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Joe Henderson: Newest strategy in war on drugs could look a lot like the old strategy

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A story in Sunday’s Washington Post focused on a new strategy that is being put in play by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the fight against drug abuse. It sounds like a return to the old strategy that was discarded because it was costly and largely ineffective, but the current administration likes to play hardball in all things.

So, welcome to the newest war on drugs.

Such a development is always going to be of interest here in Florida, where illegal drugs have long been a major problem. According to the Post, Sessions has elevated Steven H. Cook to one of the top posts in the U.S. Department of Justice.

His mandate is to undo most of the changes enacted during the Obama administration that reduced lengthy mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Cook, a former police officer and federal prosecutor, believes the harsher the drug penalty, the better.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the while the Post story was making news, Lake County Sheriff Peyton Grinnell posted a Facebook video that is getting lots of attention.

Flanked by four deputies wearing face masks and Kevlar vests, Grinnell warned, “To the (heroin) dealers, I have a message for you: we’re coming for you. Enjoy looking over your shoulders, and constantly wondering if today’s the day.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2015 opioid-related deaths surpassed gun deaths for the first time. Much of that is attributed to people who become addicted to powerful painkillers like OxyContin, a prescription drug that has been described as essentially synthesized heroin. The demand for that and similar drugs helped create the so-called pill mills fueled addiction. Interstate 95 in Florida was considered part of the drug transportation superhighway as traffickers moved the product up and down the coastline.

Obviously, it’s a significant problem. Would a return to tougher law enforcement help?

Prisons are already bulging with drug offenders. There are about 81,000 inmates serving federal terms for drug violations, representing 46 percent of the total prison population. That includes more than 12,000 inmates incarcerated in Florida.

On the state level, drug offenders account for about 14.5 percent of Florida’s prison population. That’s compared to 55 percent who are locked up for violent crimes.

The state estimates it costs $19,577 per year to house an inmate, and Florida law requires that inmates serve 85 percent of their sentences.

For those who think locking up violators for decades will solve the problem, consider the case of Ronnie Music, Jr. of Waycross, Ga., who won $3 million in the Georgia lottery in 2015.

This month he was sentenced to 21 years in the federal pen for his role in a multistate methamphetamine trafficking ring that was being financed partly by his lottery winnings and was being run out of a Georgia prison.

Music got a few years shaved off his sentence because he dropped a dime on another inmate who was running a meth ring out of a California prison.

I guess sending more inmates to prison doesn’t curb the problem either. From the look of things though, the new administration is ready to put that theory to the test.

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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