2011 has been a watershed year for the movement working to end our county's disastrous war on drugs. Below are the top stories of the year that exemplify the momentum and give us hope that we can find alternatives to drug war madness.
#1. World Leaders Make International News by Calling for Marijuana Legalization and End to Drug War
This summer, the Global Commission on Drug Policy made worldwide news in more than 3,000 outlets when they released a report calling for a paradigm shift in global drug policy -- including not just alternatives to incarceration and greater emphasis on public health approaches to drug use, but also decriminalization and experiments in legal regulation. The Commission is comprised of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan; Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group; four former presidents, including the commission's chairman, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil; George P. Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of State; Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve; and several other distinguished world leaders.
#2. 40-Year Anniversary of Nixon's Launch of Drug War Met with Nationwide Protests
June 17 marked forty years since President Richard Nixon, citing drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1", declared a "war on drugs." A trillion dollars and millions of ruined lives later, a political consensus is emerging that the war on drugs is a counterproductive failure. The Drug Policy Alliance led advocates all across the country in marking the auspicious date with a day of action to raise awareness about the catastrophic failure of drug prohibition and to call for an exit strategy from the failed war on drugs. More than 50 events on the anniversary generated hundreds of local and national stories.
#3. Gallop Poll Shows Historic Support: 50% of Americans Favor Ending Marijuana Prohibition
For the first time a Gallup poll has found that 50% of Americans support making marijuana legal. Public support for making marijuana legal has shifted dramatically in the last two decades, particularly in the last few years. Gallup has been asking Americans since 1970, "Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?" Forty years ago support registered at 12%, rose to 28% percent by the late '70s, dipped slightly during the 1980s, and then rose gradually to 36% in 2005. The past six years, however, have witnessed a dramatic jump in support, with important implications for state and national marijuana policy. Majorities of men, liberals, 18-29 year-olds, moderates, Independents, Democrats, 30-49 year-olds, and voters in Western, Midwestern and Eastern states now support legalizing cannabis.
#4. NYPD Commissioner Directs Police to Stop Improper Marijuana Arrests
In 2010, the New York City Police Department arrested 50,383 people for low-level marijuana offenses. Arrests for low-level marijuana possession offenses are the number one arrest in New York City, making up 15 percent of all arrests. What makes these record number of arrests even more outrageous is that under 7/8 of an ounce of marijuana is supposed to be decriminalized in New York and a non-arrestable offense. The only reason people should be arrested with under an ounce is if they are smoking it in public or it is in plain view. The NYPD has been stopping and frisking 100,000's of black and Latino youth and then tricking them to emptying out their pockets. Once the person pulls out the joint or small bag of marijuana, the NYPD says it is "in public view" and arrests them. A campaign led by the Drug Policy Alliance, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, and VOCAL pounded away at Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD for the racist enforcement of marijuana arrests - and in October, NYPD Commission Ray Kelly issued an internal order commanding officers to follow existing New York State law by ending arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana - as long as the marijuana was never in public view.
#5. Thousands in Mexico Take to Street to Protest Drug War
This summer tens of thousands marched across Mexico to protest the drug war and the 50,000 drug prohibition related deaths since President Calderon launched his "surge" against the drug cartels five years ago . The protests were led by journalist and poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was killed in drug prohibition-related violence. Sicilia has galvanized Mexican society and stirred up international debate. Former President Vincente Fox has been passionately calling for an to drug prohibition as the only way to reduce the carnage in Mexico - and even President Calderon has acknowledged that we need to consider legalization.
#6. Colorado and Washington to Vote on Legalizing Marijuana in 2012
In 2010, Californians voted on Proposition 19, the initiative to control and tax marijuana in California. Prop. 19 both elevated and legitimized public discourse about marijuana and marijuana policy. More people knew about Prop. 19 than any other measure on the ballot this year -- not just in California, but nationwide. In the end, Prop. 19 received more than 46% of the vote, more votes than Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina. Next year the issue will again be brought to the voters in Colorado and Washington State. Demographics, economics and principle all favor the ultimate demise of marijuana prohibition. Now, the debate is shifting from whether marijuana should be legalized to how.
#7. Portugal Celebrates 10-Year Anniversary of Decriminalizing Drugs
Ten years ago Portugal went where no country has gone before and decriminalized not just marijuana, but all drugs including heroin, cocaine and meth. Having small amounts of drugs is no longer a criminal offense. It's a civil offense - like a ticket. Portugal continues to punish sales and trafficking of illicit substances. Ten years later the results are in: decreased youth drug use, falling overdose and HIV/AIDS rates, less crime, reduced criminal justice expenditures, greater access to drug treatment, and safer and healthier communities. The horror scenarios that opponents of drug policy reform predicted never came to be and Portugal is a real life example of what can happen when a country treats substance abuse as a health issue instead of a criminal problem.
#8. Drug War Critique is All Over TV and Popular Culture
The failures of prohibition and the serious debate around marijuana policy have seeped into mainstream, popular culture. Every week HBO viewers can view the failures of alcohol Prohibition by tuning in to Boardwalk Empire. In October Ken Burns and PBS teamed up for a critically acclaimed series called Prohibition that also showed the utter futility of the 18th amendment to ban the sales of alcohol. This week two new national shows will highlight the medical marijuana issue and trade. The Discovery Channel is doing a reality TV like show on Harborside, the largest medical marijuana dispensary in the country. National Geographic Investigates is also airing a documentary called Marijuana Gold Rush. From movies, to TV, to music, there has been an increasingly more sophisticated approach to this issue.
#9. New and Powerful Voices Join Movement to End Failed Drug War
The movement to end the drug war is becoming a bigger and bigger tent that is becoming more diverse in all senses of the word. In November more than 1,200 people attended the Drug Policy Alliance's International Reform Conference. The gathering emcompassed people across the political spectrum. Gavin Newsom, the former Democratic Mayor of San Francisco and current Liutenent Governor of California shared the stage with the libertarian former Governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson. Dozens of people who have spent years behind bars for a nonviolent drug offense participated in conversations and panels with dozens of police officers who saw the futility of the drug war and are speaking out against drug prohibition. Students who are just beginning their activism appeared alongside veterans of the movement who have worked for decades against drug war hysteria. The conference was made up of people who love drugs, people who hate drugs and people who don't care about drugs. There are people who enjoy marijuana or other drugs and don't consider themselves criminals just because they like to unwind with a joint instead of a cocktail. There are also people who have seen the horrors of drugs and addiction. Their substance abuse may have led to them going to jail or maybe they lost a loved one to an overdose. There are also people who have never tried illicit drugs, but are outraged at the money and lives wasted due to drug war. What unites all of these people is the belief the war on drugs causes more harm than good.
#10. Despite Progress, the Drug War Grinds On as Viciously as Ever
For all of the progress in 2011, the war on drugs is as vicious as ever. The worst drug war policies remain entrenched, as more than three-quarters of a million people are arrested for marijuana possession every year, and more than half a million people are still behind bars today for nothing more than a drug law violation. The bloodbath in Mexico has taken 50,000 lives in the last five years and shows no signs of slowing down. There is a little-noticed overdose crisis in this country, even though overdose deaths have more than doubled in the last decade. The Obama administration is reversing their past commitments to stop the federal government from interfering with states that have passed medical marijuana laws.
We are at a paradoxical moment in our country. We are clearly moving in the right direction, toward a more rational drug policy based on science, compassion, health and human rights. But we need to step up our efforts, grow our numbers, and continue to win hearts and minds because the casualties from the war continue to mount every day. Please join the movement to the end the war on drugs. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)
Follow Tony Newman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TonyNewmanDPA