40-Year-Old 'War on Drugs' Needs Fixing

After four decades of destructive drug control policies, will the U.S. change its ways?
by | June 14, 2011 AT 3:00 PM

Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon launched a full-scale, worldwide attack on America's public enemy No. 1: drug abuse.

The thinking was that with stricter laws, tougher law enforcement and money, the U.S. could destroy this hostile enemy once and for all. Instead, the "war on drugs," as Charles M. Blow writes in the New York Times, "has waxed and waned, sputtered and sprinted, until it became an unmitigated disaster, an abomination of justice and a self-perpetuating, trillion-dollar economy of wasted human capital, ruined lives and decimated communities."

The war has sent millions of people to prison for low-level offenses, particularly black people. Per the American Civil Liberties Union: "Despite the fact that whites engage in drug offenses at a higher rate than African-Americans, African-Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate that is 10 times greater than that of whites."

Last week, a group of high-profile world leaders urged the Obama administration and other governments to put an end to this destructive social policy experiment. In a report, the Global Commission on Drug Policy is calling for fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies. They're calling for an end to "the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but do no harm to others" as a way to stem profits to drug cartels.

"The U.S. needs to open a debate," former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, a member of the panel, told the Los Angeles Times. "When you have 40 years of a policy that is not bringing results, you have to ask if it's time to change it."

But the White House claimed the recommendation to legalize drugs will only make it harder to keep communities healthy and safe. They point to numbers that compared the drug use today with its peak in the 1970s. But such stats seem to contradict U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, who admitted last year that the strategy has not only failed, but made things worse. "In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," he told the Associated Press. "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified." Nonetheless, he also believes legalizing dangerous drugs would be a "profound mistake, leading to more use, and more harmful consequences."

Forty years after Nixon's declaration, the damaging effects of this war are in plain sight. But if sweeping reform won't come from the top, perhaps small changes will create a ripple effect. Last week, Connecticut joined the list of states -- including Massachusetts and New York -- decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Passed by the state's Legislature, the bill will go to Gov. Dannel Malloy, who has already promised to sign it when it reaches his desk.

"Let me make it clear -- we are not legalizing the use of marijuana," he told the Hartford Courant. "In modifying this law, we are recognizing that the punishment should fit the crime, and acknowledging the effects of its application. There is no question that the state's criminal justice resources could be more effectively utilized for convicting, incarcerating and supervising violent and more serious offenders."