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The Disastrous War on Drugs Turns 40: 5 Ways to Stop the Madness

Four decadesafter President Nixon declared his war on drugs, let's take a look at the devastation and figure out how to end this thing.

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What better way to mark the 40th anniversary of the war on drugs than by breaking the taboos that have precluded frank assessment of the costs and failures of drug prohibition as well as its varied alternatives. Barely a single hearing, audit or analysis undertaken and commissioned by the government over the past forty years has dared to engage in this sort of assessment. The same cannot be said of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or almost any other domain of public policy. The war on drugs persists in good part because those who hold the purse strings focus their critical attentions only on the implementation of the strategy rather than the strategy itself.

The Drug Policy Alliance and our allies in this rapidly growing movement intend to break that tradition of denial -- by transforming this anniversary into a year of action. Our objective is ambitious -- to attain the critical mass at which the momentum for reform exceeds the powerful inertia that has sustained punitive prohibitionist policies for all too long. This requires working with legislators who dare to raise the important questions, and organizing public forums and online communities where citizens can take action, and enlisting unprecedented numbers of powerful and distinguished individuals to voice their dissent publicly, and organizing in cities and states to instigate new dialogues and directions in local policies.

Count on five themes to emerge over and over during this anniversary year.

1. Marijuana legalization is no longer a question of whether but when and how. Gallup's polling found that 36% of Americans in 2005 favored legalizing marijuana use while 60% were opposed. By late 2010, support had risen to 46% while opposition had dropped to 50%. A majority of citizens in a growing number of states now say that legally regulating marijuana makes more sense than persisting with prohibition. We know what we need to do: work with local and national allies to draft and win marijuana legalization ballot initiatives in California, Colorado and other states; assist federal and state legislators in introducing bills to decriminalize and regulate marijuana; ally with local activists to pressure police and prosecutors to de-prioritize marijuana arrests; AND assist and embolden prominent individuals in government, business, media, academia, entertainment and other walks of life to publicly endorse an end to marijuana prohibition.

2. Over-incarceration is the problem, not the solution. Ranking first in the world in both absolute and per capita incarceration is a shameful distinction that the United States should hasten to shed. The best way to address the problem of over-incarceration is to reduce the number of people incarcerated for non-violent drug law violations -- by decriminalizing and ultimately legalizing marijuana; by providing alternatives to incarceration for those who pose no threat outside prison walls; by reducing mandatory minimum and other harsh sentences; by addressing addiction and other drug misuse outside the criminal justice system rather than within it; and by insisting that no one be incarcerated simply for possessing a psychoactive substance, absent harm to others. All this requires both legislative and administrative action by government, but systemic reform will only happen if the objective of reducing over-incarceration is broadly embraced as a moral necessity.

3. The war on drugs is "the new Jim Crow." The magnitude of racial disproportionality in the enforcement of drug laws in the United States (and many other countries) is grotesque, with African Americans dramatically more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated than other Americans engaged in the same violations of drug laws. Concerns over racial justice helped motivate Congress to reform the notorious crack/powder mandatory minimum drug laws last year but much more needs to be done. Nothing is more important at this point than the willingness and ability of African American leaders to prioritize the need for fundamental reform of drug policies. This is no easy task given the disproportionate extent and impact of drug addiction in poor African American families and communities. But it is essential, if only because no one else can speak and act with the moral authority required to transcend both deep seated fears and powerful vested interests.

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