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Is the Drug War Nearing an End?


Little by little by little there is some hope that the “war” on drugs is becoming a political issue – the first step in undoing a set of policies that make little sense no matter how you look at them. Now, only a brave and sloppy analyst would claim there was really any reason to expect a major rethinking about the 35 disastrous years of the drug war by American law enforcement and politicians. But for the first time in a while, there’s hope.

After all, these days Americans – lots of them – are questioning other not-so long-standing wars. Nobody rational – in either political party – seems to be genuinely defending what we are doing in Iraq any more, and it’s clear that America will leave within a year or two with nothing accomplished other than huge debts and a power vacuum in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the shenanigans at Guantanamo Bay and other places where “terrorists” have been imprisoned have set America’s reputation back by a least a quarter-century, and have given great positive publicity to some of the most barbaric bigots in the world. So much for our war on a noun.

Both these wars had their model in the war on drugs declared by Richard Nixon and energized by Ronald Reagan, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and a phalanx of unthinking politicians. And none of the current Democratic Presidential candidates have raised the issue yet, either.

The one honorable exception to this line-up is Rep. Dennis Kucinich, but although I supported him last time because his beliefs and policies coincided with each other (rare) and with mine (rarer still!), I’m not deluding myself that he’s a realistic contender. Kucinich has long been opposed to the war on drugs and is an advocate for medical marijuana – based on his simple human decency. It’s also worth noting that he was the only main candidate in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2004 to actively oppose the Iraq war from the start and also to demand universal health insurance.

Essentially the Democratic party has caught up to him on these two issues, so perhaps it’s worth thinking that they might do it on the third.

Why the hope? Well, the U.S.’s prohibitionist drug policy isn’t working. I went to a debate the other night at which noted conservative James Q. Wilson – the creator of the theory of “broken window” policing that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani so publicly espoused – was a straw-man in favor of prohibition. But he decried the number of people in jail because of drugs, and felt that the most a typical drug user should ever have to deal with would be a weekend in jail now and again to force them to take part in rehabilitation classes.

In fact Wilson, Mark Kleiman and others who are looked to as intellectuals by defenders of the status quo believe that the only justification for prohibition is that without it more people will be using drugs. This is of course logically ridiculous. It can be refuted by looking at those few countries who have saner drug policies – including Switzerland and the Netherlands – where drug use rates are considerably lower than they are in the U.S. More importantly, the harm from drug use to both addicts and the wider society there is substantially less. All the prohibitionists can do to really oppose an America in which drug use is regulated like alcohol or tobacco is to hold up an imaginary future in the which just because something is legal, we are all going to do it. Of course, it’s currently legal to drink three bottles of whisky a night. But that doesn’t mean that everybody does it.

Even worse, none of these vague theories about prohibition, have anything to do with the way our current drug laws are used by the police and prison-industrial complex. And that reality is a combination of draconian punishments, unconstitutional asset forfeiture, and even an all-out war by the Drug Enforcement Agency on physicians treating chronic pain. Remember that it was in the hysteria around the death of University of Maryland college basketball star Len Bias in 1986 that mandatory minimum sentencing laws were passed by Congress. It’s hard to imagine that upon reflection, Congress could have believed that the use of drugs would be worse in 20 years time. And yet, we haven’t even revisited the policy once in that time.

There has been the odd murmur. Believe it or not even George W. Bush admitted that there were some problems with them just before he took office in 2001. And of course Bush’s famous defense when asked about his own drug use in the 1970s was to say that he would have passed an FBI clearance test when his dad was president in 1988. Of course, plenty of Americans who probably were guilty of rather less than that – the majority of them young African-American men, the bulk of the nation’s prison population – are still in jail for non-violent drug crimes committed two decades ago. Even as hardcore a drug warrior as Republican Congressman Dan Burton essentially admitted that prohibition was doing no good in 2002 and in one of the more remarkable political turnarounds in recent years, former Congressman Bob Barr, the Georgia Republican long the bĂȘte noire of the medical marijuana movement in the 1990s is now working as a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project.

But nonetheless drug users are still on the margins of society and although the war on drugs costs us nearly as much as the war in Iraq, (that’s leaving out the added costs to society of all the crime caused by those fighting over the spoils of prohibition) it’s difficult to galvanize support for a sensible process of regulation and taxation. It’s a familiar refrain in the reform movement that the support for the drug war is a mile wide but just an inch deep. But given that a significant amount of both police and prison budgets depend on drug war funding, and given that there is no significant pressure group in favour of changing the law – other than common sense – it is difficult to see where a change would come from.

Nonetheless, there are some straws in the wind that give ground for very cautious optimism. For a start, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama has admitted that he used drugs as a teenager, even cocaine, and yet he appears to have done just fine in life. Secondly, a group of English academics have constructed a new scale of drug harm in which several legal drugs, notably tobacco and alcohol, were ranked as more dangerous than ecstasy and marijuana. Thirdly, the DEA’s unbelievable persecution of pain doctors looks like it is (hopefully) being turned back, with a retrial in the case of Dr William Hurwitz – in small part due to exposure about it from New York Times columnist John Tierney. Fourthly, a relatively mainstream Democrat who is running for President, New Mexico governor Bill Richardson actually signed a medical marijuana bill during the campaign. All of which suggests that the traditional irrational fears of having anything to do with the topic may be dying down.

Finally, there’s the news this week that polls are showing any serious Democrat beating any of the Republicans in a Presidential race. This means that the Democrats might just be in charge of Congress and the White House post-2009. There is of course an incredibly long way to go, but one of the major funders of the Democratic party is George Soros who is also the major funder of the drug reform movement in the U.S. It’s hard to imagine that with his influence in the party, and the changing generational attitudes towards drugs, that we wouldn’t see some reconsideration of this issue. Again these are all straws in the wind, and compared to health care reform or getting out of Iraq, the drug war is a more minor issue. But those of us who think it is a gross injustice are a tad more hopeful that the issue may creep up above the radar.

Share  Posted by Matt Holt at 2:23 PM | Permalink

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