ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A former Bernalillo County prosecutor told a group of UNM law students Wednesday that the decades-old war on drugs “has failed in every respect and exacerbated every problem it was called on to fix.”
Ethan Simon, an assistant district attorney from 2008 to 2011, spoke on behalf of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of police officers and former officers who oppose the prohibition on drugs. He was invited to the University of New Mexico School of Law by Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
As a drug case prosecutor, Simon said, “Every time I opened a file, I ruined a life. You can get over an addiction, but not a conviction.”
He noted that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, due largely to the war on drugs. The prohibition was declared by President Nixon in 1971 as a response to the large number of war veterans returning from Vietnam with heroin addictions, and supported by every administration since.
During his talk, Simon at one point focused on two forms of cocaine: crack and powder. They are essentially the same, although crack contains baking soda, is microwaved and is more addictive.
Black inner-city males prefer crack cocaine, while rich, white males are more likely to use powder, he said. So Congress imposed a harsh penalty for using crack and far lighter sentences for dealing or snorting powder, he said, adding, “Congress is full of rich, white males.”
Today, one in every 55 white males is imprisoned for using cocaine, compared with one in nine black males, Simon said.
Moreover, since 1971, the purity of drugs has declined and overdoses have increased. And the number of narcotics-related homicides has risen, a direct consequence of the war on drugs, he said.
Besides the human cost of the prohibition, the economic cost has been astronomical – $1 trillion spent since 1971, now $70 billion annually, “with no return … flushed down the toilet … twice what we spend on education,” he said.
In 2001, the nation of Portugal decriminalized drug use, opting instead to help users find jobs – even paying half their salaries. The government also offered housing, schooling and addiction services. Since then, Simon said, drug abuse in the Iberian country has dropped by half.
In Bernalillo County, as the D.A.’s point man before grand juries in narcotics cases, he was responsible for screening all drug-related charges for constitutionality and determining relevant and necessary charges. He said he learned that so much time and money spent on drug cases merely sucks resources from more pressing cases, such as crimes against children.