Before he became governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie made his name as a prosecutor. That’s one reason why it was such a surprise when he added his voice to the chorus of those who say the war on drugs has failed.
Christie is expanding his state’s drug court program, offering treatment and counseling to more nonviolent offenders, rather than prison sentences. “I don’t believe that the only weapon we [should] use against the drug problem is incarceration,” he has said. “I just don’t think it’s worked.”
Christie’s not alone in questioning longstanding drug policies. Despite strong interdiction and high arrest rates, the availability of drugs never seems to decline. Last year, an international commission that included figures such as former United Nations chief Kofi Annan and former Secretary of State George Shultz called for legalization and regulation as a way to reduce violence.
“It’s certainly a plus if well-known politicians add their voice, and it’s especially good if it’s conservatives like Christie,” says Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard University economist. “I hope the signal is that drug use is an individual choice for adults, just like zillions of other risky decisions, such as alcohol.”
But it’s precisely such signals that have led to an increase in illegal drug use over the past couple of years, following a decade of decline, say the proponents of tougher laws. The Obama administration has shown no real interest in prosecuting medical marijuana dealers (although some federal agencies, including the IRS and the Department of Justice, have targeted certain dispensaries and state medical marijuana programs). Drugs that enjoy a patina of medical approval -- whether marijuana or prescription drugs such as OxyContin, which has seen enormous growth in recreational use -- seem safe, or at least safer than street drugs. If doctors prescribe them, how bad can they be?
Strategies such as Christie’s will only contribute to the sense more people have that it’s OK to take drugs, says Dr. Robert DuPont, who served as drug czar under presidents Ford and Carter. “As the perceived risk goes down, the use goes up,” DuPont says, “and an element of that risk is the criminal justice system.”
DuPont concedes that those in favor of liberalizing drug laws currently enjoy the policy momentum. But drug war veterans like him say they’ve seen this all before. During the 1970s, about a dozen states decriminalized marijuana. Eventually, the era’s spike in drug use, particularly cocaine, prompted harsher laws under the Reagan administration.
“The more they succeed, the more they will fail,” says DuPont, now the president of the Institute for Behavior and Health. “As the numbers go up, the public reaction will become more intense.”