Perpetuating Failure (part one)

In a rational system, a process or policy which has shown to be ineffective, counterproductive, or destructive would be abandoned.

In a rational system, a process or policy would be based on truth and evidence, rather than emotions such as fear or greed or the misguided beliefs of even a majority of leaders.

We have seen firsthand that the policies that our leaders pursue do not stem from a rational system. Therefore, the conclusion is that we do not operate in a rational system.

This leads to the following questions (and undoubtedly more):

  • What are the costs of irrationality?
  • How did we move toward irrationality?
  • How do we fix the problem?
    • How do we move back toward a rational system)?
    • How do we eliminate ineffective and malignant policies?
  • How do we help those that have been hurt by the malignant policies?

Let's start with one malignant policy in particular for this post: the so-called War On Drugs. Specifically, I want to dive into the prohibition of Cannabis.


First, I wanted to share with you why I wrote this post. Beyond the fact that this issue is personal, in that it affects myself and family members, I feel that it is important that where injustice exists that people speak out. Earlier this year, the Washington Post added a new slogan, "Democracy Dies in Darkness"; this rings true to me. We need to keep a spotlight on all decisions, policies, actions, and words from government (not just the current administration). To do otherwise is to watch progress stall, and tyranny rise (am I being dramatic? maybe, maybe not - set aside your biases and objectively analyze the situation).

The fact that this topic is personal makes it potentially more powerful. It puts a face on who is at risk pushing the consequences out of the abstract. This is necessary to do; there are people who can empathize with others even when they can't see the immediate impact; there are others who can't. This last group is the group we should try to reach, they are the ones who absolutely need an issue to impact someone they know, someone they love, before they are compelled to act responsibly. The more we can tell our story, put faces to the issue, the better we can effect positive change.

This goes beyond this post or even this topic - rights for LGBTQX, immigrants, minorities, etc. - all groups who have gone without their voices being heard. I'm not saying cannabis policy reform is as important as human rights, this is just the topic I'm discussing today (however, there is a tie-in with racial minorities). We need the stories of all people who are willing to share them (despite the consequences, and sometimes those consequences are great) to help light the way, to illustrate concretely, how our policies impact the citizens of this nation. We need this to unite us as human beings, we need to recover our humanity. We need to put a face on the issues we care about.

"Public enemy number one", as declared by President Richard Nixon, was drug use. In a letter to congress in June of 1971, Nixon made a case for increased cooperation and funding to attack the drug problems in the United States, which extended to actions around the world. Here, the president focused on treating addicts to help rehabilitate them (in addition to the ongoing efforts to curb the supply of drugs) rather than the focus on imprisonment at the time. Additionally, heroin, not cannabis ('heroin' appears 18 times in the text; cannabis or marihuana: 2 ) , was not the focus at the time; part of which was due soldiers in Vietnam using it and bringing their addiction (or use at all) home.

Heroin addiction is the most difficult to control and the most socially destructive form of addiction in America today. Heroin is a fact of life and a cause of death among an increasing number of citizens in America, and it is heroin addiction that must command priority in the struggle against drugs.

To wage an effective war against heroin addiction, we must have international cooperation. In order to secure such cooperation, I am initiating a worldwide escalation in our existing programs for the control of narcotics traffic, and I am proposing a number of new steps for this purpose.

Now, nearly 50 years later, the government is still waging its War on Drugs, which is nominally a war on cannabis (though other drug crimes are not neglected) with no positive change to show for its efforts. A May 2013 article at Fox News begins:

After 40 years, the United States' war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.

Even U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn't worked.

"In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," Kerlikowske told The Associated Press. "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."

Here we have the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy stating plainly and explicitly that the effort and expense to target drug use over the last half century is ineffective.

What are the costs (part one ... money)?

The article goes on to break down some of the costs, noting that "In 40 years, taxpayers spent more than":

  • 20 Billion Dollars to fight drug gangs outside of the U.S.
  • 33 Billion Dollars in marketing (e.g. 'Just Say No').
  • 49 Billion Dollars in law enforcement at U.S. borders.
  • 121 Billion Dollars to arrest more than 37 Million nonviolent drug offenders.
  • 450 Billion Dollars to house them in prisons.

Following that breakdown with

The Justice Department estimates the consequences of drug abuse — "an overburdened justice system, a strained health care system, lost productivity, and environmental destruction" — cost the United States $215 billion a year.

The result of all the money we've spent ...

That Fox article includes the statement in the cost breakdown that "Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the U.S. were serving sentences for drug offenses." Additionally, the eleventh edition of the World Prison Population List (for 2016) lists the U.S prison population at 2,217,000 (21.3% of the world's 10.35 million prison population) with a rate of 698 per 100,000. While this rate is down from the 2013 report (WPPL tenth edition) of 716, more than half the countries (55%) have a rate below 150. For comparison, the only country with a higher imprisonment rate is Seychelles (799 per 100, 000), which has a population of 92,000 and a prison population of 735.

At the time of writing, the U.S. Census Bureau's population clocks read

U.S. Population 325,032,537
World Population 7,390,318,200

giving the U.S. around 4.398% of the world's population. I bring this up because both Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul both quoted that while the United States has but 5 percent of the world's population, we have 25 percent of the world's prison population. Their quotes were included in a 2015 Washington Post article, fact checking the statements. I've updated the numbers to reflect the most recently available data.

The cost of imprisonment to taxpayers in the United States ranges from $14,603 to $60,076 (average: $31,286) per year per inmate according to VERA's 2012 report: The Price of Prisons. With the above population numbers, we arrive at a yearly imprisonment cost of between $4.746 Trillion to $19.527 Trillion (average: $10.169 Trillion). Those numbers are for the total U.S. prison population. To bring that to those convicted of drug offenses, we arrive at a range of $2.373 Trillion to $9.763 Trillion per year. These numbers are based on current population estimates along with 2016 prison population numbers and 2012 imprisonment cost numbers - so, these values are estimates only.

Please keep in mind that these numbers still represent a larger group than I’m targeting with this post; not all are cannabis users or necessarily non-violent offenders. With that said, it is still an obscene amount of money to continue spending on what is widely considered a failed policy (remember, Gil Kerlikowske conceded this point).

What are the costs (part two ... social)?

The social cost of the drug war is difficult to quantify, I’ll largely be presenting my views and opinions here. The social cost begins with the individual, who can be fined or jailed. It then extends to the family to the neighborhood and the larger community.


An individual in Georgia, arrested for possession of one ounce (roughly 28 grams - or the weight of 5 U.S. quarters) or less of cannabis (a misdemeanor) can be jailed for a year and be fined $1,000. More than that and a person faces up to 10 years and $5,000, assuming the authorities deem the quantity 'personal use', a felony (penalty information from

Keep in mind that Jeff Sessions, the reasonable and compassionate man that he is, just rescinded Eric Holder's "sweeping criminal charging policy that instructed his prosecutors to avoid charging certain defendants with offenses that would trigger long mandatory minimum sentences" (generally non-violent users) according to the Washington Post. Instead, as laid out in a letter to the assistant U.S. attorneys, "Any inconsistent previous policy of the Department of Justice relating to these matters is rescinded, effective today.". Additionally, they were told that they "should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense" and "By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.".

This means that any person, arrested for simply being in possession of any amount can be sentenced based on mandatory minimum guidelines.

When someone is convicted of an offense punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence, the judge must sentence the defendant to the mandatory minimum sentence or to a higher sentence. The judge has no power to sentence the defendant to less time than the mandatory minimum. A prisoner serving an MMS for a federal offense and for most state offenses will not be eligible for parole. Even peaceful marijuana smokers sentenced to "life MMS" must serve a life sentence with no chance of parole.


So, for simple possession of less than one ounce, because it remains illegal federally, can put an individual in prison for life without the possibility of parole. In some cases, there have been shorter sentences for horrific crimes; though it was ultimately lengthened to 3 to 10 years (still shorter than a mandatory minimum drug sentence), a judge sentenced a man to 60 days in prison for sexually abusing a child over a four year period (Fox News, 2006).

A 1994 article in The Atlantic, covers the sentencing of a man whose crime was introducing two partners in a marijuana farm to associates of a buyer. He was charged with "conspiracy to manufacture" marijuana and was sentenced to a mandatory life-imprisonment.

The costs to the individual include the loss of freedom (a potential lifetime in prison), the loss of family, as well as the missed opportunities of education, creation, and work.


A family is made up of individuals who share a bond, a connection, and family members depend on each other to varying degrees. When one member is snatched away, the dynamic is forced to change.

Consider a small family where the parents both need to work to cover all the expenses, with very little breathing room. If one parent is suddenly absent, the remaining members are thrust into chaos because now they can't pay the bills, buy food, health care, etc. The family now needs help from the larger community or government to help them survive.

There's also the emotional distress and damage from having a family member removed from the home - whether you interpret that as a forceful removal or simply becoming absent, there is still an emotional toll which can have a lasting impact on mental health. Additionally, with the tactics used, there is the likelihood of both having the family pet killed or the police terrorizing innocent people simply because they have 'the wrong house' .


I don't think anyone would argue that a community, a group of people who share commonalities, feels the joys as well as the pains of its members. Yes, a family is a community, but here I'm referring to the communities beyond the family - the neighborhoods, schools, churches, etc.

In 2016, politifact fact-checked statements made by Van Jones (an american activist and attorney). Citing a 2014 report from the National Research Council, they found that "The prevalence of drug use is only slightly higher among blacks than whites for some illicit drugs and slightly lower for others; the difference is not substantial. There is also little evidence, when all drug types are considered, that blacks sell drugs more often than whites.".

Arrest rates were found to be six times higher and the incarceration rate was found to be roughly 5.8 times higher (incarceration numbers are estimates due to available data) for blacks than for whites. This, despite the fact that the the U.S. Census Bureau says that Blacks and African Americans make up 13.3% of the population compared to 77.1% for whites.

What does it do to a community to have such a large portion of its members taken away?
Think, for a moment, about exponential growth - the idea that the growth rate increases rapidly in proportion to the size, you can visualize this by looking back across your family tree (I'll only be considering biological relatives here). You are one person, you have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents. This follows the pattern of 2^n where n is the generations back you are looking and, as you can see the numbers add up quickly (totaling those listed, we have 30). Now apply that to the connection network, beyond the family, that an individual is a member of.

The number of people affected by an individual's change of situation can follow a similar pattern (the details may be different though). A person may be close with a few people at work, school, church, or the neighborhood. They, in turn, know a few more people closely, and so on. What happens if the individual becomes injured? The close friends come to help. What happens if the person dies? The close friends mourn that death, the friends' friends feel the loss through their friends and so on. These events never happen in isolation; and these are just the emotional effects. Imagine an individual who was a great student who helped out after school, teaching or watching over their siblings or other children in their community. Or an EMT or factory worker, a server at a restaurant, or any other job, vocation, or volunteer position. Now the loss impacts the education or care of others, the productivity of an industry.

Now, extend the effects that these losses (emotional, physical, and economic) can have to people arrested for nonviolent drug offenses - simply being in possession of cannabis, or smoking in the privacy of their own home.

The U.S. currently has over 1 Million people languishing in prison on non-violent drug charges. Potentially, the only people they were harming was themselves ... until the authorities stepped in and destroyed their lives. While we could argue that we should keep people from harm, I think any rational and caring person can recognize that the punishment shouldn't be worse than the offense.

When there is a greater danger to a person and society, from the punishment of drug use, by the government, then the governmental policy is in error and grossly immoral. Treating people like criminals for using a substance which is shown to be less harmful than other legal activities (more on this later), destroying their future, their lives, and the lives of their families and communities is a crime against humanity.

I’m going to end part one here and will pick up in the next post with part two (which should be the last).