Seeking Peace in the War on Drugs
"So what youre saying is, you want to legalize drugs, right?"
Thats the first question Im typically asked when I start talking about drug policy reform. My short answer is, "No, thats not what Im saying. Legalize marijuana? Yes, I think we need to head in that direction. But no, Im not suggesting we make heroin and cocaine available the way we do alcohol and cigarettes."
"So what are you recommending?" is the second question. "And what do you mean by drug policy reform?"
Heres the longer answer.
There is no drug legalization movement in America. What there is, is a nascent political and social movement for drug policy reform. It consists of the growing number of citizens who have been victimized, in one way or another, by the drug war, and who now believe that our current drug policies, like alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, do more harm than good. Most members of this "movement" barely perceive themselves as part of any broader cause.
The movement might include the judge required by inflexible, mandatory minimum sentencing laws to send a drug addict, or petty dealer, or dealers girlfriend, or Third World drug courier to prison for a longer time than many rapists and murderers serve.
Or the corrections officer who recalls the days when prisons housed "real" criminals, not the petty, nonviolent offenders who fill the cells these days.
Or the addict in recoveryemployed, law abiding, a worthy citizen in every respectwho must travel a hundred miles each day to pick up her methadone, because current laws do not allow methadone prescriptions to be filled at a local pharmacy.
Or the nurse in the oncology or AIDS unit obliged to look the other way while a patient wracked with pain smokes her forbidden medicine, which works better than anything else.
Or the teacher or counselor warned by school authorities not to speak so frankly about drug use with his students lest he violate federal regulations prohibiting anything other than "just say no" bromides.
Or the doctor whos afraid to prescribe medically appropriate doses of opioid analgesics to a patient in pain because any variations from the norm bring unfriendly scrutiny from government agents and state medical boards.
Or the employee with an outstanding record who fails a drug test on Monday morning because she shared a joint with her husband over the weekend and is fired.
Or the struggling North Dakota farmer who wonders why farmers in Canada and dozens of other countries can plant hemp, but he cannot.
Or the conservative Republican who abhors the extraordinary powers of police and prosecutors to seize private property from citizens who have not been convicted of violating any laws, and who worries about the corruption inherent in sending forfeited proceeds directly to law enforcement agencies.
Or the upstanding African American citizen repeatedly stopped by police for "driving while black" or even "walking while black."
The people who embrace the idea of drug policy reform are the ones who have connected the dotsthe ones who understand how our prohibitionist drug policies are fueling serious social problems. We may not agree on what aspect of prohibition is most perniciousthe spread of violence, the corruption, the black market, the spread of disease, the loss of freedom, or simply the lies and hypocrisiesand we certainly dont agree on the optimal solutions, but we all regard the current drug policies as a fundamental mistake in American society.
Any effort to reform drug policies confront powerful obstacles. A punitive approach to drug use and a temperance ideology almost as old as the nation itself are deeply embedded in American laws, institutions, and culture. It amounts to a national hysteria, rejuvenated each time a new drug emerges, ripe for political posturing and media mania. But Americas war on drugs is neither monolithic nor irreversible. Dissent is popping out all over. Most Americans have strong doubts about the drug war, according to opinion polls and recent referendum votes. They support treatment instead of incarceration for drug addicts. They think marijuana should be legally available for medical purposes. They dont want the government seizing money and property from people who have never been convicted of a crime. Theyre beginning to have doubts about the cost and meaning of incarcerating almost half a million of their fellow citizens for drug law violations.
So why does the drug war keep growing?
Part of the answer lies in what might best be described as a "drug prohibition complex" (taking off on President Eisenhowers warning about the military-industrial complex) composed of the hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officials, private prison corporations, anti-drug organizations, drug testing companies, and many others who benefit economically, politically, emotionally, and otherwise from continued crackdowns on use of marijuana and other drugs. Drug prohibition is now big business in the United States.
Nonetheless, signs of reform abound. Hardcore drug opponents may still be powerful, but theyre gradually losing credibility. They look on marijuana with the same horror that anti-liquor crusaders like Carrie Nation viewed a mug of beer. And just as the temperance advocates became ever more shrill and silly as Prohibition stumbled along, so todays anti-drug extremists sound increasingly foolish to the average American parent of today, who probably knows a thing or two about marijuana.
The most powerful evidence of shifting views on drug reform occurred on Election Day last year, when voters in five statesCalifornia, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon, and Utahapproved drug policy reform ballot initiatives. In California, voters overwhelmingly endorsed Proposition 36, the "treatment instead of incarceration" ballot initiative that should result in tens of thousands of nonviolent drug possession offenders being diverted from jail and prison into programs that may help them get their lives together. Voters in Nevada and Colorado approved medical marijuana ballot initiatives. In Oregon and Utah, voters overwhelmingly approved (by margins of two to one) ballot initiatives requiring police and prosecutors to meet a reasonable burden of proof before seizing money and other property from people they suspect of criminal activity. The measure also mandates that the proceeds from legal forfeitures be handed over not to the police and prosecuting agencies that had seized the property but rather to funds for public education or drug treatment. (The only setbacks were in Massachusetts, where voters narrowly defeated a combined forfeiture reform/diversion into treatment initiative, and in Alaska, where voters rejected a far-reaching marijuana legalization initiative.)
This followed up on other political victories. Californias Proposition 36 was modeled on one Arizona passed four years earlier. Oregon voters, meanwhile, affirmed the states marijuana decriminalization policies by a two-to-one margin in 1998. And voters in Mendocino, California, approved a ballot initiative last year to decriminalize cultivation of small amounts of cannabis. Clearly, more and more citizens realize that the drug war has failed and are looking for new approaches. The votes also suggest that there are limits to what people will accept in the name of fighting drugs. Parents dont want their teenagers to smoke marijuana, but they also dont want sick people who could benefit from the plants pain relief properties to suffer because of the war on drugs. Americans dont approve of people using heroin or cocaine, but neither do they think it makes either economic or human sense to lock up drug addicts without first offering them a few opportunities to get their lives together outside prison walls.
The initiative victories demonstrated once again that the public is ahead of the politicians when it comes to embracing pragmatic drug policy reforms. But there is growing evidence that even some politicians are beginning to get it. Hawaii passed a medical marijuana law last year with the support of Governor Benjamin Cayetano. Three statesNorth Dakota, Minnesota, and Hawaiienacted laws legalizing the cultivation of hemp (to the extent permitted by federal law), and hemp legalization bills are beginning to advance through other state legislatures as well. Vermont, one of eight states that prohibited methadone maintenance treatment, last year enacted a law that may ultimately lead to this treatment being made available not just in specialized clinics but also through public health clinics and private physicians. And, most significantly in terms of potential lives saved, three statesNew York, New Hampshire, and Rhode Islandeach enacted laws making it easier to purchase sterile syringes in pharmacies.
The governor of New Mexico, Republican Gary Johnson, is committed to far-reaching drug policy reform. And Salt Lake Citys new mayor, Rocky Anderson, has abandoned the popular but demonstrably ineffective DARE program.
Perhaps its too early to claim that all this adds up to a national vote of no confidence in the war on drugs. After all, drug war rhetoric still goes down easy in many parts of the country, and Congress has yet to demonstrate any reluctance to enact ever harsher and more far-reaching drug war legislation. But the pendulum does seem to be reversing direction. The initiatives and recent state legislative victories, the reform bills making their way through legislative committees, the governors and mayors beginning to speak out, the rapidly rising anti-war sentiment among African American leadersall these are beginning to add up to something new in American politics. Call it a new anti-war movement. Call it a nascent movement for common sense justice. Or simply call it a rising chorus of dissent from the war on drugs.
Ethan A. Nadelmann directs the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation , a drug policy reform organization. This essay is adapted from a talk given at the New York Open Center and appeared originally in Lapis Magazine, published by the New York Open Center. Reprinted with permission from Utne Reader. To subscribe, call 800/736-UTNE or visit www.utne.com.