U.S. Headed Down Lonely Road in Its Drug Crusade
Canada's recent decision to permit the sick access to medical marijuana is just the latest in a long series of refutations by other countries of America's drug policies. It comes on the heels of Portugal's decriminalizing the personal possession of small quantities of all drugs. It follows Mexican President Vicente Fox's call for drug legalization as the way to break the black market. The Conservative Party in Great Britain is arguing heatedly about whether marijuana should be decriminalized, removing penalties for its use, or legalized, which would permit a legal distribution system to be set up, ending the contact marijuana users now have with sellers of harder drugs. All over the world, countries are looking at the disastrous results of America's "War on Drugs" and shifting their drug policies to avoid making the same mistakes.
In fact, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany and nearly every other country in Western Europe have some form of decriminalization of personal possession of drugs in place, and the results are certainly encouraging others to move in this direction. In the Netherlands, marijuana is sold in hundreds of "coffee shops" over-the-counter, and their teen-age marijuana use is half of what it is in the United States. In Switzerland, a program to supply hard-core heroin addicts with heroin has been so successful at lowering health-care costs and reducing the crime associated with that drug's use that its biggest and most vocal supporters are the police and the insurance companies. Recently even the Ukraine, long one of Europe's toughest drug warriors, announced that it was going to release some 35,000 drug offenders from prison in September and make drug use "a non-arrestable offense."
In the United States, nine states have approved medical marijuana use. A recent conference of U.S./Mexico border-state governors organized by New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson agreed that the drug problem should be a public health issue more than a law-enforcement one. Individual counties have gone even farther. Mendocino County in California made marijuana offenses the lowest priority possible for law enforcement. If you are a police officer looking into a possible marijuana crime and a little old lady calls because her cat is stuck in a tree, you have to forget the marijuana and help the cat.
America is in an increasingly difficult position internationally because of the drug war. We purport to be the leader of the free world, yet with five percent of the world's population, we have 25 percent of the world's prisoners, more than half serving sentences for drug-related offenses. Our troops, arms and money fuel civil wars in Latin American countries like Colombia in the name of ridding the world of drugs. Many of our cities are in turmoil, and minorities are targeted for drug offenses in painfully obvious, unjust proportions. And with all this, America's kids have better access to illegal drugs than to beer.
So who are our allies in our naive quest for a drug-free America through prohibition? Iran, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, China and a handful of other notoriously repressive nations. These countries execute drug users regularly, and have for years. These countries still have large and growing drug problems because, like America, they refuse to accept the fact that prohibition does not work.
If America is serious about protecting its children from the problems associated with drugs, then we had better start looking around us. Look at what other countries are doing and see what works and what doesn't. With adolescent drug use up and drugs purer, cheaper and more available than ever before, it should be obvious to us, as it seems to be to most of the rest of the world, that prohibition is not the way to solve the problem.
America has gone down the wrong road many times in its history. There was a time when women were not allowed to vote, when it was quite permissible for white people to own black people, for segregation to exist. A time when Americans were forbidden to drink alcohol. Fortunately, we came to our senses about these things, changed our laws and became a stronger, better country for it.
Sociologist Thomas Sowell once said that the difference between a policy and a crusade is that a policy is judged by its results, but a crusade is judged by how good it makes the crusaders feel. It's becoming hard to refer to what we do with regard to drugs in America as a policy. What we have is clearly a Jihad -- a holy war with no basis in logic or sense. No interest in results or costs. No concern that the medicine may be far worse than the disease. Why is it so hard for us to see this and reconsider how we handle these drugs in America?
Nicolas Eyle is executive director of ReconsiDer: Forum on Drug Policy.