Drug War a Failure, Coloradans Say in Poll
by Ari Armstrong
[The following article originally appeared in the November/December 2001 edition of Colorado Liberty.]
"83% of Colorado voters believe that we are losing the war on drugs. The majority of voters believe the war on drugs has been ineffective in reducing drug use and supply in Colorado... 85% believe that the current war on drugs is dealing with symptoms of drug abuse but failing to solve the underlying causes... Colorado voters clearly view the current war on drugs as a failure and view addiction as primarily a health problem, not a crime."
Those were the findings of a poll released in September by Ridder/Braden, Inc. The poll was commissioned by the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center, with funding from the Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation. The Center is part of Colorado's Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (formerly the Prison Moratorium Coalition), which the previous LP state board voted to endorse.
Sheriff Bill Masters of Telluride said, "It is not surprising that the public would prefer their criminal justice system to be tracking down murderers and terrorists as opposed to wasting precious police officers' time and money arresting 750,000 harmless pot smokers every year.
"The President should immediately end the drug war and assign the job of investigating and tracking down terrorists to the 9,000-plus experienced agents, analysts, and chemists currently working for the DEA. We all might sleep better knowing that our federal law enforcement agencies' number one priority will always be the vigilant protection of our citizens from vicious murderers."
Masters is Colorado's highest-ranking Libertarian official and the nation's only Libertarian sheriff. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Drug War Addiction.
State Chair John Berntson said, "While I am gratified that people agree with us on the uselessness of the drug war, I hope they will take it further and see that the drug war is far worse than a failure. The violence of this war, which is inherent in any black market, has claimed far too many lives, many of them innocent. The loss of rights and privacy that we have all suffered because of this war needs to be realized and reversed."
The poll asked, "In general, do you view a person with a drug problem as a criminal who should be punished by being sent to prison or as someone with a health problem who should receive treatment?" 59% said drug addiction is primarily a health problem, whereas 11% said it is a crime.
Coloradans also support reducing criminal penalties for possession of drugs. The poll asked, "If someone with a drug problem is convicted of possessing small quantities of drugs for their own use, should they be punished by being sent to prison or regarded as someone with a health problem who should receive treatment and supervision?" 60% said drug possession should be treated as a health problem, while 21% said it should be treated as a crime.
Of course, such poll data are ambiguous in some respects. Libertarians don't support tax-funded treatment or mandatory supervision for non-violent persons. An either-or question doesn't allow for nuanced replies.
A similar problem arises with the following poll result. 73% of people said they agree with the statement, "Colorado would be better off if we decreased criminal penalties for people possessing small quantities of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor and spent the money saved on prison costs to increase drug treatment and prevention programs."
Libertarians think Colorado would be "better off" still if the savings were reflected in a tax decrease. However, even though the poll doesn't answer all the questions Libertarians find interesting, it's clear the vast majority of voters in the state support the Libertarian position that the drug war is a failure and should be reformed by moving away from criminal penalties.
Libertarians have long advocated the complete repeal of drug prohibition. Thus, candidates saw the poll results as an encouraging sign the public may be ready to support the Libertarian view.
Bob Glass, candidate for governor, said, "The drug war is an insidious evil that kills innocent people and destroys our rights. Libertarians have always opposed drug prohibition. This poll proves that when we put principles first, we can bring people closer to an understanding of liberty. My attitude is, let's tell people the truth and move public opinion in the right direction."
James Vance, also a candidate for governor, said, "As a gubernatorial candidate concerned with the unnecessary and often excessive incarcerations of individuals on various drug-related charges, this survey shows that Coloradans obviously understand the waste of energy and resources on this black hole we have labeled the 'drug war.' We need to end this 'war' now instead of later, when there are more casualties and less resources that can be directed to better uses such as drug treatment and prevention programs.
"As a political candidate who is of this same mindset which the survey illustrates, I am prepared to, when elected Governor of Colorado, make the people's voice on the topic heard loud and clear through my office. I am also willing to take actions within the Governor's power to deny the 'drug war' any cooperation from this great state, which seems to be more understanding of reality than the federal agencies engaged in and seemingly propagating the already lost 'war.'"
Norm Olsen, candidate for State House, said, "Libertarians have been advocating termination of the 'War on Drugs' for some 25 years now. It is nice to see that this idea is now considered mainstream. I like to think that what we've been doing has helped produce this positive result."
Mark Holden, another candidate for State House, said, "Clearly, the vast majority of Colorado voters believe the 'War on Drugs' has failed to reduce drug abuse in our state." In reference to shifting tax money to treatment, Holden said, "While this is not a pure Libertarian solution, it would be an important step in the right direction; a limited demonstration of libertarian principles and a less coercive approach to solving a social problem."
Christie Donner, state coordinator of the Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said that current "elected officials are out of step with Colorado voters."