Turning Away From The Corner


"We believe we have turned a corner, particularly with the coca crop, in Colombia."
--Paul E. Simons, the U.S. State Department's top counternarcotics official, quoted by the Associated Press June 3, 2003

For at least 30 years, the United States has repeatedly turned corners in the drug war.

Back in 1973, it was President Richard Nixon who metaphorically strolled down the street of drug policy before veering off at an intersection. "We have turned a corner on drug addiction," said Nixon.

With all the 90-degree directional shifts announced since then, the prohibitionists can't help but be a bit disoriented. Grab a compass if you want to keep your own bearings.

In 1999, it was former drug czar Barry McCaffrey, proclaiming that adolescent drug use "has just turned the corner."

Sounding even more sure that same year was President Bill Clinton's Health Secretary, Donna Shalala: "Last year, I optimistically told you that in the fight against illicit drug use, we may have finally turned the corner. Well this year's survey definitely shows that we've not only turned the corner, we're heading for home plate." The umpire, it seems, did not rule favorably.

The previous President Bush said in 1990: "I can tell you that our drug czar had a good report to the Nation the other day, showing that we've turned the corner, that we're making progress in our war against drugs." The drug czar at that time, William Bennett, actually overshot the drug corner by a few steps and turned at a casino entrance instead -- strictly to savor the second-hand tobacco smoke.

These are but a few of the corners turned in the drug war through the years. Simply do a Google search on "drug" and "turned the corner" to find drug warriors famous and unknown rapturously describing that quick pivoting sidestep leading to a drug-free utopia.

But the promised land remains distant.

When I read corner quotes, I envision uptight, well-groomed narc versions of R. Crumb's "Keep on Truckin'" cartoon character, always stretching one optimistic foot toward the future, even if it's locked in place, never really going anywhere.

But worse than standing still, or simply walking around the block and returning to the same place, each new corner of the drug war takes society into increasingly hazardous realms.

At least that's how I interpret it.

The appeal of the corner metaphor lies in its vagueness. It doesn't really mean anything. "Turned a corner" implies non-specific progress towards a goal even though the goal remains unattainable.

The phrase might be appropriate in some situations, but to repeat the same lame line over 30 years is an insult to the public, especially with the number of new drug crises appearing throughout those three decades. The overuse of "turned a corner" demonstrates the shallow historical knowledge of most anti-drug professionals.

Or perhaps the prohibitionists are eager to turn new corners because they don't want to face the disastrous truth about the drug war as it stands right in front of them. If they could resist the urge to turn and instead face the ugliness head on, they might realize it's time to follow a straight path away from the drug war.

Even one more turn around one more corner represents nothing but another dangerous detour.

Stephen Young is an editor with DrugSense Weekly and the author of "Maximizing Harm: Winners and Losers in the Drug War."

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