Prison owners
Make a lot,
By putting kids
In jail for pot.

America recently commemorated the 40th year of its “War on Drugs.” Celebrations were muted because of the war’s dismal failure. How many candles are appropriate for shooting yourself in the foot? Congratulatory cards from sister nations were sparse, since many are urging us to abandon what was a stupid idea in the first place. Gee thanks, Richard Nixon.

It’s even stupider now. The FBI reports 750,000 annual arrests for marijuana possession. How inane is that? Now we have cleverly imposed on each of those malefactors a criminal record, thus making it harder for them to ever get a job. Who was the genius who thought that one up? Maybe it was those tireless leaders who seek to keep African Americans and Latinos “in their place.” Because of racial profiling by police, that place is often jail.

And it’s not as though we’re getting bad advice from abroad. Europe may be flunking Economics 101, but it’s smarter about drugs. In Portugal, where just about all recreational drugs are legal, crime is down and so is use. Treatment, though, is hot, as it is elsewhere on the continent.

A growing number of Latin American leaders now support drug legalization too, especially in the United States. They are sick and tired of the crime and violence their nations suffer from smugglers who use their territory as conduits to the North. At the recent hemispheric leaders summit — the one where members of our Indiscreet Service embarrassed the Obama administration — Washington blew these leaders off.

Neon Tommy/Flickr

Neon Tommy/Flickr

Lucky for President Barack Obama, foreigners can’t vote in U.S. elections. Richard Branson, the British airline tycoon, recently spearheaded a worldwide poll that found that 91 percent of the public would prefer treatment to arrests for minor drug offenses. His margin of error may be a bit high, but you get the idea.

And America already holds the advantage of painful past experience. We went through this exercise once before, with Prohibition. The fear of alcohol clouded our minds so much that we actually passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting it. What a mess that was to undo once we suffered the crime wave that liquor illegality unleashed.

This time around there is blessedly no amendment, but something even worse: money. The “war” has germinated a whole new industry — the prison-industrial complex. It hires lobbyists galore and makes formidable campaign contributions. Hence it’s no accident that our nation sports the world’s largest prison population.

Not only do these needlessly incarcerated inmates generate huge profits for prison investors, they support police unions, guard unions, prosecutors, lawyers, marshals, drivers, and whole remote communities. Liquor and pharmaceutical companies also contribute handsomely to make sure all those competing narcotic products remain illegal.

Much of the industry’s success in keeping the Drug War going, aside from campaign contributions, comes from playing on the fears of parents. One richly publicized tale of drug overdose can spark a regional panic. Hysteria is the prison owner’s friend. We like to think of ourselves as a nation where cooler heads prevail, but alas, with drugs even our president leads us into lunacy.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative, and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.