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40th Anniversary of the Drug War: Little Change, Some Hope

June 17, 2011 12:04:30 am
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By Ted Gest

Demonstrating against the war on drugs in Washington, DC. Photo by cranberries via Flickr

It didn't have its bellicose label at the beginning, but today is the 40th anniversary of the "war on drugs."  On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon sent Congress a message calling for federal money to be spent on both law enforcement and drug treatment.

"If we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely in time destroy us," Nixon said.

This week, the anniversary has been marked by a series of events, most of them lamenting what has happened since Nixon's declaration. Among those in Washington, D.C., alone: the libertarian Cato Institute held a debate on whether the U.S. should legalize drugs; Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance led an event on "the failures of drug prohibition and ... an exit strategy for the failed war on drugs."

Today, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is to lead a forum where a group called the Institute of the Black World "Declares War on the War on Drugs."

Many critics agree with the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which produced a widely quoted report this month calling for a comprehensive re-evaluation of Washington's approach. The commission, which included former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, proposed "treating drug addiction as a health issue, reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives and legally regulating rather than criminalizing cannabis.”

Rhetorically, the Obama administration agreed--to a point.

Issuing a "national prevention strategy" yesterday, which covered many issues beyond drugs, national drug policy director Gil Kerlikowske stressed the White House's "balanced approach" and cited the administration's $10 billion commitment to drug prevention programs, which he said supports a "public health" approach to the problem.

That approach does not include legalizing marijuana.

Kerlikowske, using a 30-year time span, said that overall U.S. drug use had "dropped substantially" during that period, and that the "number of Americans using illicit drugs today is roughly half the rate it was in the late 70s."

Based on those numbers, perhaps the war on drugs (a phrase Kerlikowske disdains) has not been a total failure. Nevertheless, critics complain that the basic U.S. government strategy of spending many billions of dollars a year on trying to keep drugs out of the country, arresting many thousands of Americans on drug charges, and on imprisoning large numbers on drug offenses has not changed, despite the "health" rhetoric emanating from the White House.

Eric Sterling of the Washington-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation has been watching antidrug campaigns since his work in the 1980s helping write anticrime laws for members of Congress. Sterling agrees that the continuing ideological battles over drug policy featuring "war" rhetoric have meant that there has been "no mass movement for drug policy reform."

Sterling, an advocate for a more liberal drug policy, tells The Crime Report that he sees some signs of change.

At least five state governors have recently signed measures expanding opportunities to distribute marijuana for medical needs or decriminalizing small quantities of pot possession, and 46 percent of California voters last November favored full legalization.

"The public increasingly is open to debate what we can do differently," Sterling says. "What the public wants is changing."

Unlike 1971, however, when the White House led the charge for a national get-tough policy on drugs, it seems that most prospects for immediate change in the 21st century will come not from Washington, D.C., but rather from the states.

Ted Gest is a contributing editor to The Crime Report and president of Criminal Justice Journalists

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