08/28/2012 08:28 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2012

Politicians Ignore Failed 'War on Drugs' at Their (and Our) Peril

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

With the Party conventions upon us, the issue of the platforms for the two major parties becomes an item of great significance. Platforms should include realistic policy solutions rather than rhetoric justifying policies we know have failed. A good place to start is with a pragmatic approach to drug abuse in this country. Whether seen as a "liberal" issue or as an issue aligned with basic Republican principles, both parties can "do the right thing" while garnering needed votes. Polls show the voting public is ready for reform of our failed "war on drugs." It's time the parties provided leadership on the issue and advocated truly treating drugs as a public health problem rather than as a criminal matter.

As a former judge for the city of Lafayette, Colorado and as a criminal defense attorney, I have seen the damage that drugs can do. Substance abuse has destroyed many families and ruined a lot of lives. However, I've also seen that as dangerous and destructive as some illicit substances are, the damage they do is magnified a thousand fold by the current war on drugs.

We've spent more than a trillion dollars on this war. It's contributed to the highest incarceration rate in the world and it's made our society less safe by incentivizing violence and the involvement of organized crime in the drug trade. Each person who has been jailed is a person who forevermore will have trouble getting a job, may not be able to vote, will have issues renting a home or obtaining a mortgage and who would have been better served with treatment than with jail time. The lives of otherwise good people who happen to have addictions are destroyed, while bad people -- the violent gangs and cartels running the drug trade -- are funded, strengthened and made rich by the "war."

During my years in court, I saw violent crimes involving drug suppliers increase in both number and severity. But what spawned the crimes was virtually never the drugs themselves but the huge profits created because of their illegality. One dealer would be arrested and ten others would be ready to fill the job opportunity. Many cases would go unsolved because our police were too busy busting petty dealers and users. In 2007, I resigned the bench in protest of these policies and began advocating for the legalization of drugs. Although I had been a cannabis activist for many years, as my eyes opened I realized that "bad drugs" were bad for reasons not addressed by the "war on drugs." The real problems were exacerbated.

Neither party has acted for reform. Recent polls by Gallup and Rasmussen show that a majority of Americans support full legalization of marijuana. That number is even higher among Democrats and all-important moderate and independent voters. Nonplussed, both major parties continue to oppose making federal allowances for medical marijuana use that is legal under the laws of an increasing number of states, a virtually uncontroversial issue consistently supported by 80 percent of voters in national polls.

While President Obama made unambiguous pledges to respect state medical marijuana laws during his first presidential campaign, he has overseen an unprecedented Justice Department crackdown on state-legal medical marijuana providers, particularly in California and in my home state of Colorado. This doesn't seem politically astute at a time when medical marijuana polls better than does the president himself, or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Obama reelection strategist David Axelrod would do well to familiarize himself with this polling data and recommend that the president reaffirm and act on his earlier position. If not, Libertarian Party candidate and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson could siphon a sufficient number of otherwise guaranteed Obama votes in swing-state Colorado from young people (and increasingly from older constituents dealing with the health issues of aging) to send the state's electoral votes (and possibly the entire election) to Mitt Romney. That unintended consequence of President Obama's failure to stick to his guns on medical marijuana would be of tragic proportion to the Democratic Party and its supporters.

History shows that it is often the case that politicians are behind the people in recognizing the need for change. It's time our political "leadership" provided real guidance for once and prepared a thoughtful plan for ending this failed war. Throwing more money at the war effort has not worked so far, cannot work, and must be abandoned for our losses to be cut.

The leadership could come from either party. Nixon, a Republican, named this war the "war on drugs," and reinvigorated it. Another Republican, Ronald Reagan, greatly expanded it. But the Republicans have not acted alone. Admitted marijuana user Bill Clinton's policies proved just as repressive as Reagan's, and despite paying lip service to change, Obama has shifted the drug war into a higher gear than any of his predecessors.

Opposing the war on drugs is often portrayed as a liberal issue for the human rights violations and racial inequalities it propagates. But it is also a conservative issue for anyone who champions states' rights, smaller government, more efficient spending, personal responsibility and other classic "republican" values. Ending the war on drugs is a matter for the Right. While Congressman Ron Paul has generated much excitement and has brought new, young voters into the Republican Party with his anti-drug-war positions, where are the Tea Party members protesting the government expansion into individual decisions where drugs are concerned? Why aren't other fiscal conservatives in Congress decrying the unfathomable amounts being spent on prisons, courts and law enforcement while our nation digs itself deeper into debt?

This election season, I challenge the leaders of both parties to take their positions as legislators as seriously as I took my position as judge, and make the popular and long overdue decision to reform our drug policy once and for all. I challenge them to end the war on drugs. Whether that happens now or after our losses are even greater is up to our leadership. Long term, the war will be lost. No other outcome is possible.

Simply put, President Obama can win for all of us, including for himself, merely by doing the right thing.

Leonard Frieling, a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (, is a former judge in Lafayette, Colorado, a defense attorney since 1976 and a leader in the bar of the State of Colorado.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at America's failed war on drugs August 28th and September 4th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.