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It's not just Colorado and Washington: The world is abandoning the US-backed drug war in favor of a more liberal approach to cannabis.

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Crew members of the USS Thach observe suspect Ecuadorean fishing boats on March 3, 2013, during a drug interdiction while patrolling international waters in the Pacific Ocean near Colombia and Ecuador. The USS Thach participates in the Martillo Operation, a US led multilateral operation launched in January 2012 to combat drug smuggling in Central America. (Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images)
United States

War on drugs: What is it good for?

Four decades after President Nixon declared war on drugs, nearly everyone agrees it's time for a truce.

BOSTON — The global drug war is arguably America’s longest armed conflict, declared 42 years ago and still raging at a pace that would startle many citizens.

It is waged daily, on farmland and streets from Colombia to Mexico to Detroit. It has put millions of people behind bars,  and has dramatically influenced our culture and worldview.

By some estimates, it has cost the nation more than $2 trillion dollars.

Ironically, the drug war was nearly stillborn.

Less than a year after he fired the first salvos, Nixon's Republican-led Shafer commission sought to calm Americans and temper the president’s claims.

The Shafer commission concluded that the drug problem would “not collapse our society,” and noted that “the compulsive use of alcohol remains the nation’s most serious drug problem.” It cautioned against a “drug abuse industrial complex,” that could perpetuate the problem, and called for a review of programs that might be doing more harm than good.

It even recommended abolishing penalties for private use and possession of cannabis.

Nixon ignored these conclusions, and the nation forged on with a strategy that increasingly emphasized force over treatment.

Most leaders since Nixon have doubled down on that strategy. Even President Barack Obama – who initially promised change, and who allegedly pioneered “roof hits” as a student — has merely tinkered with Washington’s interdiction-oriented program. He continues to ask Congress for billions of dollars in support of overseas eradication.

Drug hawks contend that this is a good thing. They say prohibition is working, especially when compared with the record for legal drugs.

“Fifty-two percent of Americans drink regularly,” argues Dr. Kevin A Sabet a former senior advisor in President Obama’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Even with every single anti-smoking campaign you could ever conjure up, 27 percent of Americans still smoke cigarettes. Only 7 percent of Americans [used marijuana in the past month].”

But 42 years after Nixon’s landmark policy initiative, the Shafer Commission appears prescient.

Condemnation of the drug war has gone mainstream. Conscientious citizens have concluded that the collateral harm inflicted by the drug war exceeds the benefits that it may yield.

Voters in Colorado and Washington demonstrated this, with their November 2012 referenda calling for legalization of marijuana. According to a 2010 Pew Research poll, three-quarters of Americans now favor legalized medical marijuana. A sizeable minority, 41 percent, support full legalization.

There is no denying that drug abuse is serious problem, and that society needs to pursue policies to minimize harm. Evidence is emerging that even marijuana, widely considered the most bening of intoxicants, can cause cognitive and neuropsychological impairment.  

The trouble is, there’s little evidence that prohibition and harsh criminal penalties are having a meaningful impact. Yet the strategy is arguably inflicting an unacceptable collateral toll on society.

To put it another way, “The public does not like marijuana,” as Brian Vicente, a Denver attorney who co-wrote Colorado’s “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act of 2012,” told Rolling Stone after voters approved it. “What they like is community safety, tax revenue and better use of law enforcement.”

The statistics are staggering.

Prohibition has put an unprecedented fraction of the US population behind bars. America now incarcerates some 2.25 million people, more than one-in-five of the world’s prisoners. The number of US inmates serving time for drug charges now exceeds the entire US prison population in 1970, the year before the drug war began. About half of federal prisoners, and 1-in-5 state prisoners, are serving time for non-violent drug crimes. Many more are serving time for violent crimes tied to the drug trade.

This massive prison population exacts a huge cost on families, neighborhoods, and taxpayers. Meanwhile, it hasn’t significantly affected the flow of drugs, because for each trafficker thrown in prison, others seem remain ready to their luck at this risky trade. 

The drug ban has also given rise to a vast  global black market, estimated to be worth $320 billion.  This market empowers criminals, and provides lucrative opportunities to anyone with the requisite job skills: a willingness to harm children, break the law and resort to violence. The illicit trade has transformed neighborhoods — from Baltimore to Detroit to East L.A. — into battle zones, where innocent citizens live in fear of violence and shady dealers.

While Americans have long blamed