Steve Chapman

Spending huge sums of money and getting no results to justify the expense: That's the relentless, and accurate, Republican critique of President Barack Obama's efforts to revive the U.S. economy. But it also describes a policy staunchly supported by Republicans as well as Democrats decade after decade: the war on drugs.

When the government lays out hundreds of billions to keep unemployment from rising above 8 percent, only to see it hit 10 percent, the obvious implication is that the policy didn't work. But when the government lays out tens of billions to reduce illicit drug use and finds that it has increased, the obvious implication is one that eludes almost every politician in America.

A few weeks ago, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) published the latest chapter in a long-running horror tale. In 2009, it found, nearly 22 million Americans used illegal drugs -- a 9 percent increase from the previous year and the highest rate since the survey began in 2002.

That happened even though federal, state and local authorities have been expanding enforcement efforts against drugs. Since 1981, Washington has gone from spending $1.5 billion a year to spending $17 billion a year.

How does the administration explain the jump in illegal activity? You guessed it: Our policies are way too permissive. Commenting on the rise in marijuana use, Gil Kerlikowske, head of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, insisted that "all of the attention and the focus of calling marijuana medicine has sent the absolute wrong message to our young people."

What message does he mean? Presumably, that cannabis is not as destructive as commonly portrayed by ONDCP and others. What makes the message particularly troublesome is that it happens to be true. Marijuana is not entirely without risks, but compared to such legal alternatives as tobacco and alcohol, it's an alley cat among mountain lions.

The government has been using police and prisons to convey the opposite message, with pitiful results, for a long time. Each year, nearly 1.7 million people are arrested for drug violations, of which 758,000 are for mere possession of cannabis. About half a million people are serving time in prison for drug offenses.

But these harsh policies don't seem to inhibit growers, dealers and buyers. They persist in finding ways to do business no matter what. The Vancouver-based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy points out that over the past 20 years, weed in the United States has gotten 58 percent cheaper, in inflation-adjusted terms.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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