In 1982, a young, tenacious senator from Delaware, Joseph Biden, was frustrated with the country's scattered efforts to stop drug addiction and violent drug trafficking. Drugs, particularly new and cheap ones like crack cocaine, were destroying the most vulnerable among us -- the poor, disadvantaged and forgotten -- and were a major driver of health care costs, homelessness, neighborhood neglect, mental illness and child abuse.
So, like a good moderate, he came up with a practical idea to alleviate what he saw as needless suffering. Rather than leaving policy uncoordinated and subject to the whims of more than a dozen different Cabinet Heads with competing interests, he thought there should be one coordinating agency on drug policy, aptly named the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Both United Press International, reporting on a vote that created the office's director, and Senator Biden, called its head the drug czar. Soon enough, President Reagan rallied around the idea, too, in a show of bipartisan support rarely seen today.
To historians of drug policy, Biden's action was simply one of many from a great bipartisan tradition. After all, it was the great Progressive Democrat, Francis Harrison, who worked with Republicans to pass the first major piece of federal anti-drug legislation. Subsequent leaders from both parties, from Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft to Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy, championed drug policy as an important part of their policy agenda. President Clinton worked very closely with Majority Leader Bob Dole to pass several policies focused on sensible measures like drug courts and community policing.
Unfortunately, today's discussions about drug policy are dominated by the ever-popular but banal discussion about "legalization" and a "failed war on drugs" -- even though the former is unsupported by science and the latter is a term abandoned by drug czars past and present (and Joe Biden). Legalization is something most politicians aren't interested in, and for good reason: We know that legalizing drugs would increase their consumption, could spark a new, commercial industry that targets kids (a la Joe Camel), and would do little to make a dent in today's transnational criminal organizations that make much of their money from human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and piracy (on top of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana).
Those of us who have studied and practiced the issue know it is time we start speaking and acting intelligently about drugs. Implementing good drug policy takes hard work, and there are no silver bullets.
But there is some good news.
Indeed, we know a lot more about drug addiction now than we could have dreamed about twenty years ago. Advances in treatment -- both medications and behavioral therapies -- have improved the lives of millions, and should continue to be relentlessly pursued, we can all agree. Getting people to go to treatment in the first place should become an obsession for anyone who cares about the public health and safety costs of drug abuse on society today -- which hovers around $200 billion every year. We should be moving more quickly to implement the last great bipartisan effort on the drug issue -- the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, which ensures that insurance companies provide health coverage for addiction and mental illness.
Innovative and smart law enforcement strategies that employ carrots and sticks -- treatment and drug testing complete with swift but modest consequences for continued drug use and incentives for abstinence -- have produced miraculous results, whether through drug courts or HOPE-probation programs. And drug prevention has moved on from slogans and class workbooks to a science of teaching resistance skills and changing local policies based on data and community capacity (think liquor store zoning laws or community activism against open air drug markets).
Finally, we know that our drug problem is not intractable. Drug use is in fact lower than it was 30 years ago, and the innovative tools discussed above are both cost-effective and scalable. We still have work to do, however, to reduce the consequences of addiction -- overdose (especially from prescription drugs, today's fastest growing drug problem and leading cause of accidental death in this country), HIV/AIDS, drug crime, etc. -- but that is a problem of will, not of want for effective strategies.
This year, exactly three decades after both Democrats and Republicans first focused on creating the office that today leads drug policy efforts, both parties should not only remember their rich history on the drug issue, they should co-lead today's drug challenges based on what we know can work.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at America's failed war on drugs August 28th and September 4th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.