Why the War on Drugs Is Poised to End - Even If 'Wire' Creator David Simon Worries It Won't

Every so often, a fringe political movement wins mainstream acceptance so quickly that its codification in law — once at hand — feels both obviously correct and long overdue.


The most recent example, of course, is gay marriage. In just one decade, American support for same-sex unions jumped from 36 percent in 2005 to 57 percent in 2015. By the time of the landmark Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, gay marriage had moved from a pipe dream to common sense.

Another idea now stands poised to follow a similar trajectory: The War on Drugs has created suffering on an unimaginable scale, with no discernible benefit. “If this were a war fought for four decades by any other generals with this outcome, we’d have run up the white flag years ago,” David Simon, creator of The Wire, told Salon in a phone interview.

Drug prohibition has criminalized an entire portion of our population, poisoned relations with foreign nations and spawned endless cycles of violence in our inner cities. It has done essentially nothing to reduce drug supply or rates of addiction.

America is slowly waking up to this reality. As with our gradual embrace of the gay community, the first steps are taken in the world of fiction. This cultural vanguard (“Sex and the City” and “Will & Grace” then; “The Wire” and “Orange is the New Black” now) opens the possibility for a new sort of political discussion, one that in turn leads to even wider public awareness through a virtuous feedback cycle.

Of course, it’s impossible to predict future trends in public opinion with certainty. And serious reforms of our drug policies — the kind that looks beyond marijuana and to harder drugs — are still met with what the poet William Blake called the “mind-forged manacles” of superstition.

But the signs are unmistakable. The foundations of our insane drug war are beginning to crack; the status quo is already being rocked — chipped at by an array of motivated advocates, increasingly confident in the clarity of their logic and the righteousness of their cause.

The day we decriminalize all drug use may not arrive in this decade, or even the next one. But it is coming.

* * *

Americans do not yet believe in the decriminalization of all drugs. But they increasingly hold a set of views that makes this major shift in our drug policy — one that would treat drug users as victims of addiction rather than criminals to be punished — all but inevitable.

The clearest evidence of this comes from a 2014 Pew report, “America’s New Drug Policy Landscape,” which identified a growing sea change in public attitudes about punishing drug use. In 2001, only 47 percent of Americans supported states that moved away from mandatory prison terms for non-violent drug users. In 2014, just 13 years later, the number of Americans approving an end to mandatory minimumshad soared to 63 percent — a rapid change that mirrors shifting views on gay marriage. Overall, Pew found, a full 67 percent of Americans now say that the government “should focus more on providing treatment” for cocaine and heroin users than prosecuting users.

That number will only increase as older generations die off. Americans younger than 30 prefer treatment over prosecution for hard drug users by a huge 77 to 20 margin. Only about half of Americans over 65 years old support treatment over prosecution. Across the board, research on drug attitudes reveals these sharp demographic splits.

feature piece in Politico this July argued that the summer of 2015 “could be viewed historically as the tipping point” of the prohibition of marijuana, the first time the Drug Enforcement Administration “found itself in unfamiliar territory as a target of congressional scrutiny, budget cuts and scorn.” That’s accurate, but it’s also too narrow a conclusion.

The current transformation of our drug attitudes is only beginning with the gradual repeal of marijuana prohibition, which represents just a fraction of the drug war, says Bill Martin, director of the Drug Policy Program at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Martin has been trying to change our nation’s drug policy for 35 years. No period during that span comes close to rivaling the pace of change in attitudes over the last five years, he says. He notes that a recent poll found that just 3 percent of Americans think we’re winning the War on Drugs, that myths around drug use are starting to fade, and that decades-old “fear tactics” have lost their potency.

“There’s a lot of loose bricks in the wall of resistance to change,” he says.

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