We Won't Get Drug Reform Unless We Demand (& Recognize) It: Marijuana Is Not Enough

11/06/2014 04:06 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

Democrats suffered bruising and humiliating defeats on election day, and, despite reassurances from professionals that such losses were structural and "in the cards," this outcome stands in contrast to victories for progressives on almost every single ballot measure of note. Democratic issues won, but Democratic candidates did not.

Foremost among the policy success stories were the record-setting votes to legalize marijuana in Washington DC, Alaska, and Oregon. Added to these victories is growing realization that criminal justice reform is one of very issues upon which it is plausible to imagine agreement between the new Congress and the President that would be both meaningful and progressive.

Yet I worry whether Democrats will be able to steer events in this direction, in large part because I doubt their commitment to progressive advocacy, or any kind of fight at all. So far, their modus operandi has been to take the most minimal of concession offered by opponents and declare it a victory.

Progressives must urge Democrats to find their voice, and fight their corner.

A case in point: several weeks ago U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield gave a press conference after appearing before the UN committee charged with review of international narcotics controls. The analysis and reports subsequent to his remarks hailed "dramatic" and "hopeful" shifts in the approach of the US government, leaving the impression that Brownfield suggested a systematic review of the international scheme of prohibition that lies at the heart of the modern drug war.

In fact, he did nothing of the sort. If anything, Brownfield underscored the government's ongoing commitment to prohibition of substances other than marijuana.

It is true that the Assistant Secretary called for more "flexibility" in the drug conventions that define licit from illicit drugs in order to allow for more "tolerance" on different policy experiments, including legalization and decriminalization. But after hailing recent initiatives by the US federal government (including some, like drug courts, that few activists and scholars would deem as such), he announced the international press that he also "did not want to mislead" them, and that the Obama administration remained just as committed as ever to prosecution of the "criminal element," and to prohibition itself.

The circumscribed nature of Brownfield's comments became clear as he fielded questions. Given the marijuana legalization initiatives in various states, he acknowledged any representative designated by the US would have a difficult time arguing for a strict interpretation of prohibition for all the drugs enumerated under Schedule 1 (illicit) drugs.

At the same time, Brownfield was clear in his commitment to maintaining the most costly, intrusive, and racist elements of the drug war. "Illicit drugs are illicit for a reason," he told reporters.

It is true that illicit drugs are illicit for a reason, and as I show in my book, those reasons are political and historical in nature, not scientific and certainly not pharmacological. Just as an example, heroin was once dispensed widely in the US as a painkiller and then, in the decades following the Harrison Narcotic Act of 1914, used far less until it was ultimately banned (the UK still prescribes it).

In citing the menacing threat of criminal traffickers, Brownfield omits any mention of the role of prohibition in creating and sustaining them. To the contrary, in response to a question raised by a Mexican reporter who reminded Brownfield of the recent disappearance and likely mass murder of 43 students, the Assistant Secretary counseled patience, urging Mexicans frustrated with the lack of progress in curbing the violence of narco-traffickers to give the "war" against them more time to work.

The failures of the drug war are now so numerous and dramatic, with nearly every single metric of price, purity, and use growing in the wrong direction, it is difficult to see how these minimal and in some ways cavalier and dismissive remarks could have garnered so much praise and attention.

But in some ways it is not surprising at all. The eagerness to bestow glowing accolades upon even modest achievements speaks to how much hunger there is for change. Marginal reforms, such as revisions downward in the mandatory minimum sentencing regime in the Senate's "Smarter Sentencing Act" applying only to the smaller federal prison population, are not minor at all when you consider the pain and suffering imposed by the drug war on just one person's life.

Although understandable, the tendency to characterize palliative or incremental proposals as sweeping reform undermines the case, and alleviates pressure, to make substantial and lasting change. Unless Democrats become vocal advocates for change, they will cede that ground to those who will.

So far, the Democrats' refusal to engage forcefully has also reinforced the validity of a favorite ploy of this administration--and one that Brownfield repeated in his remarks to the press in New York--to position itself between two extremes in the drug reform debate: those who embrace punishment, and those who urge legalization without qualification.

Unfortunately for President Obama, the premise of this construct is utterly false. The Kennedy Commission of 1963 used the same words, with the same intentions. Back then, panel members charged with reviewing drug abuse also hoped to "treat the addict, and punish the criminal trafficker." History has returned a sad verdict on this attractive political posture: it is just not possible. Prohibition necessarily entails policing an underground market, and this in turn means that addicts will be pressured via criminal sanction.

We owe it to ourselves, including the many who have suffered greatly as a result of the US drug war, to set more ambitious terms for the discussion of drug reform. This will require commitment and determination because, sadly, no government intervention can universally end addiction or deter all of those callous enough to exploit it. At best, we can only hope to mitigate and manage this problem. This bracing truth does not compare to the romantic allure of "war," an uncompromising ideal.

Yet a ruthless and militant drug war has succeeded only in producing ruthless and militant drug dealers, and unleashed a wrecking ball of collateral damage in its wake. Intended to show our resolve, the gun and the badge have instead exposed our worst weaknesses: our wretched inequality, and our easy endorsement of radical expansions in state power so long as there is money to be made.

Lawmakers who want to claim the mantle of reform should recognize and seek to remedy addiction regardless of its nature. If the entire body of scholarship on the drug war has demonstrated nothing else, it is that distinctions drawn between and among categories of drugs, no matter how "scientific" or impassioned, does nothing but introduce tremendous race and class bias to any enforcement or regulatory framework. Long after the specious medical claims of yesterday collapse in the face of the knowledge and reality of today, disparate treatment endures--and inflicts damage.

Instead of simply discussing the prospect of rescheduling marijuana, we should be discussing the elimination, or altering the meaning, of the Schedules altogether. A recent report from the UK's Home Office showed that severe penalties for drug use do not affect the rates of use; numerous studies conducted since Portugal decriminalized narcotics twelve years ago show that addiction has declined, and experimentation in populations of special concern like young adults also went down. Embracing punishment and its implied moral disapprobation does nothing to dissuade use, and likewise, the sky does not fall when a government adopts a more humane approach.

In a Republican controlled Senate and House, drug reform constitutes one of a small number of issues upon which it is plausible to imagine consensus. In order to ensure that any such consensus would be meaningful, progressives should become more responsible interlocutors and describe policy proposals by their actual merit, and in their appropriate context.

And we should be especially careful not to limit the horizon of ambitious drug reform to marijuana alone. The drug war has race and class bias inscribed in its very core; it would be a travesty if the drug reform featured the same by concerning itself primarily with a drug popular among those who are more powerful. In this sense, California's Proposition 47--which reclassified illicit drug possession from felony to misdemeanor crime--was the paramount achievement of the drug reform movement this past election.

As we elevate our vision and lift our voices, I urge Congress to propel reform of the drug war as it affects all Americans by investing a blue-ribbon panel with a charge to review prohibition alongside other possible approaches to control and regulate illicit use of drugs.

To be clear, I support marijuana legalization; I recommend it in the conclusion of my book; and I volunteered in DC's local effort to legalize. After the successes of achieved this election, I have the luxury of relying upon a well-organized and well-funded network to advance this agenda; I am grateful to them and support their work.

But I personally will not spend any more time on marijuana reform. We still have so far to go.