Are the 305 million people living in the United States the most evil in the world? Is this the reason why the U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners and an incarceration rate five times as high as the rest of the world?
Or is it a matter of a criminal justice system that has gone dramatically wrong, swamping the prison system with drug offenders?
That rhetorical question, asked on the floor of the U.S. Senate by Virginia Senator Jim Webb, fits into what looks like an accelerating shift in public sentiment on the way that a long parade of administrations has been dealing with illegal drugs.
Advocates of drug reform sensed a change in the public mood even before Webb, a Democrat who served as secretary of the Navy under Republican Ronald Reagan, introduced a bill last month to set up a blue-ribbon commission of “the greatest minds” in the country to review the criminal justice system and recommend reforms within 18 months.
No aspect of the system, according to Webb, should escape scrutiny, least of all “the elephant in the bedroom in many discussions … the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200 percent.”
The elephant has ambled out of the bedroom and has become the object of a lively debate on the pros and cons of legalising drugs, particularly marijuana, among pundits on both sides of the political spectrum, on television panels and in mainstream publications from the Wall Street Journal to TIME magazine.
True watersheds in public attitudes are rarely spotted at the time they take place but the phrase “tipping point” comes up more and more often in discussions on the “war on drugs”.