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War on Drugs an epic fail, says new report by world leaders

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Smart v. Stupid

War on Drugs an epic fail, says new report by world leaders

  • DEA photo

“The global war on drugs has failed.” That’s the primary conclusion of a new report by Global Commission on Drug Policy, an impressive group of world leaders including five former heads of state, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Richard Branson, former US Secretary of State George Shultz, Paul Volcker and others. This is hardly a collection of potheads.

According to the Commission the failure of the “War on Drugs” falls into four categories:

  • Spending on criminalization hasn’t reduced supply.
  • Arresting a drug seller never stops drug flow.
  • Drug criminalization harms public health initiatives that reduce HIV/AIDS, overdoses and drug-related medical harm.
  • Government spending on criminalization and jails uses money that could be spent on successfully-proven public health interventions.

Among drug war countries, ours qualifies as the most epic fail. You’ve probably forgotten that the “War on Drugs” was started by Richard Nixon, a guy mostly remembered for his other big mistakes. Since then, the US has spent over one trillion dollars without making any lasting, tangible, or durable progress. People use drugs as much as ever, criminals profit from drugs more than ever, and we jail more citizens (per capita) than any other country in the world.

The vast majority of drug users are not even abusers. They use drugs casually (mostly marijuana.) Their recreational use never interferes with work or family or civic life. Sure, more than a few users drive drunk or steal to support addictions; that’s a real problem. But they are a small slice of all drug users. The World Health Organization found that 42.4% of all Americans used marijuana. Don’t you think it would be obvious if four in ten of us were stoned every day? Tomorrow at work, look around and count the buzzed coworkers.

Researcher Louisa Degenhardt of the University of New South Wales debunks another common myth, that harsh laws reduce consumption:

"Globally, drug use…is not simply related to drug policy, since countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones."

Yet funding the war has been taken for granted as public policy ever since Nixon first declared it.

By far, our biggest jump in drug incarceration came after passage of Ronald Reagan's Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986. That’s when we began, in earnest, to conflate use with abuse. Since then, Americans jailed for drug crimes have risen by about half a million more each decade. And today, the average drug sentence in the US is 12-20 times longer than the rest of the world. Taking Nixon’s bad idea and making it much worse—that’s the Reagan legacy.

Naively, we have placed this hugely profitable sector of our economy off limits to legitimate entrepreneurs, regulation and taxation. That’s had a great un-civilizing effect. Drug gangs are big winners in our drug war. “Drug violence,” however, is related to the business, not the product. Think American Prohibition, hugely violent until it ended. Then not.

The other big winners are those who work in law enforcement, the judiciary, our (increasingly privatized) prison system, or parole and probation. Today, half of Americans in jail are there for drug crimes. We jail more citizens than any other country in the world. Including, it is worth mentioning, Iran, Syria, and North Korea. That’s where the one trillion has been spent—on a big sucking welfare program for cops, judges and jail guards. (Now, though, there’s even some backlash among those groups. They’ve organized in every state.)

“Let’s start by treating drug addiction as a health issue, reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives and legally regulating rather than criminalizing cannabis”
—former president of Brazil and commission member Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Among other recommendations are:

  • Stop criminalizing drug users if they harm no one else.
  • Test legalization models as a barrier to organized crime.
  • Decriminalize marijuana because there is no reason not to.
  • Respect the human rights and dignity of people who use drugs.

Most importantly, they suggest we “break the taboo on debate and reform.” It’s OK to admit we lost the war—a good thing even. And it’s way past time to talk about other approaches, even if they don’t feed a punishment instinct.

More than a decade ago, I asked an ordinary Canadian what he thought of the war on drugs. Without missing a beat, he said, “You’re making war on your own citizens. We’d never do that.” Maybe it’s time we start to look northward for some common sense. Or maybe we just need to start asking the right questions. Even a stoner ought to be able to figure this one out, eh?

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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