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Originally published Monday, December 11, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

The other war we can't win

Pick your week or month, the evidence keeps rolling in to show this country's vaunted "war on drugs" is as destructively misguided as our...

Pick your week or month, the evidence keeps rolling in to show this country's vaunted "war on drugs" is as destructively misguided as our cataclysmic error in invading Iraq.

There are 2.2 million Americans behind bars, another 5 million on probation or parole, the Justice Department reported on Nov. 30. We exceed Russia and Cuba in incarcerations per 100,000 people; in fact, no other nation comes close. The biggest single reason for the expanding numbers? Our war on drugs — a quarter of all sentences are for drug offenses, mostly nonviolent.

So has the "war" worked? Has drug use or addiction declined? Clearly not. Hard street drugs are reportedly cheaper and purer, and as easy to get, as when President Richard Nixon declared substance abuse a "national emergency."

Drugs crossing our borders have been widely blamed. To stem them, President Bill Clinton launched Plan Colombia, carried on enthusiastically under the Bush administration. The plan's modus operandi is war from the sky — aerial spraying that has covered 2.4 million acres of Colombia's coca plant and opium poppy fields — almost as much territory as Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

The U.S. Embassy in Bogotá has become our second-largest diplomatic mission, employing more than 2,000 people. Still, the U.N. reports, Colombia last year produced 776 metric tons of cocaine, enough to supply 80 percent of the world market. Great victory.

In Afghanistan, the provider of a huge portion of the world's heroin, production is soaring with the profits funding insurgents and criminals. Drug cartels with their own armies regularly engage NATO forces — as serious a threat as the Taliban. High-level government officials and police are reportedly corrupted. And the U.S. still presses eradication programs that alienate villagers.

And Mexico? Under Vicente Fox's presidency, Mexico captured several drug-gang leaders, seized record amounts of drugs and extradited about 50 suspected traffickers to the U.S. Our government is said to be pleased. Except that gang-sparked gunfights, kidnappings and murders have escalated along the U.S.-Mexico border. A vast majority of cocaine entering the U.S., plus increasing amounts of marijuana and methamphetamine, continues to flow through Mexico.

We'd be incredibly better off if we had treated drugs as a public-health issue instead of a criminal issue — as the celebrated Nobel Prize-winning economist, Milton Friedman, in fact advised us. Friedman, who died last month at 94, witnessed America's misadventure into alcohol prohibition in his youth. "We had this spectacle of Al Capone, of the hijackings, the gang wars," wrote Friedman. He decried turning users into criminals: "Prohibition is an attempted cure that makes matters worse — for both the addict and the rest of us."

And in one of his last interviews, Friedman asked the relevant questions: "Should we allow the killing to go on in the ghettos? 10,000 additional murders a year? ... Should we continue to destroy Colombia and Afghanistan?"

The ironic truth is that humans have used drugs — psychoactive substances ranging from opium and coca to alcohol, hemp, tobacco and coffee — since the dawn of history. Problems get triggered when substances are associated with despised or feared subgroups, according to a careful study by the King County, Wash., Bar Association.

Tobacco users returning to Spain from the Americas in the 16th century, for example, were subject to tortures of the Inquisition because they smoked like "savages." Coffeehouses were politically suspect in 17th-century Eastern Europe, with users subject to the death penalty.

In this country, opium was widely applied medicinally up to 1900, but then became associated with "opium dens" operated by Chinese immigrants. Cocaine, used by oppressed Southern field hands to allay their pains, became associated with "Negroes." The same Puritanism and misplaced religious zeal that triggered prohibition of alcohol was gradually applied to more and more substances from the early 1900s onward, culminating in our ugly and now global drug war.

Race remains a disturbing factor: The federal penalty for crack cocaine, favored in poor black neighborhoods, remains 10 times that for regular cocaine, more popular among whites.

Yet just think: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson cultivated hemp for pain relief. President William McKinley entertained with coca wine. Coca-Cola contained small amounts of coca and caffeine until the coca was removed in 1903.

The United States professes values of freedom, tolerance and love for peace. Yet now, in its drug laws, its wholesale incarceration practices and increasingly in its international drug practices, the country lurches in a polar-opposite direction.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

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