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40 Years of a Pointless, Tragic Drug War -- But As Feds Crack Down, Reformers Fight Back

Tension between popular will and the political establishment makes this a time of hope and frustration for the drug reform movement.
 
 
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Last week, President Barack Obama marked the end of the Iraq War at a ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base. The war, launched amid widespread support in the spring of 2003, is now viewed by most Americans as having been a terrible waste of money and lives. 2011 marked a milestone in another war. It’s been 40 years since President Richard Nixon declared America’s War on Drugs. More than a trillion dollars later, this conflict shows no signs of ending. But like the War in Iraq, it’s become increasingly unpopular.

Critics say the policy has not only failed to significantly decrease drug use, but has enriched criminals and stigmatized millions of Americans for something the past three Presidents have admitted to doing, using an illegal narcotic. 

This year, a Global Commission on Drugs whose members include Reagan’s Secretary of state George Shultz along with Jimmy Carter, and the former Presidents of Mexico and Colombia, called for an end to the War on Drugs. As America did when it repealed alcohol prohibition, the Commission called for “experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.” 

These sentiments are reflected in shifting public opinion as well. For the first time, more Americans want marijuana to be legalized than want it to remain illegal. And yet with no other issue are popular will and the political establishment so polarized. That tension makes this a time of hope and frustration for the drug reform movement.

FEDERAL CRACKDOWN

At the federal level, the Obama administration took several early steps which gave reformers hope that the government might start treating drug use more as a public health issue than as a crime. It lifted a federal ban on needle exchanges. It encouraged Congress to reduce the sentencing disparity that treated crack far more harshly than cocaine, which overwhelmingly punished people of color. It also stepped back as the number of states legalizing medical marijuana grew to 16. But that détente ended this year as the government launched an unprecedented crackdown on medical marijuana providers.

Overall, Obama remains firmly committed to the War on Drugs, actively pursued by every president, Democrat or Republican, since Ronald Reagan. He’s increased the drug war budget, maintaining the 2-1 ratio of spending on interdiction, prosecution and incarceration over education and treatment.

This has left many in the drug reform movement, who formed part of the President’s constituency, deeply disenchanted. Bernie Ellis, an epidemiologist specializing in substance abuse from Columbia, Tennessee, says he helped register over 900 people in 2008 in support of Obama’s campaign. “I received a call 2 weeks ago asking me to become involved in the Obama campaign in Tennessee and I just refused,” says Ellis. “I cannot in all good conscience do that with this medical marijuana flip.”

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL

But drug reformers are also hopeful, and not just because of growing popular support for decriminalizing drugs; state governments are discovering they can no longer afford to massively criminalize drug use.

As the Reagan administration introduced stiff mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations, many states followed suit and America’s prison population skyrocketed. In 1980, 500,000 were behind bars, that number has ballooned to around 2.3 million today, making America the world’s leading jailer. Despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has nearly a quarter of its prisoners. The more than 1.6 million drug arrests that take place each year are the leading cause of arrest in the country, filling prisons with hundreds of thousands of non-violent drug users.