Thinking about this poor, troubled, violent little state, I see no silver bullet to cure all its ills. But if there was one stoke of fiat law which I could perform to heal open wounds, right social wrongs, balance the state budget, and bring peace to our homes and streets, it would be the decriminalization of drugs — all drugs.
If drugs were as easy and inexpensive to obtain as beer or bourbon, few people would have to steal to support their habits. They would not have to meet strange and dangerous people in strange and dangerous places to get their fixes. They would not have to pack guns and occasionally kill each other in the process of buying their drugs of choice. We would not have police kicking down doors, terrorizing neighborhoods, breaking laws, and trampling civil liberties in the name of fighting the War on Drugs.
Our streets would be safer, the prison population would shrink, and resources we now spend on arresting, trying, and incarcerating drug users and dealers could be used on a host of more beneficial programs, including drug rehabilitation.
Yet, as you listen to the candidates — national and statewide — talk about their solutions to America's problems, think about this: When was the last time you heard one of them address our corrupt and ineffective drug laws? Drug policy is the proverbial third rail which no politician dare touch except to call for tougher laws and longer sentences.
What we need in this state and country is an informed discussion of drugs and drug laws, a discussion without politics and passion. That is what the League of Women Voters of the Charleston Area (LWVCA) offers with a new study: "Mapping the Elephant: Illegal Drugs in South Carolina."
The footnoted, 111-page study reaches no conclusions. It does not advocate or editorialize. It is a straightforward (and rather dry) statement of where America stands in this endless war on itself.
"The purpose of this study was to take a snapshot of where we are now," said Sharon Fratepietro, who spent six months researching and writing the study (available at lwvcharleston.org). "We sought neutrality on all issues."
"It is for people who have really not thought about drug policy before, except to say, 'If we put them in jail, we've solved the problem," said Mary Horres, president of the LWVCA.
Putting them in jail has cost this country hundreds of billions of dollars in recent decades and ruined lives, but it has not made us safer. America leads the world in the number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, according to "Mapping the Elephant." With five percent of the world's population, the U.S. has about 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Percentages in South Carolina are comparable.
Yet, despite such a high incarceration rate, most S.C. jails are not compliant with state law requiring them to compile and report jail statistics to a central state agency. And drug use is so pervasive that every year, more than 1,000 state prison inmates test positive for illegal drugs. The true rate of drug use in state prisons is even higher, since not all inmates are tested.
"Prisons are the most controlled places in the state," Fratepietro said. "If we cannot control drugs even in prison, how do we expect to control them outside prison?"
A surprising finding, Fratepietro said, was that the leading thing that keeps people from seeking medical help for their drug problem is a fear of the law. As long as drug use is treated as a criminal justice problem, rather than a health problem, people will avoid seeking medical help for fear of being arrested.
"Mapping the Elephant" is full of useful facts and figures, including a history of attempts to control drugs in the U.S. dating back to 1860. There are abundant charts, maps, and statistical breakouts on demographics, types of drugs, sources of drugs, arrests, prison populations, and much more. It would be impossible to understand S.C.'s drug problem without reading this report, and it would be impossible to deal with our myriad other problems without understanding this state's drug problem.
Fratepietro admits that the study is already somewhat dated, based on new sentencing laws just passed by the General Assembly. She is working on a revised edition to accommodate the new statute. But the study stands as a stinging indictment of this state's traditionally narrow focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation.
Facts are something South Carolinians don't deal with very well. "Mapping the Elephant" offers 111 pages of facts that we must face if we hope to come to grips with the social and economic costs of our War on Drugs. Downloading and reading this report would be a good place to start.
See Will Moredock's blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.