Monday, June 20, 2016

Is the War on Drugs over?

Nixon and Erlichman

45 years on and we still are no closer to solving the "drug problem" than we were when Richard Nixon first launched the "War on Drugs."  His ill-fated campaign came under fire recently when a former top aide, John Erlichman, said that the principal targets were "blacks and hippies."  It never really was about drugs, but about disrupting these communities, according to Erlichman.  I guess it was a "success" in this regard, as there is a disproportional number of blacks and minorities in prison, although it is hard to quantify what a "hippy" is.

Most Americans favor decriminalization of marijuana and many would like to see it made legal, which is why so many states now condone marijuana to one degree or another.   Libertarian presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, would go even further and decriminalize all drugs.  He was recently on CNN defending his position.  He believes that this will actually lead to less substance abuse than we currently have with legal marijuana becoming the "safe drug" of choice.

Not so sure the numbers back him up on this as there were close to 50,000 drug overdoses in 2014.  Prescription drugs are rmost frequently abused.  However, alcohol related deaths are even higher, and we all know about the long term effects of tobacco, all of which are legal.

So, what is it with this "war on drugs" which appears to have ebbed in recent years?  Have we come to the realization that it has failed to curb the use of drugs, or are we just going through a lull before some conservative president gets into the White House and kicks into high gear again, as Reagan did in the 80s?

Ronald and Nancy telling everyone to "just say no."

Zero tolerance laws led to the massive confiscation of properties for the slightest trace of drugs in a person's house, car or boat.  Incarceration rates increased dramatically, despite the vast majority of these crimes being non-violent.  Through the Clinton years we saw even tougher drug laws, along with the notorious "three strikes" law that could land you in prison for life regardless of the severity of the crimes.  Most judges were against these laws, as it gave them very little flexibility when it came to sentencing.

But, somehow we managed to turn a corner in the new millennium.  George Bush wasn't as harsh as his predecessors on drugs and the Obama administration is actually mulling over the possibility of decriminalizing marijuana.  At the very least, this administration may reclassify pot this year, removing it from the Schedule 1 list, which Nixon had placed it on in 1972.

However, there is still very strong resistance to such liberalization efforts.  Mayor De Blassio found out when he decriminalized marijuana in New York City.  Police commissioner William Bratton vowed to keep making low-level arrests regardless of the policy the mayor set.

Opinions vary as to why marijuana continues to be treated as a controlled substance.  Some think it is the cynical attitude of politicians and law enforcement to fill privatized prisons.  Yet, many police departments have stated they would like to see marijuana decriminalized so that they can focus on more serious crimes.  There is even a non-profit organization called LEAP, made up of law enforcement officials who are against prohibition of drugs.

Of course, such informed opinion is usually ignored by conservative ideologues who continue to push the idea of marijuana as a "gateway drug" to harder drugs, and cite dubious medical studies of how much more toxic cannabis sativa is now than it was 45 years ago.

Ironically, one of the reasons for the higher THC levels in marijuana is that the tougher drugs laws literally drove cultivation underground so that marijuana was grown in highly controlled environments that allowed persons to come up with more potent strains.  If you regulate cultivation, as the government does the alcohol industry, you can control the THC levels in the same way the government controls alcohol per volume of beer, wine and spirits.  Otherwise, the sky is the limit.  There is still no definite data that higher THC levels cause greater health risks, just a whole bunch of speculation that serves as grist for the news mill.

One would like to think that clearer heads will eventually prevail.  There have been quite a number of conservatives over the years who have spoke out against the "war on drugs," including George Shultz, a former Nixon and Reagan cabinet member.  He was part of a 2011 UN study group that put forward suggestions for a new drug policy.  Having seen the disastrous effects of the "war on drugs" first hand, Shultz would like to see a policy that offers a science-based approach rather than the punitive model we have witnessed for the past half century.

It would be nice to see the White House follow through on its gestures, treating substance abuse as a health problem rather than a criminal one and dealing with it appropriately.

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