08/03/2012 01:59 pm ET Updated Oct 03, 2012

The Good News and the Bad in Drug Policy Reform

Here are the two best things occurring in drug policy reform, along with the two worst:


1. Latin America is throwing off the yoke of American drug repression. Latin cultures don't view -- and traditionally use -- drugs and alcohol the way that Americans and other Temperance-based (English-speaking and Scandinavian) cultures do. They are laissez faire, both in their usage patterns and their policing and regulation of drugs. Thus the United States has been "forced" to impose our views on drugs on these countries, with no visible benefit to ourselves, and with disastrous results for them.

Along with differing attitudes towards substance use between the hemispheres, the United States has always dominated Latin politics to serve its own interests -- the drug war simply being one example. In this equation, the consequences for the indigenous cultures and Latin American governments are inconsequential to the Americans. So, led by Uruguay's militant socialist president, José Mujica, countries across Latin America are proposing innovative drug policies one after another: from legalizing marijuana, to decriminalizing all drug use, to taxing sales and transportation of drugs, to -- per Mujica -- having the government operate a state drug monopoly.

It's about time.

2. Americans are getting over their illicit drug hang-up. While many Americans have drug problems, these are increasingly noted with pharmaceutical drugs, and particularly pain killers. This undercuts the entire basis for thinking of the drug problem as mainly having to do with interdiction of foreign substances, and places it more in the category of "Why do people take drugs, and then some become addicted to them?" This is a much larger and more psychological, cultural, and public health issue. Strong signs of this change in our thinking are efforts at loosening drug laws and liberalized attitudes towards pot around the country.


1. Did you notice? Congress just defunded clean needle programs. The war on drugs is driving the global AIDS pandemic, according to a report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The countries with the most severe drug policies internationally -- along with the states in our country with the strictest drug laws -- have the highest incidence of new HIV infections. And while there is growing awareness of this connection, there is still much juice left to counteract this insight, particularly here in the United States.

Consider this: the single drug policy innovation that has saved the most lives worldwide by preventing HIV infections and AIDS has been clean needle programs for injecting addicts. The United States has always lagged in this effort, with this result: "If the United States had embraced the sorts of harm reduction programs that Australia and many European countries, including Margaret Thatcher's United Kingdom, did embrace during the 1980s, more than a hundred thousand lives would have been saved -- not only among people who use drugs but their lovers and children as well." The United States did belatedly accept needle exchanges, except that, a few months ago, "Republican leaders in the U.S. Congress re-instated a longstanding ban on the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs -- a move that will cost thousands of lives in years to come."

2. And, have you noticed, Barack Obama is as much of a drug warrior as George Bush? Despite liberal-leaning pronouncements prior to becoming president, Barack Obama has consistently disappointed hopes that his administration will take a more rational, non-knee-jerk-opposition, approach to drug reforms. Aside from the justice department's war on medical marijuana, Obama's drug war, drug-hating bona fides are demonstrated by his simple refusal to discuss drug policy initiatives, down to the most minute, either ignoring them or dismissing them as jokes.

Oh, do you remember who Bill Clinton's drug czar was -- General Barry McCaffrey? McCaffrey opposed needle exchanges. Now that he's no longer in the White House, at the 19th International AIDS Conference held in Washington last week, Clinton himself endorsed drug policy reforms. It reminds me of when Robert McNamara became a critic of the Vietnam War -- after leaving office as the Secretary of Defense who ran the war.

Democratic administrations are the worst drug policy reformers. That is, except for Republican adminstrations.