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.

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 As America did when it repealed alcohol prohibition, the Commission called for “experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized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.


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.”


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.

Where public policy and moral arguments failed to curb ever-increasing rates of incarceration, that strategy has now run into the brick wall of the country’s ongoing economic stagnation. Between 1984 and 2004, California built 23 major new prisons, a rate of more than one per year. But that was no match for the more than 600 percent increase in the state’s prison population between 1980 and 2006. In May, the Supreme Court, ruling that conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons failed to protect inmates from “cruel and unusual punishment,” ordered the state to reduce its prison population by 37,000 over the next two years.

Meanwhile California’s competitor for leading jailer, Texas, has also begun to shrink its prison population with the support of small-government leaders like Grover Norquist. As states look for ways to curb prison spending, they are turning away from incarcerating non-violent drug offenders.


While drug policy reformers welcome this change, they point out that as long as drug use remains illegal, those convicted will continue to suffer the lifelong consequences of a drug conviction. This punishment comes in the form of social stigma and the thousands of laws and practices that legally discriminate against people with criminal records for the rest of their lives. These laws deny people basic rights including employment, education, housing and voting. Many laws single out people convicted of drug violations. As Jack Cole, a former narcotics officer who co-founded Law Enforcement Officers Against Prohibition (LEAP), says, “you can get over an addiction, but you’ll never get over a conviction.”

Susan Burton’s story is indicative. After cycling in and out of jail for drug convictions, Burton founded A New Way of Life Reentry Project to help women like her transition from prison to healthy, productive lives. “I’ve helped over 600 women walk out of a prison door back into the community. I’ve helped those 600 women reunite with over 200 of their children. I could not get my nephew out of the custody of the Department of Children and Family Services because I have a criminal history,” says Burton whose own son was accidentally killed by a Los Angeles police officer.

“For many of us, the drug war was more harmful than the drugs,” says Tina Reynolds. Before she co-founded Women on the Rise Telling Herstory (WORTH), an advocacy group for current and formerly incarcerated women, Reynolds was repeatedly jailed for crack use rather than treated for her addiction. One day she asked a district attorney if she would consider releasing her if she found a treatment program. The D.A. told her to find a program and come back. Two weeks later, Reynolds returned, excited to tell the D.A. about a program she had found. “She sat in front of me and she says you will always be a crack head, you will never change, you will be going upstate. At that point,” says Reynolds, “I was silenced no more, and we as formerly incarcerated people have to resist being silenced.”

Increasingly the voice of the victims of the War on Drugs is being heard within the policy reform movement. “You can’t keep having a theoretical dialogue about a drug war that don’t have any victims,” says Dorsey Nunn, executive director of Legal Services For Prisoners with Children. “We’re the ones that’s occupying the cases. We’re the ones that’s getting gunned down by the police. We’re the ones that’s injuring ourselves through the overuse of it.” Nunn, and other advocates for the rights of the formerly incarcerated, credit the Drug Policy Alliance, which organizes the biggest drug reform gathering in the world, the Biennial International Drug Policy Reform Conference, for welcoming them to the table. 

This embrace reflects a growing belief among reformers and civil rights organizations, that the War on Drugs is not really about drugs but is in fact a system of racial control. Recognizing the racial inequalities at the heart of the Drug War, both the NAACP and the U.S. Conference of Mayors called for an end to the War on Drugs this year.

The policy, which successive administrations have doggedly pursued despite its failure to achieve its stated aim of ending drug consumption, has given law enforcement unprecedented powers and resources which have largely been directed at low-income minority communities. The result is an incarceration rate that is six times higher for black men than white men.

Ira Glasser led the ACLU for 23 years and now heads the Board of Directors of the Drug Policy Alliance. He points out that Nixon declared the War on Drugs 3 years after the last major law was passed ending racial discrimination. Glasser notes that a minority of drug users are African American but they make up more than half of those sentenced for drug offenses. “The drug laws became the new form of legalized discrimination that was a successor system of subjugation to Jim Crow.”

In November, 1200 people gathered in downtown Los Angeles, for the International Drug Policy Reform Conference. On the eve of the conference a dozen miles South but a world away from the gleaming towers of the Bonaventure hotel, 270 people met at the Labor Center in Watts. They came from across the United States to ratify the national platform of the Formerly Incarcerated And Convicted People’s Movement (FICPM). It was the culmination of a year of reflection and organizing. Earlier this year, the FICPM organized a march of formerly incarcerated and convicted people over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where, in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. led a protest for voting rights. Their goal, to draw attention to the millions of formerly incarcerated people who are barred from voting.

“Women’s rights were secured through a movement, black people’s rights were secured through a movement, gay people’s right’s were secured through a movement. So we decided to cement us a movement,” says Nunn, who helped draft FICPM’s 14-point platform. Among the organization’s immediate priorities are registering a million people in time for next year’s elections and expanding the “Ban the Box” campaign which has reduced discrimination against job seekers with records in six states. With a quarter of adults having an arrest or conviction record, according to a recent report by the National Employment Law Center, advocates say their campaign has the potential to improve the civil rights and economic prospects of over 60 million Americans.


If the American victims of the Drug War are becoming increasingly visible in the reform movement, so are the relatives of the approximately 50,000 killed in Mexico’s Drug War, which entered its sixth year last week. The face of the bereaved is Javier Sicilia, a celebrated Mexican poet whose son was murdered by members of the Gulf Cartel in March. He is now spearheading a national citizens’ movement against the Drug War in his country. Earlier this year, Sicilia led thousands of marchers to Mexico City and Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of the drug violence. They are calling for an end to the impunity which has left most of the killings uninvestigated. They also want thorough reforms of the federal government, which they say is deeply corrupt. Now, Sicilia is bringing his campaign to the United States, which he says holds the key to stopping the bloodshed in Mexico.

At a rally in MacArthur Park in Los Angeles last month, Sicilia called on Americans to pressure their leaders to end the War on Drugs. “Drug prohibition and the arms industry, which illegally sends weapons to my country, are killing and destroying us and we have to stop it together,” Sicilia announced plans for a march from El Paso to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness of the effects of drug prohibition on Mexico. 

Depriving criminal organizations of profit by legalizing drugs remains a non-starter in Washington. However the United States is becoming increasingly isolated. In Europe and, significantly, in Latin America, where the power of drug cartels has been the most lethal and corrupting, senior politicians, are increasingly speaking out in favor of ending prohibition. These include some of the United States most important former allies in the War on Drugs, among them, the last two Presidents of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox as well as former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria. It was during Gaviria’s presidency that Colombian security forces killed the world’s biggest cocaine trafficker, Pablo Escobar.

Then last month, something unprecedented happened. The current President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, says it was time to start thinking about legalizing drugs including cocaine. "A new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking,” Santos told the Observer. “If that means legalizing, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it.” Still after decades of imposing prohibition on Latin America through billions of dollars in military aid and threats when countries refuse to toe the line, Santos knows the risks involved in challenging Washington’s orthodoxy. “What I won't do is to become the vanguard of that movement because then I will be crucified.”

Jonah Engle is a freelance journalist. His reporting on drug policy can be found at  www.drugwardispatches.com