NEW YORK —
About 500,000 Americans today are incarcerated on drug charges. They include non-violent, first-time offenders put behind bars under strict mandatory sentencing laws enacted in the decades-long war on drugs. That war is also being waged overseas, involving considerable bloodshed and expense. A number of former heads of government now believe that war cannot be won.
Anthony Papa spent 12 years in prison for attempting to deliver 125 grams of cocaine, his first and only try. His profit would have been $500. Although he discovered his talent for art behind bars, others suffered.
“I was married. I had a seven-year-old daughter. It just ruined their lives because prison doesn’t stop at the prison wall. It goes beyond the wall," he said.
Papa says it costs billions of taxpayer dollars to keep drug offenders behind bars. “That money could be better spent keeping schools open, feeding needy children, helping needy communities,” he said.
Drugs can be deadly - both to those who use them, and those fighting the trade. In Mexico, there have been at least 47,000 drug-related killings over the past six years. Brazil and Colombia are also racked by drug violence.
Former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, whose administrations funded the war on drugs at home and abroad, now say the approach is flawed.
“We could have fighting and killing over cigarettes if we made it a felony to sell a cigarette to smoke," said former President Clinton. "So we legalized them. If all you try to do is find a police or military solution to the problem, a lot of people die and it doesn’t solve the problem.”
The former presidents of Brazil and Switzerland, Fernando Cardoso and Ruth Dreifuss, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos want to find different ways to solve the global drug problem, such as regulating the trade.
“I think a new approach, at least to try to open up, to break the taboo, is what the world should do. There are many alternatives, including the possibility of legalizing drugs,” he said.
A documentary titled Breaking the Taboo, which focuses on failures in the war on drugs, recently premiered in New York City. Executive producer Sam Branson condemns drugs, but not drug users.
“Instead of throwing them in jail, maybe make them see a doctor. Maybe they need some help. A lot of people taking drugs are not committing crimes, specifically. They're just lost in life,” he said.
But many disagree with decriminalization, for both medical and law enforcement reasons. Former Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe says most U.S. lawmakers oppose legalization.
“We want tougher penalties for drug users, and particularly for people who sell and traffic in the drugs. We want to maintain the long terms, prison terms and penalties that are there,” he said.
Anthony Popa notes that illegal drugs are available even in prisons and questions if they can be controlled in a free society if they can’t be controlled behind bars.