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 6 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 repair.