World Leaders Desert U.S. Drug War
The American drug war may yet grind on, but one by one, the troops are hiking out. Right-wingers like Jesse Ventura, Gary Johnson, Dan Quayle, William F. Buckley, and George Schultz have all voiced support for either ending the costly campaign of interdiction and imprisonment, or at least decriminalizing pot.
Through the years, in statements little-noted or splashed onto front pages, they've aligned themselves with leaders around the world, all standing in unlikely opposition to the frat-boy chief commander in the White House. President Bush shows no sign of yielding, instead choosing to harden his stance. In May, announcing the appointment of a drug czar who makes John Ashcroft look like a hippie, Bush thundered, "John Walters and I believe the only humane and compassionate response to drug use is a moral refusal to accept it. We emphatically disagree with those who favor drug legalization."
These days, that means disagreeing with a lengthening list of international heavyweights -- former presidents of the United States, current presidents of Latin American countries, legislators, governors, high-ranking judges, and law enforcement officials. Not that all of them favor outright legalization -- most don't -- but each has broached the possibility of relaxing the laws.
Two weeks ago, as the U.S. Supreme Court shot down medical marijuana like Christian missionaries over Peru, the Canadian Parliament was questioning whether soft drugs should be decriminalized. "It's time to be bold," lawmaker Derek Lee told the Ottawa Citizen. "Everything has to be on the table."
Bush finds himself hemmed in by opinion south of the border as well, where some of his strongest allies in free trade break radically with his policies on drugs. President Vicente Fox of Mexico, for one, assures the Bush administration he will be an obedient, merciless drug warrior, while he tells his own country's newspapers that someday humanity will recognize universal drug legalization as the best course.
A parade of brutal statistics has long made clear the merit of Fox's legalize-it zeal. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, police in 1998 arrested 682,885 Americans for marijuana offenses, more than the number for all violent crimes combined. After eight years of Bill Clinton, a supposed progressive who could have provided relief, some 450,000 drug offenders sat behind bars -- a total almost equal to the entire U.S. prison population in 1980. The president who later told Rolling Stone he believed small amounts of pot should be decriminalized spent his terms fueling a multibillion-dollar escalation of the drug war, in which people were killed in raids of the wrong homes and constitutional rights were shredded. On average, the Lindesmith Center reports, a federal offender in the Clinton era drew twice as much time for drugs as for manslaughter.
The Drug Policy Foundation calculates that in 1999, the feds spent $1.7 billion to guard America's borders and coasts -- $17,700 per mile -- only to have 70 percent of the coke and 90 percent of the heroin make it through. Drug use continues to climb, with some 72 million Americans believed to have tried pot.
While the U.S. continues its self-destructive orgy of arrests and wasted money, other parts of the world move forward. The Swiss government has endorsed a plan to legalize pot and hash consumption and allow some shops to sell cannabis. Belgium allows people to grow pot for personal use. The Netherlands allows coffee houses to sell marijuana. Portugal, Spain, and Italy punish the use of any drug (including heroin and coke) with only an administrative sanction, such as a fine.
Britain has loosened its laws a tiny bit, allowing low-level marijuana offenses to be immediately expunged from arrest records. In an effort to control the damage from opiate addiction, Australia has opened the world's largest heroin-injecting room in Sydney.
But it's in the regions most wracked by narco-violence that the cry for legalization rings most clear. Having been shot in the neck by a police officer thought to be acting under orders from drug lords, Patricio Martínez García, governor of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, told El Universal in March that he believed a proposal for legalization must be considered. "[B]ecause if the war is going to continue being lost, with the deterioration of the life of communities and even the nation, and with the deterioration of the quality of life for the citizens of the country, well, then, where are we heading?" said García, whose state borders Texas and New Mexico. "There has to be a remaking of the law."
Vicente Fox, Mexican President
"My opinion is that in Mexico it is not a crime to have a small dose of drugs in one's pocket. . . . But the day that the alternative of freeing the consumption of drugs from punishment comes, it will have to be done in the entire world because we are not going to win anything if Mexico does it, but the production and traffic of the drugs . . . to the United States continues. Thus, humanity will one day view it [legalization] as the best in this sense." source: Unomasuno, March 17, 2001
Jorge Castañeda, Mexican Foreign Minister
"In the end, legalization of certain substances may be the only way to bring prices down, and doing so may be the only remedy to some of the worst aspects of the drug plague: violence, corruption, and the collapse of the rule of law." source: Newsweek, September 6, 1999
Jorge Batlle, President of Uruguay
"Why don't we just legalize drugs? . . . The day that it is legalized in the United States, it will lose value. And if it loses value, there will be no profit. But as long as the U.S. citizenry doesn't rise up to do something, they will pass this life fighting and fighting." source: El Observador, December 1, 2000
Bill Clinton, former U.S. President
"I think that most small amounts of marijuana have been decriminalized in some places, and should be." source: Rolling Stone, October 6, 2000
Joe Clark Head of Tory Party, member of Canadian Parliament, former Prime Minister
"I believe the least controversial approach is decriminalization [of marijuana], because it's unjust to see someone, because of one decision one night in their youth, carry the stigma -- to be barred from studying medicine, law, architecture or other fields where a criminal record could present an obstacle." source: Globe and Mail, May 23, 2001
Jimmy Carter, former U.S. President
"Penalties against a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana for personal use. The National Commission on Marijuana . . . concluded years ago that marijuana use should be decriminalized, and I believe it is time to implement those basic recommendations." source: speech to Congress, August 2, 1977
Fred W. McDarrah Dan Quayle, former U.S. Vice President
"Congress should definitely consider decriminalizing possession of marijuana. . . . We should concentrate on prosecuting the rapists and burglars who are a menace to society." source: Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure by Dan Baum, quoting Quayle from 1977
George Schultz, Reagan's Secretary of State
"We need at least to consider and examine forms of controlled legalization of drugs." source: Associated Press, November 6, 1989
Abigail Van Buren, Advice Columnist
"I agree that marijuana laws are overdue for an overhaul. I also favor the medical use of marijuana -- if it's prescribed by a physician. I cannot understand why the federal government should interfere with the doctor-patient relationship, nor why it would ignore the will of a majority of voters who have legally approved such legislation." source: "Dear Abby," March 1, 1999
William F. Buckley, Conservative Author
"Now it's one thing to say (I say it) that people shouldn't consume psychoactive drugs. It is entirely something else to condone marijuana laws the application of which resulted, in 1995, in the arrest of 588,963 Americans. Why are we so afraid to inform ourselves on the question?" source: syndicated column, October 21, 1997
Gary Johnson, Governor of New Mexico
"Make drugs a controlled substance like alcohol. Legalize it, control it, regulate it, tax it. If you legalize it, we might actually have a healthier society." source: The Boston Globe, October 13, 1999