The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are said to have cost the U.S. taxpayer over $4 trillion since 2001. As we know, it has not ended terrorism, and many would argue that neither country has found peace or security. I’m in Miami to talk about another war that has cost over $1 trillion. It’s also a failed war. It’s the so-called “war on drugs,” a phrase coined by President Nixon more than four decades ago.
Given Florida’s proximity to Latin America, the community here has been touched by the drug wars. My fellow board members at the Global Commission on Drug Policy, including the former Presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, have all come together along with other political and civil society leaders to reform existing global drug laws.
There are far too many people who still think locking up non-violent drug offenders is a good idea. That’s why we must learn about the issues and figure out how to approach this challenge from a more humane perspective. It costs too much money and too many lives not to do so.
The critically acclaimed documentary Breaking the Taboo lays out the reasons why we need a new approach to drug policy. Despite more than 40 years of prohibition, illicit drugs remain one of the most valuable industries in the world (after food and oil) — an industry entirely under the control of criminals. Drugs are cheaper and more available than ever before. Millions of people are in prison for drugs offenses. Corruption and violence, especially in producer and transit countries, endanger democracy. Tens of thousands of people die each year in drug wars. Speaking in Breaking the Taboo, former President Bill Clinton admits, “Obviously if the expected results were that we would eliminate serious drug use in America and eliminate the narco-trafficking networks, it hasn’t worked.”
There are other issues to consider: Although rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial lines, people of color — Latinos, African Americans, etc. — are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations.
Spending tax dollars on incarceration means not spending those same tax dollars on other more effective alternative approaches. Florida taxpayers are forced to spend nearly $100 million annually to incarcerate drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences. Imagine if that that same money were available to be spent on education, health and rehabilitation. The future of our nations, our children and the next generation should be our priority. We should be helping people addicted to drugs break their habits rather than putting users in prison.
Last month’s Florida Supreme Court ruling means medical marijuana legalization is on the ballot later this year. About 70 percent of Floridians support more progressive marijuana laws such as legalizing medical cannabis and decriminalizing penalties for marijuana, and that’s a very good sign. It may be a tough fight to get this law passed as it did in other states such as Washington and Colorado (where Latino voters may have been the deciding factor, with 70 percent in support) but Florida has already demonstrated itself as a leader in tackling drug issues.
The first drug court in the United States was set up in 1989 right here in Miami-Dade County. In fact, Florida has 93 drug courts, which is a great example of success, and the facts support that. A recent evaluation of drug courts in Florida by the Sentencing Project concluded that Florida had a substantially lower re-arrest rate for drug court graduates relative to a comparison group during a span of 24 months. This is exactly the kind rational, sensible approach that voters must demand.
It has been argued that the damages caused by prohibiting drugs to public safety, public health, and civil liberties exceed the damages caused by the drugs themselves. Reinvesting in alternatives in drug reform is anything but simple — nonetheless the results will be better. It’s time to break the taboo.
Sir Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group.