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Understanding Obama's "War on Drugs"

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Last month I was interviewed on CNN.com as part of the network's coverage of the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon declaring the "war on drugs." It was just one of thousands of articles, broadcasts and blog posts featuring the voices of police officers, politicians and scholars marking an anniversary that offers little to celebrate. Many commentators across the political spectrum eagerly welcomed the opportunity to seriously examine the failures of our drug policies, evaluate possible reforms and opine on what it all might mean.

But not everyone was as excited by the opportunity for reflection on how we can make drug policy more effective. After reading my interview on CNN.com, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy apparently contacted the news organization and demanded equal time to defend the Obama administration's continuation of U.S. drug prohibition policies.

The published response presents a rare and revealing window into the thinking behind the nation's drug policy at the beginning of the fifth decade of the "war on drugs." The transcript is of great interest to anyone who wants to understand why -- despite clear scientific evidence, real-world experience and political opportunity -- a policy that is so obviously failed and is so profoundly harmful is able to continue year after year.

Written by Rafael Lemaitre, a public affairs staffer in the drug czar's office, the interview answers obfuscate important facts and completely avoid many of the most important issues in the debate about drug policy.

With polished clarity, Lemaitre spells out a worldview and political intent based on three key (false) ideas:

  • We are making great strides against drug abuse.
  • The "war on drugs" is permanent, and any alternative to it means anarchy.
  • The only goal of real importance in drug policy is to reduce the number of drug users.

Is the "War on Drugs" Working?

As proof that we are making "tremendous progress," Lemaitre clings to the fact that that cocaine production in one country -- Colombia -- has dropped over the past decade according to some metrics and that drug use in the U.S. is now lower in some categories and demographics than it was during the raucous 1970's.

First of all, the fact that cocaine production in Colombia seems to be falling isn't really a sign of success in light of the fact that U.S.-backed eradication efforts -- to the extent they have "worked" -- have only really succeeded in pushing production of the drug into neighboring Peru, where coca growing has risen every year for the past five years.

And when it comes to drug use in the U.S., the truth is that use rates have continually fluctuated over the years and decades. The fact that drug use today is down in some categories compared to 1979 isn't all that meaningful when you consider, for example, that the percentage of 12th graders who regularly use illegal drugs has sharply increased over the past two decades.

Now, compare this to the historic across-the-board reduction we've seen in tobacco use over the past few decades. To achieve this, we haven't had to knock down any doors with SWAT teams, sentence anyone to decades in prison under harsh mandatory minimum sentences or strip anyone of their right to vote or to receive government benefits. Instead, a long-term and diverse educational campaign, in which government and industry have collaborated, has defined nicotine addiction as a health issue and has helped many Americans quit smoking without the threat of the criminal justice system.

But:

Could Ending the "War on Drugs" Open the Drug Use Floodgates?

Lemaitre says that ending prohibition of the currently illegal drugs would be irresponsible and would make drugs "more available in our communities," leading to an explosion in use and abuse.

But, consider a recent study by the World Health Organization showing that the U.S. -- despite being the home of the global "war on drugs" -- has the highest rates of marijuana and cocaine use in the world. Indeed, Americans use drugs at a higher rate than people in other countries that have modernized their laws by treating drugs as more of a health -- rather than a criminal -- issue.

It's clear that creating harsh penalties for drugs doesn't reduce use, and the absence of harsh penalties doesn't lead large numbers of people who wouldn't otherwise imbibe to become addicted to dangerous drugs.

Lemaitre says he sympathizes with people who are "frustrated by the negative impacts of drug use and who might be tempted to submit to "silver bullet 'solutions.'" To be clear, though, no one on the anti-prohibition side of this debate would characterize regulating drugs as a panacea. We have to do a lot better, and while legalization itself won't be a cure-all for drug abuse problems, it will at least bring those problems out of the criminal realm and above-ground where a true public health strategy can begin to work. As an added benefit, ending prohibition would undo much of the additional non-use-related damage that banning drugs has created.

Which brings us to the third question raised by Lemaitre's comments:

Is Reducing the Number of Drug Users the Most Important Goal in Drug Policy?

When asked by CNN what individuals can do given the enormous complexity of the drug problem, Lemaitre offered a quick to-do list: talk to your kids about drugs, be alert to risk factors such as "association with drug-abusing peers" and clean out the medicine cabinet. Implicit here is the view that it's all about individual users. While concern for drug-using individuals is obviously an important issue for anyone looking at drug policy, there are several other considerations one should not ignore -- like market violence, economics, human rights and international relations, just to name a few.

This use-focused mindset is an important part of what lets prohibitionists like Lemaitre essentially turn their backs on pressing concerns about the hundreds of billions of dollars in global tax-free revenue that prohibition creates. No more worries about why we have given control of this lucrative traffic to violent criminals. Not once in his CNN interview does Lemaitre express any concern about the forty thousand dead in Mexico's drug wars in the last five years or the millions of Americans whose lives have been tainted by criminal records resulting from pointless drug possession arrests. The drug czar and those in his office know all-too-well that these horrors are a regrettable but unavoidable price for a drug prohibition strategy that they mistakenly believe is helping to significantly reduce drug use. So, they'd rather not talk about it.

In an encouraging sign, the administration does appear to at least acknowledge the emerging political consensus that the "drug war" is a failure and that a new direction is severely needed. To wit, the Lemaitre interview contains glossy rhetoric about our inability to arrest our way out of the drug problem and the "balanced" approach that the Obama team is taking. But nobody should be fooled. The Obama administration's own drug control budgets show that it, like every recent one before it, is all-in with a punishment-oriented drug policy in which "victory" is impossible, "defeat" is unthinkable and evidence, science, common sense and compassion can take a hike.

If the Obama administration really wants to go down in history as the first to take drug policy in a significantly new direction, they're going to have to change their thinking, their polices and their budgets, not just their rhetoric.