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Cruel and Stupid

A Commentary By John Stossel

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

President Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, ordered federal prosecutors to seek maximum penalties for drug-related crimes.

This is both cruel and stupid.

It's cruel because Session's 5,000 prosecutors must now push for long jail sentences even for people who pose no violent threat and for some who are utterly innocent.

It's stupid because it will cost America a fortune but won't make us safer.

The U.S. already locks up more people than any other country. We have 4 percent of the world's population but more than 20 percent of the world's prisoners.

This happened partly because of bad reporting by people like me. Decades ago, my colleagues and I made people more terrified of crime than they need to be, by covering all the grisly details of local crimes.

"If it bleeds, it leads" became the mantra in newsrooms.

Our scary reporting, combined with a doubling in the crime rate from about 1960 to 1990, led politicians to say, "We must do something!"

Politicians reacted to the media hype by passing three-strikes laws and intensifying the war on drugs.

Three-strikes laws worked, if "worked" means locking people up for longer periods. But taking away judges' ability to use their own judgment is cruel to some defendants.

It's also not clear that the longer sentences made us safer. Crime dropped just as much in states that liberalized sentencing rules as states that did not.

Intensifying the drug war definitely did not work. America locked drug sellers up, but drug use remained the same. Fat black-market profits enticed new groups of sellers to enter the business.

Now, almost no one claims that getting stoned is a good thing. Drugs, like alcohol, should be kept away from children. I admire President Trump's self-restraint. He says he's never used drugs, cigarettes or alcohol partly because his brother, Fred, drank himself to death. Drugs, cigarettes and alcohol do a lot of damage.

But they don't do it to everyone. Lots of American adults manage drug or alcohol use while still raising families and going to work.

Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama used drugs when they were young, but then, when they became presidents, they hypocritically supported the drug war. They locked up other Americans who had less power than they had.

That didn't stop drug sales. The drug war just drove the trade into the hands of nastier criminal gangs. Violence between those gangs is a much bigger problem than the drug use itself.

As Neill Franklin, a former Baltimore police officer and drug warrior, puts it, "Drugs are problematic. But the policies to prohibit their use are 10 times more problematic."

During Prohibition, gangs like Al Capone's shot each other over alcohol. It wasn't because alcohol suddenly made people more violent during those years. It was simply because a popular product was made illegal. The murder rate dropped by half when Prohibition ended.

Trump says he's worried about violence in black neighborhoods and violence committed by drug gangs along the U.S.'s southern border. He's right to worry. So legalize the stuff! Take sales away from the black market.

That's all he'd have to do to take the money and allure out of gang life. When drugs are legal, customers buy intoxicants from ordinary stores, businesses that settle disputes with lawyers instead of guns.

There are no beer or tobacco gangs. Jack Daniels is a mind-altering substance, but liquor sellers don't shoot each other.

Jeff Sessions ought to factor that into claims people make about drug laws enhancing "safety."

The strangest part about his renewed drug war is that we have a clear example of how well people do with loosened drug laws.

Portugal decriminalized every drug. There was no surge in drug abuse -- in fact, the number of young users and problem users dropped.

Give freedom a chance. Dismiss Jeff Sessions. End three-strikes laws. Legalize all drugs.

John Stossel is the author of "No They Can't! Why Government Fails -- But Individuals Succeed." For other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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