If you read a newspaper or watch TV, it's hard to avoid the stories of war's most tragic victims: the children and families, the refugees, widows, and orphans in Syria, Darfur, Somalia, and elsewhere. And the worst part for us as Americans is that there is very little we can do to stop the carnage.
But there is one war that we can influence directly, not by force of arms but by political courage and common sense. The "War on Drugs" has raged for over 40 years. It has claimed thousands of casualties on both sides of the border, turned neighborhoods and in some cases whole regions into killing fields, filled prisons to overflowing, poisoned farmlands and forests, undermined police and government agencies, corrupted multi-national banks and financial companies, funded overseas enemies and terrorists, and despite the tremendous cost in blood and treasure has not advanced the cause for which the war was declared.
A group of over 80 families and victims of drug war violence in the U.S. and Mexico has come together to form the Caravan for Peace. Their goal is to call attention to this crisis and to find solutions with a multidisciplinary and intergenerational approach that places individuals -- and their welfare and dignity -- at the forefront.
The Caravan's journey began near the San Diego-Tijuana border on Aug. 12 and has visited 27 cities. Its final stop was the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area yesterday for a five-day visit.
In Mexico the drug war is destroying the country family by family. More than 60,000 have been murdered by the cartels over the past five years. Ten-thousand people are still missing and thousands of orphans remain, only to be sucked into the illicit drug trade by gangs.
The U.S., with only 5 percent of the world's population, houses 25 percent of the world's prisoners: 2.3 million people behind bars. The majority are there for non-violent drug crimes, and many of the rest are there for violent crimes committed to obtain money to buy illegal drugs.
One of the main objectives of the Caravan is to highlight the similarities between Mexico and the US when it comes to drug violence. Family members from both countries will be sharing their stories of pain, suffering, and courage. Listening to these victims, the devastation that the drug war inflicts is obvious and inescapable.
The Caravan is led by Javier Sicilia, whose son Juan Francisco was murdered along with six friends one night in March 2011. A Baltimore family, the Dawsons, had their home firebombed because they stood up against the drug dealers in their neighborhood, and seven people died in that blaze. In Washington, D.C., drug crimes continue to hold neighborhoods hostage in the same city that houses the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Not only has the War on Drugs failed, but it continues to make the situation worse. A new strategy is needed.
The first step is to admit that we have a problem as serious as any foreign aggressor or economic calamity. While it's too soon to know what strategy will be the most effective, we should recognize that our greatest weapon is not our criminal justice system, whose resources have been taxed to the limit by acting as the front line in this struggle, but rather our public health and educational institutions.
Although it was President Nixon who coined the phrase "war on drugs" four decades ago, it was the 1914 Harrison Act that kicked off the 20th century war on drugs. Let us recognize the urgency for reform and not reach the milestone of America's Hundred Years War before launching an earnest plan for change.
We need a national discussion with full participation by law enforcement, health professionals, scientists, addiction counselors, addicts, all levels of government, clergy, and anyone and everyone who can contribute. This discussion must be civil, thoughtful, and unemotional with a goal of developing and implementing a drug control strategy that is based on truth and science, not on politics.
Drug use will never be completely eradicated, but that doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and do nothing. We need to get back to what should have been the goal of the War on Drugs all along: a society where drug abuse is as rare and as manageable as we can make it.
We invite you to participate. For information about the Caravan, its route and planned activities, please see: http://caravanforpeace.org.
Kurt Schmoke is Vice-President and General Counsel for Howard University and former Mayor of Baltimore.
Dan Morhaim is a board-certified physician and Deputy Majority Leader in the Maryland House of Delegates.
Neill Franklin is the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a retired Maryland State Police major and former Baltimore Police lieutenant colonel.