Fresh thinking on the war on drugs?

By Bernd Debusmann
September 3, 2009

Bernd Debusmann- Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own -There are times when silence can be as eloquent as words. Take the case of Washington’s reaction to announcements, in quick succession, from Mexico and Argentina of changes in their drug policies that run counter to America’s own rigidly prohibitionist federal laws. No U.S. expressions of dismay or alarm.Contrast that with three years ago, when Mexico was close to enacting timid reforms almost identical to those that became effective on August 21. In 2006, shouts of shock and horror from the administration of George W. Bush reached such a pitch that the then Mexican president, Vicente Fox, abruptly vetoed a bill his own party had written and he had supported.What has changed? Was it a matter of something happening in August, when most of official Washington is on holiday? Or was it a sign of greater American readiness to rethink a war on drugs that has, in almost four decades, failed to curb production and stifle consumption of illicit drugs? And that despite law enforcement efforts that resulted in an average of around 4,700 arrests for drug offences every single day since the beginning of the millennium. (Just under 40 percent of those arrests are for possession of marijuana).Or was it a matter of more countries realising that, as drug reform advocate Ethan Nadelmann puts it, “looking to the United States as a role model for drug control is like looking to apartheid-era South Africa for how to deal with race.” Nadelmann heads the Drug Policy Alliance, one of several groups lobbying for reform of U.S. drug policies.Under the Mexican law that took effect in August, it is legal to possess small, precisely specified amounts, for personal use, of  marijuana, heroin, opium, cocaine, methamphetamine and LSD. In Argentina, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional criminal sanctions for the possession of small quantities of marijuana for personal use. The ruling opened the door to legislation similar to Mexico’s.Brazil decriminalised drug possession in 2006; Ecuador is likely to follow suit this year. In much of Europe, drug use (as opposed to drug trafficking) is treated as an administrative offence rather than a criminal act. America’s hard-line approach has helped to make the United States the country with the world’s largest prison population.Advocates of more flexible policies say they feel the winds of change beginning to rise in the administration of  Barack Obama, a president who has admitted that in his youth, he smoked marijuana frequently and used “a little blow”(of cocaine) when he could afford it. But hopes for a break from long-standing orthodoxy might be premature, even though a recent Zogby poll showed 52 percent support for treating marijuana as a legal, taxed and regulated drug.AMSTERDAM’S SCHIZOPHRENIC PRAGMATISM “As regards to legalization, it is not in the president’s vocabulary and it is not in mine,” Obama’s drug czar, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske said in July. “Marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefits.”Oddly, he made the statement in California, where an estimated 250,000 people can legally buy marijuana with a letter of recommendation from their physician. The drug is used for a variety of illnesses, from chronic pain to insomnia and depression. There is extensive academic literature on the medical benefits of marijuana.Medical opinion, however, conflicts with the congressionally-mandated job description Kerlikowske inherited when he took up the post. It says that the director of the Office of National Drug Policy, the White House group in charge of drug war strategy, must “oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act.”Schedule I of the act, which took force in 1970 during the administration of Richard Nixon, the president who formally declared “war on drugs”, places marijuana alongside powerfully addictive drugs such as heroin. The wrong-headed classification matches that of an international treaty, the 1961 United Nations Single Convention of Narcotics Drugs. The convention is a major obstacle for signatory countries that want to legalize drugs.No country has actually done that. Even the Netherlands, the Mecca of marijuana aficionados, operates on a system best described as schizophrenic pragmatism. Amsterdam’s “coffee shops” are allowed to have 500 grams of marijuana on the premises and sell no more than 5 grams per person to people over 18. The runners who re-supply the shops routinely carry more than the legal quantity and violate the law. So do importers.While the failure of the drug war and the prohibitionist ideology that drives it have been analysed in great detail in scores of sober assessments by academics and government commissions, there have been few studies of the “how to” of legalization. What, for example, would happen to the criminal mafias that are now running a violent illicit business with a turnover estimated at more than $300 billion a year?Some drug traffickers would switch to other criminal activities and it is realistic to expect increases in such areas as cyber crime and extortion, according to Steve Rolles, Head of Research of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a British think tank. “But the big picture will undoubtedly show a significant net fall in overall criminal activity in the longer term,” he said in an interview. “Getting rid of illegal drug markets is about reducing opportunities for crime.”Rolles is author of the optimistically titled “After the war on drugs: Blueprint for Regulation,” a book scheduled for publication in November and meant to kickstart a debate on what he sees as something of a blank slate – the specifics of regulation for currently illegal drugs.On a global scale, nothing much can happen unless there are changes in the world’s largest and most lucrative market for drugs, the United States. If they happen, they won’t happen fast. “I see this as a multi-generational effort, with incremental changes,” said Nadelmann, who has been involved in drug policy since he taught at Princeton University in the late 1980s. “But for the first time, I feel I have the wind in my back and not in my face.”(You can contact the author at


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Haha,Well I’m not concerned about the health effects, but if I were I wouldn’t put my concerns over people’s freedoms.Some people are concerned about drivers hitting 65 mph, or concerned about people drinking, doesn’t mean anything should be done to change it.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

@Anonlogy – Your argument is without merit and logic. Smoking Marijuana and stealing are not the same. How about driving a car and stealing? Or cooking dinner and stealing? They too have the same amount of logical connection – None. Unless you had to steal to perform any of those tasks – and still they are not directly related.Your argument although is an attempt to be funny and ironic to make a point is neither. Because you don\’t understand irony or logic.

Posted by George | Report as abusive

I fail to see your point.Society has issue with people who drive dangerously. This is why people who speed end up getting fined.Society also has issue with the negative effects of alcohol. People who are drunk and disorderly get arrested.Society also has a problem with the health issues of marijuana. That is why the possession and use is against the law.Were you to argue that people have the liberty to speed, or be drunk and disorderly, or drunk behind the wheel, you would be laughed out of the room.Why should we treat this differently? Why should liberty be given for Marijuana, but not other things? Why not speed? Or cocaine? Why not theft, or murder, or fraud?Do you believe people should have the liberty to do as they please, regardless of the effects on society and other individuals?

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive

Stealing involves satisfying your own desire, regardless of the cost it may have on other people.Drug use involves satisfying your own desire, without any care as to how it may effect other people.The thief does not care about the effect he has on others. Many times, he does not even know who he steals from.The person who purchases drugs, finances untold suffering. But he does not care, because he never sees the faces of those he effects. And when confronted by this truth, he blames the law for his conduct.My comment was designed neither to be ironic, or funny.It was designed to upset those who use drugs, by drawing a painful analogy with other criminal behavior. To point attention to the similarities which many people might decide they don’t want to dwell on.And for that purpose, I think my comment succeeded.

Posted by Anonlogy | Report as abusive

Anon, while I understand what you’re trying to say, your analogy is still flawed. Theft, regardless of legality, has a victim. If drug use and posession was decriminalized there would be no harm done to anyone besides the users. I would think, given the gist of your analogy, that you would be all for decriminalization and regulation. If the money spent on drugs went to legal farmers and means of production, it wouldn’t be going to terrorism or the cartels any longer.

Posted by drug-free | Report as abusive

Haha,You expanded what I said to better suit your argument.Society has a problem with marijuana because of lies spread about it. I’ve yet to hear any argument as to how marijuana causes more health problems than alcohol and cigarettes.If someone wants cigarettes and alcohol legal, yet has problems with marijuana being illegal they’re a hypocrit.If you’re against all of them being legal I respect that point of you, but disagree completely.Anonlogy,So if someone grew their own marijuana, then smoked it in their own home, you’d be 100% with that right since it’s affecting no one?

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Rather then respond and continue a visibly circular debate, I will simply summarise the debate itself:”Marijuana should be allowed.”-Why?”People should have the liberty to use marijuana.”-Laws are used to prevent harm to society.”But Marijuana is harmless.”-Actually, there is a known correlation with the occurrence or worsening of mental illness.”Study has rejected this.”-No, one or two studies have been inconclusive. The general consensus has not been changed.”But marijuana is harmless.”-If there is a correlation with mental illness, then no it isn’t harmless.”The mental health issue is irrelevent, because it doesn’t harm other people.”-If people get or worsen mental illness, this effects both other people and society.”People should have the liberty to use marijuana.”-Not if it harms other people.”Marijuana is harmless.”-Haven’t we already addressed this?[And so forth...]

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive

Haha,That was cute and all but I’ve still yet to hear anything as to how marijuana in any form is as bad or worse than cigarettes or alcohol.Cigarettes and alcohol make life worse for those with mental illness as well.If this is going nowhere because you want them all to be illegal, then let me know.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Alcohol can only create mental illness in very large and long term abuse. Cigarettes do not cause mental illness at all.Alchohol and cigarettes can possibly worsen mental illness in high doses. But not to the extent that marijuana is suspected of doing.You seem to be trying to argue that as cigarettes and alcohol also cause harm, they are hence equal to marijuana. And that as they are legal, marijuana also should be legal.Your argument fails because:1. It oversimplifies the matter. These substances cause different forms of harm, and in different amounts.2. Society accepts the harm caused by alcohol and cigarettes. This does not mean it needs to accept the harms caused by marijuana.I believe your next line should be “we should have the liberty to use marijuana.”. Or possibly “marijuana is harmless”.

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive

In my opinion, soft drugs and alcohol are competitive substances and not complementary: someone who partakes in marijuana is usually a non-drinker and conversely an alcoholic is usually anti-drug. All being said marijuana is in direct competition with alcohol and the tax revenue generated for government. The harm of a regulated product like alcohol is that it has produced a whole generation of young kids taking far worse drugs: ecstasy and others. Drugs that can easily be obtained at any street corner. These kids will all be fed to the wolves as GenXs like myself take advantage of these poor souls (too fried in the sack to know any better).

Posted by Drew Kreutzweiser | Report as abusive

Haha,Good friend of mine had an alcohol problem long before he was 21, got in an awful car wreck and is mentally handicapped now. I can promise you it doesn’t take long term use to have awful effects. He was completely addicted, DUI’s and jail didn’t fix the problem and he was barely an addict for a year.Marijuana use hurts a teeny tiny section of America and could help a greater number of people through prescriptions. Alcohol and cigarettes kill 5.5 million people every year.And again, the main point all the big government marijuana criminalizers fail to ever touch upon is how much more marijuana is available to kids than alcohol is. If you like marijuana in middle schools, if you like drug cartels and shootouts in broad daylight, if you like billions going to terrorists every year, keep the stance that you have.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Your logic is that because people can access something illegally, it should be legal. In other words, because someone commits a crime, such conduct should not be a crime.What if someone shoots another person, and takes their money? Will you then argue that it is the law against theft which is responsible for the shooting?The reason people do not address that logic, is because it is flawed logic.Regarding your ‘friend’, my sympathy. But the fact your friend harmed himself through alcohol is not relevent to the decriminalisation of marijuana. Once again, false logic. If it is relevent at all, it is an argument to more strongly restrict alcohol (something beyond this debate).Were it simply about the number killed by alcohol vs marijuana, you might be getting somewhere.But the debate is not about that, and has never been about that. And the attempts by the pro-marijuana supporters to redefine the debate in this manner is quite noticable. Far be it from me to guess at motives.The crux of this debate has always been the harm of marijuana, period. The debate is not on how it compares to other substances, or any other non-health issues, or whether the substance has legitimate purposes (which is unlikely to apply to most users anyway).The medical profession know the harms caused by marijuana. Society has chosen to restrict the substance as a result. It is a law, breaching it is a crime, and by definition those who do are criminals.Until the correlation known by the medical profession is overturned, the pro-crowd are just spinning their wheels in mud. It is not for the anti-crowd to justify their position. Their position was justified by research years ago.People who want to legalise marijuana should not waste their breath saying “marijuana is harmless” over and over, or quoting one of several flawed studies thinking it means something. Instead they should get a professor with a graduate degree in medical science, get some credible medical research going, and go fight it out with the doctors.But the pro crowd do not want to fight this issue over the uncertain grounds of medical research. So they restrict their fight to other, irrelevent issues. As long as they do, they will never see any progress.On the other hand, if they try and fail regarding medical research, they will see no progress anyway. So perhaps one is as good as the other….who can say?

Posted by Haha | Report as abusive

You also have commited a logical hypocrisy. You accuse others of over simplifying when you are doing that much more yourself. Can you say what are really the detriments to society of it being made legal? Okay how about this, our economy is sh*t. We hardly export anything and we are in the biggest recession since the Great Depression. I bet you didn’t know if the United States could tax illicit drugs at the same rate it taxes for alcohol and tobacco, the government could save that $44 billion a year in fighting the war and it could generate an additional $33 billion a year and marijuana’s implementation into the industrial world would create thousands of new jobs for the economy. In the UK in 1991, 42,209 people were convicted of marijuana charges, clogging courts and overcrowding prisons, and almost 90 percent of drug offenses involve cannabis. The British government spends 500 million pounds a year on “overall responses to drugs” but receives no taxes from the estimated 1.8 billion pound illegal drug market. This arguement isn’t just about ideology.

Posted by vince | Report as abusive

Not to take sides here, however, I believe a study could not link marijuana with lung cancer. The reason is the healing synergies this mysterious drug has.Also, a U.K. study showed no correlation between marijuana use and driving impairment. This is not to say that marijuana is kid stuff. Alcohol is equally a damaging drug, maybe more so.But the legality of marijuana as well could have problems, I envision a whole society, stoned out of their gourd, looking at all the pretty colours when the next war hits their shore.

Posted by Drew | Report as abusive

@ Drew: “I envision a whole society, stoned out of their gourd, looking at all the pretty colours when the next war hits their shore.”Obviously your observation isn’t based on personal experience then. Pretty Colors? Get real, and get off the slippery slope.Legalization would have good points and bad points, just like evrything else. The real question at this point is what, if any, are the good points of keeping marijuana illegal?

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Smoke another joint and don’t be so sensitive.

Posted by Drew | Report as abusive

The entire western civilization is on drugs. We are a stoned nation. Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, meth, prescription drugs. And why is this? Why the escape? Yes, it’s a stressful world. I’m not going to be drawn into the legality question. Obviously you know nothing about me. You are a fool. Drugs are drugs. They are addictive and mind altering.I’m against the legality of marijuana simply because fools like should be using their whole brain and not a fraction of. You might be best to double up on your smart pills. I can get any drug anywhere and it makes no difference to me whether its legal or not.Like I said: Smoke another joint and then come back to the computer.Try breaking the chain addiction. It will give you strength.

Posted by Drew | Report as abusive

I don’t know of anybody who smokes marijuana for recreation only. Everyone I know is a chronic user. Why? Because drugs are addictive.Fortunately, I stayed away from drugs as a teenager because they were (gasp) bad. Things might have different if they were legal (and okay). I might have turned out like you.How about this. Name one inventor who was a marijuana user? I can’t think of one. Can you? Name one person who advanced technology or medicine and was soft drug user. Do you think Guttenberg, the inventor of the printing press smoked drugs? How about Fulton, the steamship inventor? Who invented the modern rocket? Timothy Leary doesn’t count. Probably none of them did. Why is that in the West we can’t make anything anymore? Its because we are stoned nation. That’s why.

Posted by Drew | Report as abusive

Capitalism punishes the stupid. That’s why you have to be sharp. You can’t walk around stoned all day long. This world will roll you. This is only my opinion.

Posted by Drew | Report as abusive

Pardon me for my rudeness toward Anonymous,”Get real..”Put down your joint, Anonymous and you get real. I’m real. You real?I’m not smart enough to have the answer to the drug legality debate. But all actions have consequences.Should drugs be legal?Pro: The legality of small quantities of drugs would free up law enforcement for more important matters. I would personally welcome less intrusion in my life. Less people will be in prison. More money saved for the common good. Regulating and taxing small amounts of soft drugs could pay off a substantial portion of our debt.Con: Governments will just piss away that money on other things. Governments and deficits are like bread and butter. Like Germany and a quality automobile. Like Britain and a good pub.Pro: Everybody is doing it and therefore its okay.Con: The slippery slope mentioned, there has been a decline or decay of our post-economic society. Once being the great navies, armies and industrial base, we are now embracing an information economy. (Whatever that means). Drugs are a main reason for this decay.Pro: Drugs will increase production: a happy workforce is a productive workforce.Con: Most people will just stay home and shortcut to their escape. No longer working. Government will no longer be able to support the poor on less revenue generated. Thanks in large part to our stoned nation.Pro: Our new drug culture could win the hearts and minds of others.Con: Our care-free drug culture has already enraged certain groups around the world and could add more fuel to the fire.Pro: Marijuana has healing synergies and is needed for the sick.Con: Marijuana will create a whole new society of addicted. Which begs the question? Do drugs create mental illness or do people with mental illness gravitate towards drugs in the first place?Pro: Regulated drugs would theoretically keep drugs away from minors.Con: The government should not be in the drug business. Period. In Ontario, our province is the largest drug dealer. They regulate, control and monopolize the sale of beer, wine and spirits. Its depressing to see the addicts lining up everyday at the state run store. Governments are equally addicted to the revenue generated. Read: taxes. I wouldn’t want have to go to a Pot Store. And government will destroy any good ideas pertaining to the freedom of access of this drug. Governments should not be in the drug business or the gambling business.

Posted by Drew | Report as abusive

Drew–Actually, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Dr. Francis Crick, Pythagoras, Richard Feynman, and William Shakespeare are all reported to have smoked marijuana, and this is to name only a few. I’m not taking sides, but to suggest that our country is intellectually impotent because everyone is smoking marijuana is patently absurd. Could it be that we in the U.S. don’t make anything anymore because we’ve put money ahead of everything else?

Posted by jb | Report as abusive

Why in the hell are people making a moral problem out of drugs? And what does it matter if one drug is legal and the other illegal? A drug is a drug regardless of whether or not a government sanctions its use! My god, people, act like you got some sense! It is not the government’s role to decide what you can and cannot put into your body; that’s for you and only you to decide. Those of you who drink coffee, tea, or caffeinated cola cannot throw stones at those who smoke marijuana or take other illegal substances because you yourself are consuming a drug for recreation. The effects of your drug (caffeine) may be different from those of other drugs, but the addiction is real. Try starting the morning without your Java and see what happens. All drugs should be legal and on the shelves at all retail pharmacies for anyone to buy. And for all you damn liberals who like to tax everything you don’t like, No! Drugs should not be taxed at all.

Posted by Mufaso | Report as abusive

O! Wow man change is a-comin !

Posted by Jim | Report as abusive

Also,You made everything in the first place because you put money ahead of everybody else. But I did not mean intellectual impotent because there is a difference.My comment came about from watching old black and white footage of the U.S. Once a mighty power, now just a power. Could there be one causation? Of course not. But something has happened since The Sixties and the drug revolution. Is the U.S.A. losing a step?

Posted by Drew | Report as abusive

are any of you even aware of the circumstances under which marijuana was illegalized? blatant racism, and a move by media mogul hearst to stamp out the hemp industry. it was not illegalized because society had a problem with it. try reading up on your topic before making arguments about it based on propaganda.maybe you dont hear about any brilliant drug users (besides carl sagan, who admitted marijuana use) because most of them are too smart to mention they are involved in an illegal activity. DUH

Posted by jack | Report as abusive

To Jack,I reiterate “people who invent – who advance technology or medicine”, not writers or astronomers.There are many people. Can you name one who is an outspoken drug user?Drugs might carry the inspiration. But one has to be off drugs to put a brilliant inspiration to production. This is an opinion.I would think not that Edison was a pot user? What about the inventor of the modern rocket: Goddard. The Manhattan Project: Oppenheimer. Sikorsky, inventor of the helicopter.Drugs. Lets be specific. Marijuana. Makes you good at one thing. Smoking, obtaining and working to achieve more of the drug.Get your head out of the sand, man.

Posted by Drew | Report as abusive

Here are a couple of names, Carl Sagan and Abraham Lincoln. And then there was a U.S. swimmer who seems to have won a few Olympic gold medals, not to mention the current U.S. president. By the way, if there were more people “looking at all the pretty colours,” there wouldn’t be any more wars.

Posted by Mike Stroup | Report as abusive

It’s so funny to see americans spending HUGE amounts of tax payers money into drug war that only profits those who are into illegal drug business. There is no connection between strict drug laws and low usage of illegal substances as you can see by examining data from countries with more loose drug policies.

Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001 and last year a study came out that shows what decriminalization has done to the country.

quote from ald_whitepaper.pdf :

“The data show that judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been resounding success. Within this success lies self-evident lessons that should guide drug policy debates around the world.”

What are the differences in other countries that would cause this same course of action to fail if you dont believe in decriminalizing drugs?

Posted by Axal | Report as abusive