Revelations of egregious misconduct at a Jamaica Plain crime lab — affecting tens of thousands of drug samples that were used to put people behind bars — mark one of the biggest criminal justice scandals in the Commonwealth’s history. It should also mark the beginning of the end of our state’s drug war.
It is now well known that the drug war has failed, and with the Jamaica Plain crime lab it has failed spectacularly. According to news reports, chemist Annie Dookhan bypassed protocols and affirmatively tampered with drug samples, resulting in some 34,000 cases that now rest on tainted evidence. The scandal already has cost the jobs of several public officials, including Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach.
But identifying the affected prisoners will take many years and a whole lot of money. Governor Patrick and other public officials are vowing to do the hard work necessary to sort out this mess, as well they should.
But to what end? So that we can return to the orderly churning out of drug prosecutions?
Let’s hope not. Despite spending more than $1 trillion fighting the war on drugs, we have produced only an exploding prison population. Driven in significant measure by prosecutions of nonviolent drug offenders, the U.S. incarceration rate has quadrupled since 1980, and it now dwarfs the rates for all other democracies. As writer Adam Gopnick has observed, “there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America — more than six million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.”
Yet we’re no closer to winning the war. In fact, Drug Enforcement Administration data shows that cocaine, for example, is now 74 percent cheaper than it was 30 years ago. According to a June 2011 report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, many public officials now “acknowledge privately” that “the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won.”
If those officials are right — and of course they are — then continuing the drug war is worse than pointless. It is immoral. It means locking up countless people who could benefit from treatment instead of imprisonment. It means fueling deadly drug-related violence throughout world. And it means inviting inevitable scandals, like the one at the Jamaica Plain crime lab.
It means that most of the money devoted to the drug war would be put to better use if we just set it on fire.
Matt Segal is legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.