States today is the “world’s largest consumer of cocaine … Colombian heroin, and Mexican heroin and marijuana.” It is also a “major consumer of ecstasy and Mexican methamphetamine,” an “illicit producer of cannabis, marijuana, depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, and methamphetamine”, and a money-laundering centre for drug dealers.
At the same time, penitentiary populations have skyrocketed, and with them the financial costs and social evils that go along with overuse of the prison system. In 1981, US prisons housed about 500,000 inmates. Today there are about 2.5 million. In 2006, corrections cost the US $68.7 billion, a rise of 660 per cent since 1982. Policing costs were even higher, at close to $100 billion.
If Prime Minister Stephen Harper has his way, this is the future Canada can expect. As America desperately tries to dig itself out of the financial and social hole created by its supposed toughness on crime, our Conservative government, with Liberal support, has passed legislation that will plunge us down that same crevasse.
According to a report released this week by Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, tough new sentencing laws will cost between $7 billion and $10 billion over the next five years. Add to this the incalculable costs of more law enforcement and you have a recipe for huge increases in both national and provincial deficits. And since both Liberals and Conservatives are committed to deficit reduction, this will inevitably lead to deep cuts to social programs, which in turn lead to greater poverty and, hence, to higher crime rates.
Why does Harper want to put Canada on this futile hamster-wheel of increased incarceration, deeper deficits and, finally, more crime? Has he convinced himself that despite all studies to the contrary, in our case vengeful prison terms will reduce crime? Or is he simply vengeful by nature? More probable, of course, is that the Conservative political machine is doing what it does best, playing to its hyper-conservative base by oversimplifying both the problem of crime and its solution.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.