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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There is no perfect solution to the drug issue. But the current system is not working. Look at the forest fires in Southern California, caused by a cooking fire an Mexican weed-growing camp ..Prohibition of alcohol was a failure, and so is prohibition of marijuana.

Posted by SackofCrap | Report as abusive

in addition to throwing Gil out, toss this out, too: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.”

Posted by terry | Report as abusive

People obviously aren’t reading the article clearly; the author is saying legalize marijuana, NOT cocaine, heroin and all the other horrible drugs out there. That will have the knock-on effect of lowering: Prison population; crime syndication; police ineffeciency (which is to say, if cops aren’t looking for tiny joints on otherwise law-abiding people, they can be at other places for other reasons).Also I think it’s worth noting that medical scientists have been offering evidence for years that marijuana can have some beneficial effects in certain circumstances. I can’t think of a single doctor who would prescribe alcohol or tobacco for any reason whatsoever.

Posted by the Shah | Report as abusive

I have heard it said that if mj is legal, there will be an increase of usage. Duuuuuuh??? Of course there will – beeeecauuuuse – people like me who are to chicken to get smoke on the street corner will be buying a boat load at the local liquor store!! Toke on friends

Posted by Elly | Report as abusive

@thinkerThink harder, and don’t be ignorant. A responsible individual who decides to spark a bowl in the privacy of his/her home has no direct impact on the lives of others, much different from your non-relatable examples of abduction and sex trafficing. Our lives are OURS to live, and so long as our decisions do not negatively affect those of your life, then it is really none of your business. Smoking marijuana is NOT a criminal activity.

Posted by Realist | Report as abusive

I have never found a reasonable answer to the question of why pot is illegal in the first place. Can’t be health, otherwise alcohol and tobacco would surely be banned. In 2000 or so years of documentation there are no cases of deaths from marijuana.So, who are we supposed to be protecting? Me? No thanks, I can make my own decisions.

Posted by Me | Report as abusive

@ thinker, you are an idiot. The demand for drugs is directly realted to…guess what?…drug violence. Be it weed, heroin, hashish, etc. A lot of finance for terrorist organizations come from narcotics. You are fool to believe that hop head sitting in his mother’s basement “sparking a bowl” doesn’t contibute to the killing of law enforcement, military, and civilians. Is there no tv in your mother’s basement? And God forbid you read a magazine, newpaper, or book. Get educated about YOUR life, the decisions YOU make, and how it affects the world.

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

Interesting point of view Napoleon, limiting government power and deregulating means socialism in your mind. Well I guess Socialism, much like Liberalism and Conservatism, no longer have definitions they’re just words to use as taglines based on nothing.As others have already said, who’s the #1 group in favor of the continuing criminalization of drugs? Murderous drug cartels filled with terrorists, if you support those groups, continue supporting the war on drugs.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Our current drug laws are defunct and costly. We spend billions each year, thousands of lives are lost, and deprive other thousands from a real medical treatment, and the irony is that it does little to curb the use of pot.I smoked weed in high school when I was 16, and didn’t start drinking until I was 19. It was actually way easier for me to get a hold of pot than it was alcohol.Then you have to think of the effects of either one. When drunk many of my friends would get very violent, and things could get ugly. When we were stoned, we were excessively happy, hungry, and would shortly fall asleep after eating.No, drug laws are used to control people, much like how drug laws governing the crimes of possessing crack and cocaine differ by an extreme level even though they are the same thing. Wake up people.

Posted by willdabeast | Report as abusive

Those that want it smoke it already. There are some of us waiting for it to be legalized but we’re not holding our breaths either.The fact that tobacco and booze is acceptable and pot is not is laughable, but not really funny. The laws against it are stupid and it should be taxed and regulated to keep it from minors.The rest of the world looks at us like we’re a bunch of dummies. Rightfully so on this subject.

Posted by RealNeil | Report as abusive

If there has ever been an example of “Failure” by government, it’s the war on drugs. Billions of dollars, thousands of lives, stupidity piled upon stupidity for three generations and for what? Not a damn thing has changed.Remember it the same people who want to be responsible for our health care.

Posted by Old Cynic | Report as abusive

@Bob-You wrote “@thinker” but your message seems inteneded for myself, so I will reply assuming such.The demand itself doesn’t lead to drug violence. As others have stated, if pot were legal and available in smoke shops etc, this would completely eliminate a user’s dependency on their dealer, which is where the drug violence starts. There is zero “alcohol violence”, because anybody of age can drive to their closest gas station and pick up a 6 pack when desired. There is no need for violence when a substance is available under regulation and control. Which is ironic, because an intoxicated drunk creates far more violence under their unfluence than does a pot-smoker under his, but that’s a separate issue.Also- nobody said anything about Mom’s basement. We all know what happens when you assume things, so don’t. Nor does reading have anything to do with pot usage. A large setback for marijuana advocates is the false public stigma associated with pot smoking, one I’m lead to believe you endorse. Smoking pot does not doom you to sit on your couch and stare at a wall. Pot, like nearly anything in this world, is safe and beneficial when used responsibly, by responsible people. It is the abuse of the drug that creates problems, no different than alcohol, tobacco, sex, money, power, etc. Certain people will always abuse thier privlidges, guarenteed, and this will not change. After all, people sniff markers and drink excess amounts of cough syrup. That doesn’t make cough syrup or markers bad for society, it simply means that some people are just plain stupid. Once again, I repeat- With smart and fair regulation, marijuana usage by responsible people is no more a crime than drinking coffee.

Posted by Realist | Report as abusive

I agree, that in order to further the war on drugs, we need to make sacrifices.Legalize pot, then put an excise tax on it. Use the funds collected from the legalization of one drug to further the fight of the other drugs.Think it wont help? For a minor pot conviction a police officer spends about three hours, between the actual arrest, the booking (paperwork), arraignment, preliminary and other hearings he has to be a witness to.i am not saying everyone should be high, but we should redirect the funds from the drug traffikers to drug enforcement.what is the worst that happens? this plan blows up in our face? if it does, just go down to the smoke shop, take a couple of tokes and it wont matter… lol

Posted by phil | Report as abusive

There are more Killings in Chicago alone than both wars we are fighting. Our society started going down hill the day do gooders thought by making alcohol illegal would help. No it made this 100 times worse & the drug war has made things 100,000 times worse. Millions of people have been killed just to keep people from getting high. Let’s kill a million more people just to stop one kid from trying weed!

Posted by JEFF | Report as abusive

The illegality of marijuana serves a benevolent purpose – keeping law enforcement persons gainfully employed.The legalization of this substance (good or bad) would result in a full-scale economic depression, large groups of people in the ‘War on Drugs’ would be out of work.Which is one of the reasons, I believe, this arcane law is still on the books. (The more laws. The better).Keep the lid on marijuana.Drew

Posted by Drew Kreutzweiser | Report as abusive

We were right then and we are right now. Legalize It!

Posted by Rick | Report as abusive

The reason marijuana is illegal is because of the lobbyists. The state sponsored legal drug, alcohol and tobacco industries stand to lose a lot of money. That’s who owns the politicians, the lobbyists, not “we the people.” Let’s make cigarettes and alcohol illegal. How many thosands of people die from those products? We should make all legal drugs illegal, they kill more people than illegal drugs. Of course drug company lobbyists wouldn’t stand for that. The police don’t like it either, their budgets will be cut, police will lose their jobs and how will they get all of our names into a database. We lose all of our civil rights too. Don’t like your neighbor, call the police and tell them they have a grow house and bingo the police are kicking in your door. Goverment get out of our lives!!!

Posted by Jack | Report as abusive

Drug prohibition is too much of a tool for the government to pry into other aspects of your life. That is precisely why marijuana has remained illegal. They couldn’t get Al Capone on murder; so they got him on tax evasion – same principal.I as a 44 year old man don’t need the govt. to tell me right from wrong. There is no harm in burning one in the privacy of your living room on a Saturday night. God forbid I then order a pizza and listen to some Pink Floyd.Also, do you think the owners / shareholders of privately run prisons (for the govt.) want to see drugs decriminalized ? They want that as much as they want to reduce recidivism or to rehabilitate prisoners. No, they want a full Big House.

Posted by Gentile_Joe | Report as abusive

Mr. Ham..your right. Power is colorless. It just is. Labels are the colors introduced for identification purposes only by the particulars involved.That is why I will always vote for Pedro.

Posted by Napoleon | Report as abusive

Kudos, dude, kudos. Great article, I concur completely.

Posted by Debbie | Report as abusive