The War on Drugs - it's not just about marijuana

November 4, 2013

Now that the most recent Gallup Poll finds that 58% of Americans support legalization of marijuana, we must face the reality that while ending the marijuana war will reduce a large number of arrests -- 750,000 arrests each year, one person arrested every 42 seconds for marijuana -- the reality is the bigger part of the drug problem is the other illegal drugs. They produce more arrests, more incarceration, more money and more deaths. The United States needs to face up to the fact that it is not only the marijuana war that has failed but the entire war on drugs.

The war on drugs began with strokes of a few pens. It has taken lifetime efforts of many individuals to simply popularize opposition to it. My wife and I put our concern for this issue into a radio program in 1990, and founded our organization, Efficacy in 1994. Our primary goal was the same as most of the organizations at that time, to break the taboo and simply bring drug legalization to open discussion and honest debate. Our public presentations were met with many confused stares and arguments that were often a knee-jerk recital of disinformation and drug war propaganda. People were truly afraid of the topic, and those who also saw the need to reframe the issue largely kept it to themselves.

The drug war is a failed policy, and this fact is now widely recognised. Despite the facts about use together with the human and financial costs, it took a concerted movement a long time to achieve this first educational goal. Now we have to turn the understanding of the failed war on drugs into positive reforms that treat drug abuse as a health issue, not a criminal one.

Marijuana

Momentum is developing for legalization of marijuana with two states, Colorado and Washington, passing laws in 2012 legalizing overall marijuana use. The Green Shadow Cabinet has put forward a plan for legalization of marijuana in May. There is a compelling case for the medical use of marijuana and 20 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing medical use of marijuana. The health benefits are widely understood and the scare stories are recognized as reefer madness. It has become a mainstream issue. There is also a strong case for hemp as an agricultural crop. In fact, this week the first legal crop of hemp was harvested in the United States in 56 years. There is a new generation of reformers bringing new energy and ideas to reform.  Countries around the world are also moving toward marijuana legalization for reasons of economy, justice, and to reduce crime.

The focus on marijuana issue may have actually muted voices calling for ending the drug war entirely. Despite the reduction in headlines, the drug war has not really declined. On the ground, lives continue to be destroyed every day, and the costs to the community and taxpayer continues to climb.

What's next?

The next phase of reform has two goals. One is to develop uniform policies of cannabis and hemp to avoid corporate control to the ultimate benefit of people and the environment. Marijuana laws are different from state to state and are confusing. As we move toward a legal market in marijuana we must be careful in not using taxes and other regulations to make marijuana so expensive that the criminal market continues.

If we want to create a crime-free marijuana markets efforts should be made to undercut the prices of the illegal market. This is why Uruguay is proposing to sell marijuana for $1 per gram, effectively ending the underground economy. In addition, allowing the personal cultivation of marijuana will also undercut the illegal market. The combination of a safe, reasonably regulated market for the purchase of marijuana, along with allowing people to grow for personal use will end the illegal marijuana market.

The second goal is to confront other illegal drugs beginning with rescheduling them under the Controlled Substance Act to allow their medical use. The aim should not be prohibition, but effective medical use that does not spawn crime. The market for hard drugs is much larger in dollars, in violence and in the number of offenders behind bars. If these are the critical problems, marijuana legalization is not the main event, reforming laws regarding other drugs is the only thing that will ameliorate these problems.

The ultimate goals in this country should be to close down both the illegal drug market and the Drug Enforcement Administration; both are products of the war on drugs that depend on one another. As former mayor of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke used to say, “the Surgeon General, not the Attorney General should be in charge of drug policy.” In other words, drug abuse is a health problem with social consequences and only a criminal problem because we rely on the criminal law.

Other countries are beginning to make progress on putting in place more effective policies for all drugs. Even one of the countries at the center of the war on drugs is moving away from it. Colombia decriminalized drugs a year ago and now the Colombian government has approved illicit drugs by prescription in Bogota. Allowing prescriptive access essentially medicalizes the problem to undercut the criminal market.

In Europe countries have been instituting medical access to heroin in what are called “heroin assisted treatment” or “heroin maintenance” programs. Multiple cities and countries have followed the lead of Switzerland and allow heroin users to go to a clinic to purchase heroin at a clinic and use it there under the supervision of a healthcare professional. The result has been reductions in crime and open-air heroin dealing, reductions in unemployment and homelessness, reductions in overdose deaths and the spread of HIV/AIDS. They have also found that once heroin users stabilize their lives, they want to stop their heroin use, so legal access in a clinic has been a way to reduce heroin use.

These countries are taking steps to put in place health-based approaches to drug control that directly de-fund the criminal market. Unfortunately, in the United States we have not seen movement toward dealing with drugs as a health problem. The long-term prohibition mentality of the United States, dating back to alcohol prohibition, continues despite how it creates illegal criminal markets, increases crime and fills U.S. prisons.

Legalization of marijuana is a positive step in the right direction but it will not dramatically reduce the harms associated with the larger war on drugs. The market for other illegal drugs is larger in dollars and violence, while creating impure products that cause health problems. The drug war continues to add to the number of Americans behind bars which is already abhorrent with the U.S. holding 25% of the world’s prisoners despite only being 5% of the world’s population.

We know the war on drugs has not succeeded, and is actually counter-productive. We can see more successful approaches around the world. It is time for the United States to start making real progress by ending the drug war and treating drugs as a health issue, not a law enforcement one.

~ Clifford Thornton serves as Administrator of the Drug Policy Agency in the Justice Branch of the Green Shadow Cabinet