Jewish World Review
Dec. 4, 2000 / 7 Kislev, 5761
Downey and the Drug War
ACTOR ROBERT DOWNEY JR. is California’s glassy-eyed poster boy for the failed war on drugs. After numerous arrests dating back to 1996 and
several fruitless attempts by the courts to rehabilitate him, Downey served a year in state prison. Barely three months after his release, the
Hollywood celebrity was arrested again on Thanksgiving weekend for possession and use of cocaine and methamphetamine.
Downey’s troubles are the butt of water-cooler jokes around the country. But to anyone who has seen a loved one struggle with addiction,
there’s nothing funny about his plight. Downey is a hopeless junkie whose father reportedly introduced him to marijuana when he was just six
years old. Law enforcement officials may think it’s good social policy to make an example of the actor’s weaknesses. However, Downey’s case
simply underscores that the drug war is a costly and selective form of government paternalism that has done far more harm than good.
A new book of essays issued by the libertarian Cato Institute, "After Prohibition: An Adult Approach to drug Policies in the 21st Century,"
sheds harsh light on what eminent economist Milton Friedman calls the "social tragedy" of drug prohibition. In his foreword to the book,
Friedman points out that the list of illegal drugs includes marijuana – "for which there is no recorded case of a human death from overdose in
several thousand years of use" – but excludes alcohol, "for which the annual death toll in the United States alone is measured in the tens if not
hundreds of thousands."
Friedman decries the looming conversion of the United States into a police state as a result of draconian drug war tactics. "The annual arrest of
nearly a million and a half people suspected of a drug offense, most of them for simple possession of small quantities, is frightening evidence of
how far along that road we have already gone."
Most of those behind bars, unlike Downey, can’t afford to post bail or hire competent lawyers. Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory
Minimums points out that drug offenders now make up 60 percent of the federal prison population, up from 38 percent 14 years ago; in 1998, 57
percent were first offenders and 88 percent had no weapons. "We are not catching drug kingpins," Stewart writes. "We are catching the little
guys, the girlfriends, the mules, and we are sending them to prison for 5 years, 10 years, and often much longer."
Until recently, the government often mocked drug war opponents as a motley crew of free-market intellectuals, ex-hippies, and potheads. But
cops on the front lines of the drug war, firsthand witnesses to its futility, are joining the critics. David Klinger, a former police officer in Los
Angeles and Redmond, Wa., writes of his evolution in thinking about drug policy: "At some point in my first months on patrol, after handling
hundreds of calls that involved drugs, and after arresting scores of people for possessing various sorts of illegal stuff, I began to have doubts
about what my peers and I were doing. I saw violent criminals walking the streets because the jail space they rightfully deserved was occupied
by nonviolent drug offenders."
"I started seeing most of the people I dealt with who had some association with drugs either as broken souls who made self-destructive
choices or harmless people who indulged their appetites in moderation – but not as crooks who needed to be punished." Klinger, now a
criminology professor, concluded from his years on the street: "We cannot protect free adults from their own poor choices, and we should not
use the force of law to try."
Black and white, young and old, famous and nameless – Americans from all walks of life can identify with the broken soul of Robert Downey Jr.
His addiction is his own prison. His public humiliation is its own life sentence. The war on drugs is an expensive quagmire that needlessly
punishes people who’ve already punished themselves beyond
JWR contributor Michelle Malkin can be reached by clicking here.
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© 2000, Creators Syndicate