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Ending the War on Drugs: Easier Said Than Done

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During his 2008 campaign and upon taking office, President Obama said he would shift the federal government's drug control resources from a criminalization-centered approach to one based on public health. His drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, even announced in 2009 that he would end the war on drugs: "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them," he said. "We're not at war with people in this country."

This rhetoric, however, does not match the reality experienced in communities across the country, where the criminal justice system remains the primary means of addressing drugs. The Obama administration's budget continues to emphasize enforcement, prosecution and incarceration at home --- and interdiction, eradication and military escalation abroad. Even what the government does spend on treatment and prevention is overstated, as many of its programs are wasteful and counterproductive.

In 2011, the last year for which data are available, more than 1.5 million people were arrested for a drug law violation in the U.S. -- and more than 80 percent of those arrests were for low-level possession. On any given night, roughly 500,000 people go to sleep behind bars in the U.S. for nothing more than a drug law violation -- that's 10 times the number in 1980. Latinos and especially African-Americans are far more likely to be searched, arrested and incarcerated -- even though they're no more likely to use or sell drugs than other Americans.

Yet, a funny thing has happened since the drug czar claimed to end the war on drugs back in 2009: The movement of drug policy reform from the fringes to the mainstream of U.S. and international politics has accelerated. And Americans from across the political spectrum are calling out President Obama and his drug czar on their bluff.

We won big when Washington and Colorado became the first two states in the country -- and indeed the first political jurisdictions anywhere in the world -- to approve legally regulating marijuana. And the truly surprising thing is that these initiatives didn't just win, they won by decisive margins of nearly 10 percent in both states. The initiative in Colorado got more votes than Obama while Washington's initiative got more votes than the winners of the statewide races for governor and attorney general. The Washington initiative even won in several counties carried by Romney -- a strong indication that not just Independents but a growing number of Republicans support our cause.

Ending marijuana prohibition represents the most politically feasible way of dramatically rolling back the reach of prohibitionist drug policies. More than half of all drug arrests are for marijuana. And more than 750,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana in 2011 alone -- 86 percent for mere possession.

The magnitude of our victories in Colorado and Washington makes what once appeared impossible -- drug law reforms grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights -- seemingly inevitable.

But nothing concerns me more than when people look at what we accomplished on Election Day and declare "we've won!" The truth is, we may have scored two major victories, but winning the war against the war on drugs is a long way off. At this very moment, our opponents are preparing not just to block our next steps, but to undermine our victories in Colorado and Washington.

Ensuring that the new marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington are implemented effectively is a top priority for me and my colleagues. Meanwhile, we're working with local allies in a growing number of states to prepare for several marijuana legalization ballot initiatives in 2014 and 2016. And we're working in several other states, and in Congress, on bills that will protect medical marijuana patients, reduce or eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana possession, or legalize it outright.

Of course, ending the drug war is about much more than ending marijuana prohibition. My colleagues and I play a leadership role in reducing overdose fatalities through 911 Good Samaritan laws and increasing access to the overdose antidote naloxone. We're working with state and local governments to handle drug use as a health rather than criminal issue. And we're raising awareness about the positive results of decriminalization policies outside the U.S. We're also stepping up our efforts to reduce the number of people arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for drug law violations and playing a pivotal role in sentencing reform efforts in Congress, as well as in California, New Jersey and many other states.

I'm especially excited about our flourishing efforts in Latin America, where we're working with the Global Commission on Drug Policy and other allies to shape a new international drug policy for the 21st century.

In 2009, former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) joined with other members of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy in saying the time had come to "break the taboo" on exploring alternatives to the failed war on drugs. In 2011, those presidents joined with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker, former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss and other members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in calling for fundamental reforms to national and global drug policies. Former presidents Jimmy Carter, Ricardo Lagos (Chile), Vicente Fox (Mexico) and Aleksander Kwasniewski (Poland) were among those who seconded their recommendations.

Beginning in late 2011, current presidents began to join the calls of their predecessors. These included President Santos in Colombia, Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala, José Mujica in Uruguay and then-President Felipe Calderón of Mexico. Simultaneously, the victorious marijuana legalization ballot initiatives in Washington State and Colorado transformed a previously hypothetical debate into real political reform. Other states will almost certainly follow their lead in coming years.

Then last month the Organization of American States released a landmark report that envisions possible scenarios -- including decriminalization, legalization, and other alternatives to prohibitionist policies -- for future drug control policy. The OAS received its mandate at last year's Summit of the Americas in Cartagena following a discussion among the presidents about the need for new drug control policies that could better reduce the violence and other negative consequences of prohibitionist policies. With some presidents speaking openly in favor of legal regulation of currently illegal drugs, President Obama acknowledged that ending prohibition is "a legitimate topic for debate" and also stated: "I think it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are ones that are doing more harm than good in certain places."

Never before has a multilateral organization engaged in such an inclusive and intellectually legitimate analysis of drug policy options. Indeed, it would have been inconceivable just two years ago that the OAS -- or any multilateral organization -- would publish a document that considers legalization, decriminalization and other alternatives to prohibitionist policies on an equal footing with status quo policies. Political pressures by the U.S. and other governments would have made that impossible. The OAS scenarios report thus represents the important next step in elevating and legitimizing a discussion that until a few years ago was effectively banned from official government circles. It is sure to have legs in a way that few reports by multilateral institutions ever do.

In the nearly two decades since I founded the Drug Policy Alliance, we've come a long way in helping to create a more just and humane world. Millions of people can legally access marijuana. Hundreds of thousands have been saved from arrest or incarceration. California and other states have saved billions in law enforcement, prosecution and prison expenditures. And health-based drug policy reforms that reduce overdose fatalities and HIV/AIDS have saved tens of thousands of lives.

Yet the drug war remains entrenched and codified in a complex, global web of policies. We can't stop fighting until policymakers adopt a fundamentally better way of dealing with drugs, people who use them, and their children, families and communities.

The end of the tragic war on drugs is within our grasp. But we must reach for it together.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the theatrical and on-demand release of "How To Make Money Selling Drugs," a new documentary by Matthew Cooke that examines the drug trade from a variety of angles. For more info on the film, click here.