Recognizing The Cost Of The War On Drugs Is Paid In Human Capital

This morning’s Courier Herald column.

If a few years ago, I had told you that right after Georgia completed a wholesale change of statewide offices to the Republican party with social conservatives firmly in control, that both the Speaker of the House and the Governor would suggest a possible cease fire in the war on drugs, you would have been justified in asking what I was smoking.

Sometimes, however, social policies get additional scrutiny when the coffers that underwrite them run low.   Before budgets can be cut, however, public opinion on such lighting rod topics must be changed, less the leaders and their caucus members open themselves up to being told they are “soft on crime” during their next re-election.

This week, with the attention of the State firmly upon them, both Speaker Ralston and Governor Deal suggested we re-think our approach to the war on drugs.  Said Ralston first:

“We’re spending a huge amount of money locking people up that have drug problems. At some point the people of Georgia have a right to ask if that’s an appropriate way to spend their tax dollars.”

This set the table for Deal, who in his inaugural address added this:

“Presently, one out of every 13 Georgia residents is under some form of correctional control. It cost about $3 million per day to operate our Department of Corrections. And yet, every day criminals continue to inflict violence on our citizens and an alarming number of perpetrators are juveniles…As a State, we cannot afford to have so many of our citizens waste their lives because of addictions. It is draining our State Treasury and depleting our workforce…”

While neither seems to be suggesting anything near legalizing or even decriminalizing drugs, it is clear this is the first step in changing how we deal with casual drug users in the state of Georgia.  The appeal is straight to the wallet.

The cost of a drug conviction is a one two punch.  We must pay to lock up the offender, and then their limited employement ability after a conviction limits future upward mobility, and makes the opportunity cost of a future crime much less.

It is not the first bold move I expected from this Governor nor from this Speaker, but it is a discussion Georgia needs to have.  We need to move more young adults into jobs instead of jails.  The conversation has started.  Please listen closely.


  1. Progressive Dem says:

    I believe Georgia still has has the highest incarceration rate in the US, which makes it one of the highest on the planet. Prisons are mighty expensive. I don’t favor legalization, but I don’t favor long sentences for possession of small amounts either.

    • bgsmallz says:

      But what % of the “sick” folks are uninsured? And who pays for the costs of their addiction when instead being incarcerated they are….?

      I completely agree that locking up drug users doesn’t seem like the best use of dollars, but if we are just going to call thes folks sick and then turn them over to our health care system, we are going to have to fund that, too. Certainly it should be a better investment, but this type of rhetoric seems odd for a group opposed to expanding insurance coverage to uninsured.

      • John Konop says:


        DUI is based on operating a vehicle under the influence. I am not advocating for people being able to do drugs and operate vehicles. What I am saying is criminalizing drug did not work with alcohol and it is not working any better with drugs like marijuana. The biggest winners are gang members and terrorist who use the drug dealing as fuel to destroy people in numerous ways.

        Do you think we should make alcohol illegal again? And if not why do you support marijuana being illegal?

        • KD_fiscal conservative says:

          “Can we then do the same with DUI convictions? No more jail time for repeat offenders?”

          Pete’s at it again. Just like I said before, he is all about making ridiculous sarcastic statements just to try to “instigate” debate.

  2. Dagny says:

    There is a difference between a small amount of pot and a small amount of crack or meth. One is similar to alcohol the others are highly addictive and destroy lives. I do believe the war on drugs is a waste of money and we have made criminals out of casual users but we should not turn a blind eye to the harsher drugs. Perhaps it is time to make marijuana legal for casual use at home.
    Let’s face it; marijuana use does not make a person violent; unless you are between them and a bag of chips. 🙂

  3. saltycracker says:

    It is way past time to get it sorted out between health issues (use) and criminal issues (harm to others or other’s property).

    Legalization, control, tax……Could be one of the state’s best revenue producers (until that isn’t enough) ! Would create thousands of legit public & private jobs ! wow……

  4. Jane says:

    Put prisoners to work. Bring back prison farms and road crews. If free labor will not do it and illegal workers should not do it, then use prisoners. As too drugs, the number of people who actually go to jail based only on a small quanity of grass is very small.

  5. Bucky Plyler says:

    I am not aware that simple drug users have clogged up our state prison system. Most drug users that are convicted are paying fines, doing public service, &/or probation.

    This cost of conviction would seem to be the issue rather than the cost of prison.

    • Pete Randall says:

      Bucky, you are exactly right. The “less than an ounce” marijuana user in Georgia never gets jail time. And repeat cocaine and meth users get multiple bites at the apple with probation and treatment.

      When a repeat DUI offender is arrested, the public wants him/her to serve jail time. When a repeat meth/cocaine user is arrested, for some reason we feel the need to coddle after they have gotten multiple opportunities for treatment and to clean up.

      The meth addict is just as much of a menace as the DUI driver. At some point, jail is the best option to keep them from hurting the general public.

      If someone came up with a new treatment regimen that was more effective, I’d be all for it. For now, the best treatment (after many chances to clean up, mind you) is prison.

      • John Konop says:


        What we learned years ago when we made alcohol legal the bootlegging business and crime associated with it decreased substantially. The moral police approach to health issues does not work.

        We still have problems with alcohol yet most rational people realize that the prohibition made the problem worse. And does it make more sense to spend all the money from police, court system, prison……..on a health issue rather than rehabilitation like we do with alcohol?

      • B Balz says:

        In GA, being convicted of ‘less-than-an-once’ of pot is much harsher than other States, in that all sorts of notifications are generated by the conviction. Alos, we are one of the few ‘tax stamp States’, which opens up a civil violation for larger cases.

        Driver licensing, State Boards, potentially State employers are all required to be notified. Thus, getting caught with a joint, in a school zone due to a motor vehicle accident, becomes a felony. More commonly, a joint can get you on the wrong lists. And in today’s linked world, your record is OPEN.

        In non-metro Counties, getting caught with ‘less-than-an-ounce’ is a much bigger deal than in ATL. That sort of disparity on pot seems wrong to me. Minimal possession of meth or coke in ATL is not as big a deal as it would be in a rural County, and that is hugely wrong.

        Rural counties are putting ‘simple possession’ meth users in the county keep for a long time, with long delays to their their Court date, in an effort to stop the scourge. It may not be right, and like you say, until there is something better, it may seem like the only thing to do. .

        I surmise rural counties more easily link the adverse secondary consequences of having a meth/crack/coke user in public is unacceptable. Yet, jail is a poor option, as drugs are available in there, and it doesn’t address the issue.

        What of the punishment and charge disparity between crack and coke? Same drug, different user set?

        The issue is we allow drug use as a society, and with meth, it is so horribly addictive, any tolerance is catastrophic.

  6. Max Power says:

    Also keep in mind that many of the people incarcerated for drugs are there as a result of a plea deal. Sure we want to charge you with distribution and weapons charges but plead guilty to possession and you will do less time.

  7. Charlie says:

    Good discussion thus far, and that’s the point.

    I don’t think anyone in GA Governement is anywhere near “legalizing” drugs, so let’s try to focus on what works with the current system, but more importantly, what could be changed for the better.

    Pete, what is your opinion of drug courts, and greater use of pre-trial diversion for first offenders so there’s no record, or no “list” as B Balz puts it?

    For those arguing broad “legalization”, do you agree that meth is in a different category and has no positive benefits but many harmful effects both for the individual and society as a whole? And if so, do we agree that harsh sentences for meth use and certainly need to remain, while less stringent laws for marijuana use should be explored?

    Carry on.

    • John Konop says:

      … you agree that meth is in a different category and has no positive benefits but many harmful effects both for the individual and society as a whole? And if so, do we agree that harsh sentences for meth use ….

      Meth is the most addictive drug and yields the most harm to all involved. Yet throwing meth users in prison does not solve anything and usually only creates lifetime criminals. I am not for legalizing Meth but rehabilitation makes more sense than prison.

        • John Konop says:

          If we decimalized drug usage and made it a very high fine for Meth or an option for rehabilitation in many cases the cost would be picked up by private citizens. And for people, who could not afford the rehabilitation it could be subsidized via a combination of charities, using some of the savings from the system and patients paying once they get a job.

          And the end of day no system will be a 100% as with alcohol today. Yet the above idea would yield better results with less cost than the current system.

          • Charlie says:

            I think you’re essentially arguing for a drug court John, plus expanded pre-trial diversion tactics.

            I won’t pretend to be an expert in this field (like I do on so many others), but as I understand the drug court, it (with proper legislation behind it) would set up a mix of pre-trial diversion/counseling/rehab, combined with ongoing monitoring/follow up similar to probation, with the potential to have a record expunged after a period of time based on positive changes/adherence to drug court’s plan of action.

            I am not for decriminalizing meth, personally, in any form. But I would like to see alternatives for first time offenders who possibly made one bad mistake.

            A second, third, fourth mistake, however, not so much.

            • John Konop says:


              ….I am not for decriminalizing meth, personally, in any form. But I would like to see alternatives for first time offenders who possibly made one bad mistake.
              A second, third, fourth mistake, however, not so much….

              Not all alcoholics get it together the first time in rehab. And if the person does not commit a criminal act ie theft, DUI….the harm is mainly extended on them and or their family. As long as the act is only using no matter how many times they should be in rehab over being in prison. Obviously the “war on drugs” threat of prison is not working Charlie,

              ….I am not for decriminalizing meth, personally, in any form. But I would like to see alternatives for first time offenders who possibly made one bad mistake.
              A second, third, fourth mistake, however, not so much….

              Not all alcoholics get it together the first time in rehab. And if the person does not commit a criminal act ie theft, DUI….the harm is mainly extended on them and or their family. As long as the act is only using no matter how many times they should be in rehab over being in prison. Obviously the “war on drugs” threat of prison is not working as a deterrent. And with the repeats rates in prison the sentence becomes a school on how to become a life time criminal.

  8. Three Jack says:

    if as most elected officials say, ‘all things are on the table’ when it comes to funding government these days, then i strongly believe marijuana legalization should be part of the debate. charlie made the seemingly correct statement that we are not near the point of legalizing pot yet, but why not? what is stopping the discussion/debate if ‘all things are on the table’?

    • Charlie says:

      I’m not saying it can’t be on the table, just that in practicality, GA isn’t anywhere near that. Even California stopped short of legalizing pot by public referendum in November. We haven’t even discussed medical marijuana seriously, and can’t even get Sunday sales passed.

      Thus, we can debate legalizing weed here all day long. But in reality, that’s a bridge much farther than the vast majority of pols are willing to travel today.

    • macho says:

      Although I strongly disagree with the logic behind the authority, the Federal Government says it has the right to outlaw drugs through a bastardized interpretation of the Commerce Clause. In the case of CA and medicinal marijuana, the Feds are simply choosing not to intervene. It would be interesting to see a state legalize marijuana all together and see what the Feds decide to do.

  9. analogkid says:

    The solution I believe is to make marijuana possession < 1 ounce a misdemeanor, punishable by fine and confiscation of the substance. As Konop alluded to above, I would treat marijuana use while operating a motor vehicle the same as a DUI however.

  10. macho says:

    Don’t honestly know the answer to this question, but my gut tells very few people are being incarcerated, for any length of time, strictly for drug use. I’m guessing most are doing lengthy time for the crimes associated with drug use – distribution or robbery.

    While marijuana is fairly innocuous, meth use almost guarantees you are going to have to steal and rob people. You’ll be unable to hold a job doing meth and will have to come up with a source of cash for your drug habit. I was watching a show on A&E and numerous DA’s stated that 80 to 90% of their identity theft cases were meth related. Talk with any cop, and he’ll tell you 90% of robberies are drug related.

    I could be dead wrong about all this, but I doubt many people are serving a lot of time just for being caught with personal amount of drugs.

  11. saltycracker says:

    Legalization of pot to some definable level allows control and taxation. Then there is a revenue source to address health issues.

    Criminalizing drug use to stop real criminal activities is as futile as criminalizing bad parenting.

    What makes no sense is the position that we are not legislatively ready to change course so let’s rearrange the deck chairs.

  12. John Konop says:

    Food for thought…… How does the “War on Drugs” help us?

    ….According to the Bureau of Prisons, the fee to cover the average cost of incarceration for Federal inmates in 2006 was $24,440.[104] The annual cost of receiving treatment in a drug court program ranges from $900 to $3,500. Drug courts in New York State alone saved $2.54 million in incarceration costs.[103]…….

    …..A 2008 study by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron has estimated that legalizing drugs would inject $76.8 billion a year into the U.S. economy — $44.1 billion from law enforcement savings, and at least $32.7 billion in tax revenue ($6.7 billion from marijuana, $22.5 billion from cocaine and heroin, remainder from other drugs).[67][68] Recent surveys help to confirm the consensus among economists to reform drug policy in the direction of decriminalization and legalization.[69]……

  13. brettbittner says:

    A couple of things to note:

    1. Decriminalization is NOT the same as legalization. The state of California figured out that they could postpone the inevitable legalization by decriminalizing pot right before the election that included the legalization proposition (A citizen-driven initiative that we lack here in Georgia). Decriminalization of marijuana possession (one ounce, three ounces, whatever) would be treated in a manner similar to a speeding ticket… Pay a fine by your court date and be on your way. This would keep officers from arresting, judges from adjudicating bail hearings, county jails from being overrun with those who await trial, and allow the police, courts, and prisons to do what they were designed to do — Find and keep the violent criminals behind bars.

    2. The allusion by the Governor (and the Speaker) in no way indicates to me that he (or they) intends to examine a “cease fire in the war on drugs” as Charlie suggests. The programs they have in mind are expansions of drug courts, alternative avenues for adjudication, and is a GROWTH in the size and scope of government disguised as a cost savings. For the fiscal conservative, growing the size of government, especially in the area of criminal justice, is the opposite of a solution to the budgetary concerns this state faces. Do we really want more money going into a system that can’t manage to keep cell phones out of the hands of felons who were able to COORDINATE A STATEWIDE STRIKE with them.

    3. While I appreciate that the topic of drug law reform is on the table, I think that growing the government to “reform” it is a mistake. Our fellow Georgians would still have their possessions at risk of civil asset forfeiture, their arrest record permanently marked, and their life at risk as the courts and jail system that allowed someone like Gregory Favors to skate in and out of the system more than 15 times get BIGGER. The only way to keep violent criminals in jail before trial and prison after conviction is to have the sufficient resources to do so. By jailing, even as they await arraignment, an offender, that is a bed that could house a REAL bad guy. The only way to stop the merry-go-round of convicted felons is to prevent non-violent offenders from seeing the inside of a jail cell. Without getting too philosophical, where should we focus our criminal justice system’s resources? A guy who was smoking a joint in the comfort of his own home? C’mon…

    Yes, I realize that much of what I’ve laid out requires a major overhaul of the criminal justice system, but to truly address the problems of the current system, a major overhaul is necessary. We’ve seen that the Band-Aids of mandatory sentencing, “three strikes you’re out,” and the like only make politicians look good to those who elected them, because once they are implemented and the unintended consequences run their full course, that politician is gone and we lay blame with their successors.

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