Decriminalization is not endorsement.
That’s what people who oppose the War on Drugs should repeat again and again to social conservatives and paternalistic liberals who support the policy. To decrminalize an activity is not to endorse it. People who decry the foreign aid, the arrests, the incarcerations, the property seizures, and the taxes that go to support them do not therefore approve of drug use. Instead, they consider the costs of criminalization far heavier than the benefits.
More and more notable individuals agree. Two op-eds have appeared advocating the end of the “war.” Here is an op-ed by George Schultz and Paul Volcker in the Wall Street Journal that begins:
“We believe that drug addiction is harmful to individuals, impairs health and has adverse societal effects. So we want an effective program to deal with this problem.
“The question is: What is the best way to go about it? For 40 years now, our nation’s approach has been to criminalize the entire process of producing, transporting, selling and using drugs, with the exception of tobacco and alcohol. Our judgment, shared by other members of the commission, is that this approach has not worked, just as our national experiment with the prohibition of alcohol failed. Drugs are still readily available, and crime rates remain high. But drug use in the U.S. is no lower than, and sometimes surpasses, drug use in countries with very different approaches to the problem.”
Schultz was a Cabinet member in Nixon’s and in Reagan’s administrations. Volcker was head of the Fed under Carter and Reagan. They have signed on to a report issued by the Global Commission on Drug Policy that unambiguously declares the War on Drugs a failure with “devastating consequences.” Forty years of police work and prison crowding haven’t put a dent in rates of drug use, and they have taken billions of dollars of revenue. What small-government or free-market conservative could agree with the initiative after four decades of contrary evidence? What libertarian or classical liberal could agree?
Not Jimmy Carter, whose op-ed in The New York Times along the same lines appears here. Carter writes,
“Drug policies here are more punitive and counterproductive than in other democracies, and have brought about an explosion in prison populations. At the end of 1980, just before I left office, 500,000 people were incarcerated in America; at the end of 2009 the number was nearly 2.3 million. There are 743 people in prison for every 100,000 Americans, a higher portion than in any other country and seven times as great as in Europe. Some 7.2 million people are either in prison or on probation or parole—more than 3 percent of all American adults!”
It makes no sense, and Carter recalls that when he proposed in 1977 decriminalizing possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, most of the country accepted the proposal as sensible. But the ascent of Reagan turned U.S. policy toward stopping imports, a policy destined to fail since it did little to reduce demand (notwithstanding Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign).
If only President Obama believed the same. His drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, raised hopes early on because he seemed to recognize the flaws and costs of the war. But since then, nothing seems to have changed. In fact, according to this notice, Obama’s DEA has increased raids of medical marijuana providers well above Bush’s record. One person quoted in the notice (issued by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of police officers, judges, prosecutors, and Federal officers who advocate ending the War) is LEAP’s executive director and a former Baltimore narcotics cop, who states,
“Over the past few weeks, us cops who have been on the front lines of the ‘war on drugs’ have made numerous attempts to schedule a meeting with the drug czar to share our concerns about the harms these drug laws are causing. The fact that he refused to sit down with us and discuss these issues—even when we went directly to his doorstep—speaks volumes about how much the Obama administration would rather ignore the failed ‘war on drugs’ than do anything to actually address it.”
By Mark Bauerlein
June 17, 2011