Monday, October 12, 2009
Good Points On Failed Drug War Policy
The drug war has failed; what comes next?
by Sanho Tree
October 11, 2009
President Barack Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, should be
commended for initiating some basic reforms in U.S. drug policy. One of
his first sensible acts was to drop the phrase "War on Drugs."
"Regardless of how you try to explain to people that it's a
`war on drugs' or a `war on a product,' people see a war
as a war on them," he explained. "We're not at war with
people in this country."
As the former chief of the Seattle Police, he lived under some of the
most progressive drug laws in the nation. When it comes to addressing
the basic premise of our failed drug policies, however, he's trapped
in a linguistic box.
When asked about the "L" word, his oft-repeated response is
"Legalization is not in my vocabulary nor is it in the
president's vocabulary." That word isn't in my political
vocabulary either. It's a clumsy term that polarizes the debate and
bars the nuanced discussion we need to have.
The debate over illegal drugs today is cleaved into a false dichotomy of
two polar extremes: prohibition versus legalization. That's partly
thanks to our laws. Title VII in the Office of National Drug Control
Policy Reauthorization Act of 1998 says the office shall "take such
actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize" drugs
currently deemed illicit. Drug czars who respond otherwise would be
fired, in all likelihood. This is because drug warriors have spent years
co-opting the term, making it so radioactive that many voters think
legalization means "anything goes" free-market anarchy. To them,
the term evokes images of selling heroin in candy machines to children.
What we need is regulation instead of prohibition, because we need to
have more control over these substances, not less. Because we have
witnessed the damage illicit drugs can cause, we have allowed ourselves
to fall prey to one of the drug warriors' great myths: Keeping drugs
illegal will protect us. But drug prohibition doesn't mean we
control drugs; it means we give up the right to control them because we
can't regulate an industry we drive underground. We have made a
deliberate choice not to regulate these drugs and are paying the price
for the chaos that followed. These are lessons we failed to learn from
our disastrous attempt at alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.
The debate reminds me of the old story popularly attributed to Winston
Churchill. At a dinner party one night, a drunken Churchill asked an
aristocratic woman whether she would sleep with him for a million
pounds. "Maybe," the woman said coyly. "Would you sleep with
me for one pound?" Churchill then asked. "Of course not, what
kind of woman do you think I am?" the woman responded indignantly.
"Madam, we've already established what kind of woman you
are," replied Churchill, "now we're just negotiating the
Once we bring the drug debate into the broad spectrum of regulatory
solutions, many options are back on the table and we can "negotiate
the price." Some of us favor stricter regulation and others more
liberal (depending on the drug). For instance, marijuana could be taxed
and regulated, but meth would not. Legalization, on the other hand, is a
term that fails to clarify the issue. Bazookas are legally produced, but
I can't simply go out and buy one. That's because they're
Here's the question our policymakers should address: "Do you see
the problem as a simple dichotomy between these two extremes or do you
think there is a wide spectrum of regulatory options from which to
choose?" In other words, should we bring these substances under the
domain of the law or continue to let criminals control the market? I
suspect Kerlikowske' s response would be nuanced and thoughtful.
Sanho Tree is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a
progressive multi-issue think tank, where he directs its Drug Policy
project. www.ips-dc.org. Distributed by MinutemanMedia. org.
http://www.citizen- times.com/ apps/pbcs. dll/article? AID=/20091011/ OPINION\