Friday, December 03, 2004

The Drug War Toll Mounts

December 2, 2004

The Drug War Toll Mounts

by Radley Balko

Radley Balko is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute.

In Washington, D.C., a 27-year old quadriplegic is sentenced to ten days in jail for marijuana possession, where he dies under suspicious circumstances. In Florida, a wheelchair-bound multiple sclerosis patient now serves a 25-year prison sentence for using an out-of-state doctor to obtain pain medication. And in Palestine, Texas, prosecutors arrest 72 people -- all of them black -- and charge them with distributing crack cocaine. The scene bears a remarkable resemblance to a similar mass, mostly-black drug bust in nearby Tulia five years ago.

These examples aren't exceptional. They're typical. America's drug war marches on, impervious to efficacy, justice, or absurdity. Drug prohibition was nowhere to be found in Election 2004. There was no mention of it in the debates, the conventions, or the endless cable news campaign coverage.

In some ways, that was a blessing. Campaign discussion of drug prohibition has too often focused on which candidate took what drugs when, and who was more sorry for having done so.

While it's refreshing that we've moved beyond apologies, it's also true that under the laws many of today's politicians support, a kid who experiments with illicit drugs the same way many of them once did may not get the chance to finish school or go to college, much less run for political office.

The number of policymakers who've dared to question any aspect of the drug war could comfortably fit on the back of a pocket-sized edition of the Bill of Rights. This needs to change. America should reexamine its drug policy.

Today, federal and state governments spend between $40 and $60 billion per year to fight the war on drugs, about ten times the amount spent in 1980 -- and billions more to keep drug felons in jail. The U.S. now has more than 318,000 people behind bars for drug-related offenses, more than the total prison populations of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain combined.

Our prison population has increased by 400 percent since 1980, while the general population has increased just 20 percent. America also now has the highest incarceration rate in the world -- 732 of every 100,000 citizens are behind bars.

The drug war has wrought the zero tolerance mindset, asset forfeiture laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and countless exceptions to criminal defense and civil liberties protections. Some sociologists blame it for much of the plight of America's inner cities. Others point out that it has corrupted law enforcement, just as alcohol prohibition did in the 1920s.

On peripheral issues like medicinal marijuana and prescription painkillers, the drug war has treated chronically and terminally ill patients as junkies, and the doctors who treat them as common pushers. Drug war accoutrements, such as "no-knock" raids and searches, border patrols, black market turf wars and crossfire, and international interdiction efforts, have claimed untold numbers of innocent lives.

For all that sacrifice, are we at least winning?

Even by the government's own standards for success, the answer is unquestionably "no." The illicit drug trade is estimated to be worth $50 billion today ($400 billion worldwide), up from $1 billion 25 years ago. Annual surveys of high school seniors show heroin and marijuana are as available today than they were in 1975. Deaths from drug overdoses have doubled in the last 20 years.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the price of for a gram of heroin has dropped by about 38 percent since 1981, while the purity of that gram has increased six-fold. The price of cocaine has dropped by 50 percent, while its purity has increased by 70 percent. Just recently, the ONDCP waged a public relations campaign against increasingly pure forms of marijuana coming in from Canada.

So despite all of the money we've spent and people we've imprisoned, despite the damage done to our cities and the integrity of our criminal justice system, despite the restrictions we've allowed on our civil liberties, despite the innocent lives lost and the needless suffering we've imposed on sick people and their doctors -- despite all of this -- the drug trade isn't just thriving, it's growing. Illicit drugs are cheaper, more abundant, and of purer concentration than ever before.

Like alcohol prohibition before it, drug prohibition has failed, by every conceivable measure. Isn't it about time for America to take a hard look at its drug policy?

Tuesday, November 30, 2004


Hey, you know what someone should do? Someone should create a web site that shows movie trailers for books. But not those lame, formulaic action movie trailers. They should do them like those smart, noir thriller action trailers. Wouldn't that be a great idea?

Done. Ladies and gentlemen, VidLit.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Rock Star Trumps Everything

Steve Barancik--the screenwriter of one of my favorite noir movies, The Last Seduction--happens to live here in Tucson. He started something called Monolog Cabin where local writers read their funny mononloges at the Club Congress. I took one of my favorite party conversation starters, put it down on paper and performed it last night. It's been quite a while since I've been on stage, and even though I wasn't doing stand up, I got a lot of laughs and was able to scratch that itch. Here's the piece that I did.

Rock Star Trumps Everything

I’m a stand up comedian by trade. And I’m damn good at it. I don’t feel the least bit arrogant in saying that I believe one day I’ll be great at it. The goal is for me to be rich and famous and have people like you tuning in to HBO to watch my one hour special, then going to work the next day and screwing up my punch lines by the water cooler. That’s the plan anyway. I know it sounds ridiculously ambitious, but that’s what I’m shooting for. As a great man once said, “I don’t want to go to the dance unless I get to rub some tit.”

My wife and I lived in Los Angeles before coming to Tucson, and I was a paid regular at the Improv in Hollywood. One Thursday evening—after a particularly good set—I came home feeling pretty damn full of myself. And also full of a fair amount of Jack & Coke. I turned on the television just in time to catch the beginning of Meeting People is Easy, the 1999 documentary about the rock group Radiohead. Sitting there, watching Tom Yorke and company enthrall huge arenas of people that don’t even speak English, I had an epiphany. I realized that no matter how funny I become, I’m never going to make people cry. Once, in South Bend, Indiana I noticed quite a few people laughing hard enough to force a couple of involuntary tears from their eyes, but I’m talking about full on weeping. I’m never going to inspire grown men to hurl their bodies into other grown men. There’s no comedy club most pit. No teenager is ever going to lock themselves into their room after an argument with their parents and listen to my CD over and over again thinking, “My parents just don’t get me, but Nick Adams, he knows how I really feel.” No matter how good I get at stand up, I’ll never be a rock star, and rock star trumps everything. By that I mean that rock star is far and way the most sublime, most enviable profession that you possibly have. Period. It’s not just a theory, it’s the truth. It’s gospel. It’s irrefutable. Go ahead and rack your brains thinking of something, anything that can compare.

See? Told you. Rock star trumps everything. No matter how good you are at what you do. No matter how many promotions you get, no matter how much money you make, somewhere there’s a decent bass player in a moderately successful indie rock group…and he’s cooler than you. Now, in order to put rock star ahead of everything, you have to examine the other careers. Honestly, there are only a handful of professions that are even worthy of comparison. So, let’s take a look at some of the other possibilities.

Professional Athlete

Definitely a contender. Every heterosexual man—and some homosexual—have at least one sports fantasy. If you don’t, you’re technically not a man. And I mean that. I absolutely do not trust a man that doesn’t enjoy and follow at least one sport. I know that a lot of women may not understand this position, so I’ll try and help you relate. A man who doesn’t like sports is like a woman who doesn’t…have a vagina. I, for one, have enough sports fantasies for me and a few other men. Let’s just say that if Kobe Bryant ever decides to leave Los Angeles, there’s a certain 5’11”, 31-year-old, non-jumping, sharp shooting guard out of Wake Forest University who would be more than happy to take his place. And I’ll be a real sport and play for half his salary. Not only will I play shooting guard, I’ll spend a few weeks at Pima Community College, get a certificate and bingo…you’ve got yourself a team acupuncturist.

There is one big problem with being a professional athlete. No matter how good you are, eventually you’re going to end up on the short end of the stick. If you’re a rock star, you never lose. You can have a bad show. You can put out a bad album. But you don’t lose. There is no quantitative determination of your success or failure. If you’re not a commercial success, you can say that your music is too serious and intellectual for the masses. If you sell a lot of albums, but aren’t taken seriously by critics and music snobs, you can say that they’re just high-minded, bourgeois posers who aren’t in touch with the common man. As an athlete, every time you take the field or the court you can possibly lose and lose horribly. You can get booed. You can get jeered. You can have stuff thrown at you. You can get injured. One bad mistake can ruin your entire career. Just ask Bill Buckner.

Also, at the end of an athlete’s season you can sit down and examine statistically just how good, or bad, they were that year. You can’t do that for a rock star. I wish you could. There’s nothing that I would love more than to be able to prove, mathematically, to Britney Spears fans that she has absolutely no fucking talent whatsoever. And to finally convince white people that Eminem isn’t the greatest rapper of all time, he’s just the whitest rapper of all time. He’s also misogynistic and violently homophobic, but for some reason white people don’t want to hear that either. And you can tell little Marshall Mathers I said that.


At first glance, this profession seems to be on a par with rock star. The access to top quality actress pussy alone makes this a career choice worth considering. Actors don’t even have to pretend to be married to unattractive women. Just watch television. The only way Leah Remini would even be in the same room with a fat ass like Kevin James is if you pay her 30 grand a week, tape record their interactions, broadcast it on CBS and call it King of Queens. The problem with being an actor is that when you’re a nobody—either a working actor who no one has ever heard of, or an actor who’s yet to get work—you’re just that…a nobody. As a rock star, just being in a band and being able to play an instrument is enough to get you laid. A lot. You can sit around and talk about the kind of music that you play, and who your influences are and sound really impressive. No one wants to hear some half-assed actor talk about how much he wants to be the next Jack Lemmon.

Russell Crowe is just about as big as an actor can get. Is he content with being an amazingly talented performer and a box office superstar? Nope. Guess what he does in his spare time? That’s right, he runs around the world fronting his own rock group called 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. By the way, this little bit of trivia spawned another essay of mine titled, That’s The Worst Fucking Band Name Ever.


They say that power is sexy, and this is one of the most powerful jobs you can have. But let’s be honest, this country hasn’t seen a really cool politician since the Kennedys were killed. Bill Clinton was the hippest president we’ve had since then, and he’s married to a dowdy, dull, unattractive woman. He was so desperate and horny that he cheated on her with a dowdy, dull, unattractive intern. Not cool. If you’re a rock star, I don’t care how decrepit and scary-looking you get, there is always a freakishly attractive twenty-year-old who’s willing to be your personal love slave as long as there’s a state fair or an Indian casino in need of some classic rock entertainment on a Thursday night. And when Clinton was first campaigning and wanted to make himself appeal to a younger demographic, what did he do? He picked up a saxophone and went on the Arsenio Hall Show. Instant rock star politician. Next thing you know, hail to the chief.

I know exactly what you tote bag carrying, reading, independent film supporting sheep are thinking right now. What about Barak Obama? What about him? Every liberal who’s nipples got hard during his speech at the Democratic convention would trample Barak Obama and scramble over his lifeless corpse just to have their picture taken with Bono. Believe that.

High School Vice Principal

Just kidding. The shoes they wear alone put these guys out of the running. Sorry Mr. Bunch.

Male Porn Star

Wow. Finally, we have a worthy challenger. Male porn stars—And why is everyone in the adult film industry automatically a star? Aren’t there any character actors in porn?—get paid to have lots of sex with beautiful, slutty women of all ethnicities. Women who say things like, “Yeah. Cum all over me.” And actually mean it! Sounds like a dream job right? Ever wonder why you see the same four or five guys in porno movies over and over again? It’s because there are only a handful of men whose dicks can stand up to the daily grind of pounding poontang after poontang for hours a day. If you do anything too much, it starts to feel like work. Even sex. Besides, who gets to bang more hot chicks than rock stars? That’s right. Nobody. And if for some reason you don’t feel like having sex, you can just throw a tantrum. Once you start screaming about how no one understands you and “you’re all just leeches sucking the blood right out of me” and kick everyone out of the hotel suite they’ll mark it up to creative eccentricity. Also, rock stars can ejaculate when and where they damn well please. Not on some director’s cue thank you very much.

At this point, I could treat this like a town hall meeting and open up the floor for questions. “But Nick, what about marine biologist?” Shit like that. But trust me folks, I’ve spent hours investigating and researching other profession, and those are the only ones that even come close. Besides, this is probably the only inherently unique and fundamentally correct thought that I’ve ever had in my entire life. So, even if I am wrong, do you really want to ruin my night?

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