Why the Drug War Isn't an Election Issue – But Should Be

It has been more than 33 years since President Richard Nixon declared war on illegal drugs and called drug abuse "public enemy number one in the United States." Hundreds of billions of dollars later, with hundreds of thousands of Americans behind bars, we are no closer to Nixon's dream of a drug-free nation than we were in 1971. As with alcohol Prohibition in the 1930s, drug prohibition has brought us far more problems than it has solved.

You won't hear John Kerry or George W. Bush talking much about it this fall, but the producers of the upcoming "American Candidate" series on Showtime have made drugs a key issue of this televised campaign – and for good reason. As former Gov. Gary Johnson (R-N.M.) once said, the drug war is "the most important social issue in America today that has an easy, politically possible solution."

Regardless of political background, many agree that government should not be in the business of punishing its citizens for what they choose to put into their own bodies. Unfortunately, drug users have provided an easy target for politicians (of both parties) who want to appear "tough on crime." Here are just a few examples of the abuses this has caused:

  • Last year, nearly 700,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession.

  • Armed federal agents continue to antagonize AIDS, cancer and MS patients who use medical marijuana legally under state law. The vast majority of Americans want these patients left alone.

  • A college student can lose her student loans and her food stamp benefits if she's convicted of a drug offense. No other crime, including rape or murder, bars Americans from borrowing money to go to college or receiving public assistance.

  • In the name of "protecting the children," the federal government insists on an abstinence-only drug education program that completely ignores a simple fact: some kids will use drugs. Encouraging kids not to use drugs is fine, but if they do, failing to make sure they have enough information at their disposal can be deadly.

  • Instead of an honest dialogue among students, parents and teachers, the federal government is pushing a drug testing policy that requires children to urinate in front of strangers. Yet it remains easier for kids to buy marijuana than cigarettes.

  • The drug war unfairly targets people of color. Of those in prison on drug charges in New York State, 93 percent are African American or Latino. A person convicted of selling five grams of "crack," which is stereotypically associated with low-income minority communities, receives a five-year federal mandatory minimum sentence. The same sentence applies for selling 500 grams of powder cocaine.

Despite all the wasted lives and dollars, the tide seems to be turning against the drug war. This fall, the Supreme Court will hear a landmark medical marijuana case that could end the federal government's harassment of patients and caregivers once and for all. The author of the student loan ban for drug offenders has acknowledged that his legislation goes too far. And across the country, school districts are deciding against random student drug testing because it's expensive, intrusive and doesn't stop kids from using drugs.

Politicians won't take up this issue – or any issue – unless they hear from their constituents in large numbers. Keep the positive momentum going by taking action against the war on drugs.

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