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The drug war: why we cannot have nice things like trains that work

It’s budget time again, and everyone is looking for ways to cut corners. When it comes to public transportation, cutting corners isn’t easy or advisable—especially in Boston, where the system already requires significant infrastructural investment. A number of years ago, the state legislature in Massachusetts put up the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Administration (MBTA) as collateral to build a massive tunnel system underneath the city. You might have heard of this project, the Big Dig. The plan backfired majorly, leaving the MBTA in billions of dollars of debt to foreign banks, and leaving taxpayers on the hook—with a barely functional transportation system, to boot.

As a result, we have a mediocre transportation system relied upon by millions of commuters and city dwellers, and regular rate hikes to sustain that crumbling system.

Today, in the first days of 2016, the MBTA budget hawks are squawking once more, warning the public that in order to start paying for infrastructure repairs and to maintain the system, riders will soon face hikes of between 5-10%. The modest goal is to raise an additional $33-49 million per year for the T (that’s what we call our train and bus system). That’s not much money, but apparently there’s nowhere else to find it besides taxpayer’s pocketbooks.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts politicos are debating what to do about a growing opioids crisis. People in our great Commonwealth are dying from heroin overdoses like never before. Many of those people are white, so the conversation sounds very different from the one we had about crack cocaine in the 1980s and 90s. Namely, we are hearing politicians and even cops say totally sensible things like, “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” and, “Drugs are a public health, not criminal justice issue.”

That’s great. The drug war is terrible public policy, and policy makers are right to reject its rhetoric. But rejecting the rhetoric is ultimately meaningless if the policy remains the same. And in Massachusetts, it does: Police are still arresting people on drug charges, and those people are still going to prison for those drug charges.

In the midst of these two crises—a public health crisis and a public transit crisis—things on Beacon Hill are prickly, in no small part because of the looming budget conversation coming this spring. If you approach a politician with a proposal that includes appropriations, you might as well stay home. Budget neutral or GTFO is the word in Boston these days. Sure, additional treatment beds for people addicted to drugs would be great. But unless you’ve got a fairy godmother who can magically produce those beds without additional state expenditures, you can forget about them. It’s the rare politician who will go on the record to say it so plainly, but that’s the dismal truth.

In light of these troubles, I have a humble suggestion: We should end the war on drugs and put some of the millions saved into systems that desperately need it, like public transportation. The numbers back me up.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Massachusetts police arrest approximately 11,000 people per year on drug offenses. The organization Real Cost of Prisons says that Massachusetts spends over $120 million per year incarcerating drug offenders. About 60% of these people are serving time for low-level offenses. If we stopped incarcerating those people, we would save at least $55 million, and as much as $75 million, per year.

Excluding the amount of money localities would save in policing, court, and jail costs by not arresting those 11,000 people per year, we could guarantee a savings of $55 million per year if we stopped locking up low-level drug offenders, and as much as $120 million per year if we stopped incarcerating people for all prohibition crimes.

The MBTA is going to propose two rate hikes, the largest of which would, officials hope, net an extra $49 million for the T per year.

If we stopped incarcerating people for drug crimes, as many politicians and even police claim to want to, we could save more than two times the figure the MBTA needs to raise in rate hikes—with no rate hikes.

Politics is a complex game involving a whole bunch of factors that have nothing to do with reason or facts. But we should nonetheless inject some facts into the conversation, and insist that they are central to driving public policy.

Among those facts? Massachusetts isn’t broke; we just spend our money foolishly. If we stopped putting people in cages for selling and using drugs, we could afford to have a modern transportation system without painful rate hikes every few years.

Just imagine what we could do if we legalized drugs, and reaped the tax rewards from the sales, as Colorado has with marijuana. From legalizing weed alone, that state has generated millions of dollars in taxes, and saved millions in prohibition costs.

In a world without drug prohibition, perhaps we could have free coffee and hand warmers on the clean and modern trains that run on time, and even through the snow? We can dream.

© 2022 ACLU of Massachusetts.