Five Ways We Can Build a Movement to Stop This Idiotic War on Drugs

This is a time to put big ideas on the table. We have to learn how to coexist with drugs. They aren't going anywhere.

The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars waging its 40-year "war on drugs," responsible for the imprisonment of 500,000 of our fellow American citizens. Despite this enormous waste of money and lives, drugs are as easily available and cheap as ever. The drug-warmongers say it is all for the safety and protection of our children, yet high-schoolers all over the country can easily obtain just about any illegal drug they are seeking in this unregulated market. Half of all high school seniors will have tried marijuana before graduating. The government's latest Monitoring the Future report, released in December, indicates that more young people are now choosing to smoke pot rather than cigarettes.

Despite these disheartening facts, there is reason for optimism and hope. More and more people are joining the movement to end the failed war on drugs. Passionate people in every neighborhood and from every walk of life, liberals and conservatives, are joining this fast-growing movement. Though there are some compelling reasons drugs should remain illegal, we should at least begin an honest discussion about the root causes of the violence and the range of options to deal with the harms associated with prohibition. It is clear that the strategy of the past 40 years is not working. Below are five opportunities to engage our fellow citizens, discuss the enormous challenges we face, and come up with solutions to reduce the harms of both drug misuse and drug prohibition.

1. Drug Prohibition is Creating a Bloodbath Along the U.S.-Mexico Border 

Thanks to the drug war, a bloody war is raging in Mexico right now -- spilling into otherwise low-crime U.S. cities along the border! More than 5,000 Mexicans were killed in 2008 as a direct result of drug prohibition -- more deaths than all the fallen American service members since the Iraq war began. Whole towns and communities are living in fear with no one  -- not politicians, judges, journalists nor pop stars  -- immune from the violence.

Classrooms are half-empty because children are afraid to go to school; decapitated heads are left in the streets; and there are even murders occurring in hospitals, where gunmen go to "complete" the job. Nothing in the coca or marijuana plant causes these deaths. Rather, it is prohibition that creates a profit motive people are willing to kill for. Remember, when alcohol consumption was illegal in this country, we had Al Capone and shootouts in the streets. Today, no one dies over the sale of a beer.

This week, the border town of El Paso, Texas, passed a resolution suggesting an open and honest dialogue on ending drug prohibition. The nonbinding resolution suggested that legalizing drugs in the United States could help curb a volatile and bloody drug war that last year claimed nearly 1,600 lives in Juarez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said we should consider legalizing marijuana, observing that marijuana sales are responsible for up to 75 percent of the money that cartels use for smuggling other drugs and for combating the army and police in Mexico. Goddard contends these profits could be significantly reduced if marijuana possession were to be legalized.

2. Economic Crisis: We Can No Longer Afford an Ineffective Drug War

States from New York to California and in between are facing billion-dollar budget deficits. Governors and mayors are being forced to cut spending on everything from education to heath care, and are even shutting down popular prevention programs. Fortunately, a win-win solution for governors facing a budget crunch is apparent: Reform the drug laws and offer treatment instead of jail for nonviolent drug offenders. States could save hundreds of millions of dollars by doing away with these wasteful laws that lock up nonviolent people with drug convictions at a hefty price tag of $40,000 per year. We can't afford these ineffective and inhumane laws anymore!

3. Obama and Drugs: Personal and Political

President-elect Barack Obama has been refreshingly honest about his current and past drug use. Obama has been making news recently because of his struggles to give up cigarettes. He has written and talked about his marijuana and cocaine use when he was younger. He has never run from or made excuses about his drug use or habits. Like Obama, tens of millions of Americans have tried marijuana, and so far they seem not to be holding his past drug use against him. Having someone in the White House who continues to grapple with relapses from his nicotine addiction will hopefully create more empathy between the executive branch and others trying to give up drug addictions.

On the policy front, Obama made some good commitments during the campaign: He supports repealing the harshest drug sentences, removing federal funding bans on needle-exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS, ending federal raids on marijuana dispensaries in states where medical marijuana is legal, and supporting treatment alternatives for low-level drug offenses. President Obama will also have some key allies in the Democrat-controlled Senate and House. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia has made our country's prison overcrowding crisis -- fueled by the drug war  -- a top priority.

4. Veterans Are Self-Medicating Because of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

People use drugs for both pleasure and pain; there is no doubt that much drug use is self-medication. One group that will be dealing with self-medication for a long time is U.S. soldiers returning from war. How does one deal with the pain of having friends die in one's arms? What does killing other human beings do to one's emotional stability? What is it like being away from family for a year or more? It's not hard to imagine how such experiences could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, which in turn can lead to drug addiction, homelessness and even suicide.

It's easy to demand that everyone "support the troops." But if we're going to talk the talk, we had better be ready to offer compassion and treatment to our brothers and sisters who need to heal from the damages of war. And once more people realize that incarceration for petty drug law violations is not an appropriate response to veterans' suffering from addiction and depression, then hopefully people will question the logic of giving long jail sentences to others in our society who also could be self-medicating for pain and trauma in their own lives.

5. Incarceration Nation: When Being No. 1 is Not a Good Thing

America likes to promote its self as the "home of the free" but, unfortunately, we have the embarrassing honor of being known as the incarceration nation. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population but almost 25 percent of the world's prison population, incarcerating more of its citizens per capita than any other country in the world. We lock up more people on drug charges than Western Europe locks up people for everything, and they have 100 million more people than we do. A report released last month by the U.S. Justice Department found that 1 in 31 Americans was in prison or jail or on parole or probation last year.

The Time for Change Has Arrived

The world is in an intense time right now! We have wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan; millions of people are out of work; and a growing economic crisis is on everyone's minds. We have a bloody war in Mexico, and states across this country struggling to pay for the overcrowded prisons. But, in my heart, I truly believe there are many reasons to be optimistic and hopeful. We have a new president and millions of activated citizens who helped put him there. The pro-war ideologues have less credibility then ever before. This is a time to put big ideas on the table. We have to learn how to coexist with drugs. They have been around for thousands of years and will be around for thousands more. We are smart and compassionate people, and we can figure out how to reduce the harms from both drugs and drug prohibition.

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Tony Newman is communications director for the Drug Policy Alliance.