08/16/2011 03:13 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2011

War on Drugs: Time for a Surge in New Thoughts

Imagine a civil war that has raged for 40+ years. A war that has claimed tens of thousands of casualties both at home and abroad, destroyed the lives of countless innocent bystanders, 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.

Of course we are talking about the so-called War on Drugs, escalated in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, with roots dating back to the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. Since 1970 the rate of drug use and abuse has not substantially decreased except for minor fluctuations that have never become permanent. In that same time, new drugs have come on the scene to claim new victims, and vast commercial empires have arisen built on drug money.

It's time to ask ourselves if our real goal is to reduce drug abuse or to provide business incentives for drug dealers? Illegal drugs are a global multi-billion dollar industry based almost entirely on illegal drug prohibition.

When our country tried the "noble experiment" of prohibiting alcohol in the 1920's, we learned that however well intended the effort, its effects were anything but noble. In the 13 years that Prohibition lasted, crime syndicates gained a permanent foothold, law enforcement experienced massive corruption, and drinking acquired an outlaw glamor that made it acceptable in places where it had formerly been shunned. This was all built on the profits of a mere 13 years. What have we suffered from the influx of several decades of illegal drug revenues?

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Not only has the War on Drugs failed, but it continues to make the situation worse. A new strategy is needed.

There are many questions to be addressed: Is it possible to treat drug addiction as a disease, as we do alcoholism? Can we separate dangerous or criminal behavior (e.g., driving under the influence) from the act of using the intoxicating substance? Can we make treatment more readily available? Can we stop encouraging the creation of violent drug cartels that subvert our laws in the pursuit of obscene profits? What are the underlying social circumstances that make drug use appealing? How do we educate youth effectively about the risks of drug use? What is the best way to take the profit out of the current system? Alcohol use became more manageable when the money pipeline was cut off, and liquor sales came under the regulation of the states.

The first step is to admit that we have a problem, one 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 now 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. We need a national discussion with full participation by law enforcement, physicians and nurses, scientists, addiction counselors, addicts, all levels of government, 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 science and 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. How can we minimize the destruction of individuals, families, and neighborhoods that it causes? That is a goal worthy of our nation's energy and resources and one that is within our reach if we choose to focus our serious attention on it.

Kurt Schmoke is the Dean of Howard University School of Law and former Mayor of Baltimore.

Dan Morhaim is a board-certified physician and Deputy Majority Leader in the Maryland House of Delegates.