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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.

Some anniversaries provide an occasion for celebration, others a time for reflection, still others a time for action. This June will mark forty years since President Nixon declared a "war on drugs," identifying drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1." As far as I know, no celebrations are planned. What's needed, indeed essential, are reflection -- and action.

It's hard to believe that Americans have spent roughly a trillion dollars (give or take a few hundred million) on this forty-year war. Hard to believe that tens of millions have been arrested, and many millions locked up in jails and prisons, for committing nonviolent acts that were not even crimes a century ago. Hard to believe that the number of people incarcerated on drug charges increased more than ten times even as the country's population grew by only half. Hard to believe that millions of Americans have been deprived of the right to vote not because they killed a fellow citizen or betrayed their country but simply because they bought, sold, produced or simply possessed a psychoactive plant or chemical. And hard to believe that hundreds of thousands of Americans have been allowed to die -- of overdoses, AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases -- because the drug war blocked and even prohibited treating addiction to certain drugs as a health problem rather than a criminal one.

Reflect we must on not just the consequences of this war at home but abroad as well. The prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption in Mexico today resemble Chicago during alcohol Prohibition -- times fifty. Parts of Central America are even more out of control, and many Caribbean nations can only hope that they are not next. The illegal opium and heroin markets in Afghanistan reportedly account for one-third to half of the country's GDP. In Africa, prohibitionist profiteering, trafficking and corruption are spreading rapidly. As for South America and Asia, just pick a moment and a country -- and the stories are much the same, from Colombia, Peru, Paraguay and Brazil to Pakistan, Laos, Burma and Thailand.

Wars can be costly -- in money, rights and lives -- but still necessary to defend national sovereignty and core values. It's impossible to make that case on behalf of the war on drugs. Marijuana, cocaine and heroin are effectively cheaper today than they were at the start of the war forty years ago, and just as available now as then to anyone who really wants them. Marijuana, which accounts for half of all drug arrests in the United States, has never killed anyone. Heroin is basically indistinguishable from hydromorphone (aka Dilaudid), a pain medication prescribed by physicians that hundreds of thousands of Americans have consumed safely. The vast majority of people who have used cocaine did not become addicts. Each of these drugs is less dangerous than government propaganda claims but sufficiently dangerous that they merit intelligent regulations rather than blanket prohibitions.

If the demand for any of these drugs were two, five or ten times what they are today, the supply would be there. That's what markets do. And who benefits from persisting with doomed supply control strategies notwithstanding their evident costs and failures? Basically two sets of interests: those producers and sellers of illicit drugs who earn far more than they would if their product were legally regulated rather than prohibited; and law enforcers for whom the expansion of prohibitionist policies translates into jobs, money and the political power to defend their self-interests.

Republican and Democratic governors confronting massive state budget deficits are now endorsing alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug law offenders that they would have rejected out of hand just a few years ago. It would be a tragedy, however, if these modest but important steps result in nothing more than a kinder, gentler drug war. What's really needed is the sort of reckoning that identifies as the problem not just drug addiction but prohibition as well - and that aims to reduce the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system in drug control to the maximum extent possible while enhancing public safety and health.

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