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How to Get Politicians to Admit in Public That the Drug War Has Been a Complete Failure

We do not need yet another blue ribbon commission or academic study to tell us our current policies are not working.

Today is the UN’s World Anti-Drug Day. China usually celebrates the day with mass executions and officials in other countries will trot out the usual speeches about the need to continue the war on drugs with ever greater determination. Yet despite a chorus of legal, military, law enforcement and public health voices calling for fundamental reform of our drug policies, their voices have largely fallen on deaf ears when it comes to elected officials. We do not need yet another blue ribbon commission or academic study to tell us our current policies are not working. So why does this zombie drug war continue to march on and what can be done to stop it?   

Those who have worked on this issue know one of the most cynical secrets in Washington: many elected officials (if not an outright majority) are willing to acknowledge the fundamental failure of the drug war in private, but continue to vote in favor of it when the yeas and nays are called. Drug policy reform fails to get traction with elected officials because it is the quintessential "third-rail" political issue -- it’s a subject to avoid unless one is declaring support for the status quo. As Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Luxembourg, said, “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.” Although Juncker was referring to economic liberalization, the quote is even more applicable to the war on drugs. 

The disconnect between private and public views of elected officials has to do with the difficulty in explaining why “get tough” measures sound attractive to voters but are often counterproductive. Politicians must hope the voters will have some basic understanding of the economics of drug prohibition and how escalating the drug war only makes the drugs more valuable, thus attracting even more participants into the drug economy. But that can be tough when political challengers can run negative smear ads relatively cheaply and repeatedly to decimate their opponent’s poll numbers. Very few politicians are able to convey successfully such a paradigm shift in a soundbite. After all, if drugs are bad, why not wage a war against them? 

Politicians are loath to go on record voting against drug war measures. Since Congress installed an electronic voting system in 1973, the number of recorded votes has soared because it became so much easier. The reason so many votes are on record (as opposed to a voice vote or simple head count) is not so average citizens can hold their representatives accountable for their votes. After all, the overwhelming majority of voters have never looked up their representative’s voting record. Those recorded votes are for the benefit of the political parties so that they can put their adversary’s votes on record to spotlight at a future time—usually during election season (e.g., “He voted for war funding before he voted against it”). So voicing support for drug policy reform is somewhat analogous to placing a loaded pistol on the table and praying your political challenger will not shoot you in the face with it. On-the-record votes also let lobbyists and pressure groups know they’ve bought their money’s worth of loyalty. 

In recent years, campaign strategists like Karl Rove have taken traditional wedge issues and refined them into what he calls “anger points”— issues that have complex and often counterintuitive solutions, but are extremely easy to take out of context and twist into an effective attack ad. 

The degeneration of our political discourse and campaign tactics has made reforming the drug war synonymous with political suicide. So how can politicians who care about getting re-elected make fundamental reforms without being electrocuted by the third rail? Just as the much-needed reforms of U.S. drug policy are counter-intuitive (where being tough is often the opposite of being effective), so too is the way out of this political stalemate. In order to get a more responsible legislature, it may be better to have less accountability—at least temporarily.   

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