A no-win ‘war on drugs’

It has been nearly 40 years since President Nixon began the “war on drugs” in 1971. Its objective from the outset was to suppress the manufacture, distribution and consumption of illicit drugs. By all of those measures -- and by common agreement -- the multibillion-dollar effort has been a failure. Supply is plentiful, distribution sophisticated and consumption steady. Today, there is rare consensus among policymakers, law enforcement leaders and healthcare professionals: Our drug policy, they concede, is not working.

The goal was laudable -- drug use can and does cause profound social harm -- but now we know that the methods chosen to address the problem were flawed. We tried to incarcerate our way out of drug use and succeeded merely in locking up 800,000 people a year on drug charges. Worse, violent cartels, drug mafias and street gangs have created networks of organized crime that stretch from the streets of Los Angeles to the coca fields and jungles of Colombia and Peru.

It is in this context that the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, convened by three former presidents, has called on the U.S. to end the “war.” Among other suggestions, former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia urge the U.S. to evaluate the public policy and medicinal merits of decriminalizing marijuana for personal possession.

Such decriminalization (which isn’t the same as legalization; it would be OK to hold small amounts of marijuana for personal use, but sale and distribution would still be illegal) might solve some problems but exacerbate others. It could, for example, encourage more young people to begin using drugs. And though marijuana doesn’t cause anywhere near the number of deaths of tobacco and alcohol, it is a gateway drug to more dangerous substances, and its decriminalization could worsen the impact of drugs on our communities.

These are serious questions, but addressing them can only begin once policymakers accept the need for an open debate, unfettered by the fear of seeming softheaded. Latin America’s leaders have usefully opened that conversation; it is now up to the Obama administration to engage in it as part of a hemispheric commitment to fashioning a better response to drug cultivation, transportation and use.

In 2004, when he was a senator, Obama categorically stated, “The war on drugs is an utter failure.” Let’s hope he remembers that -- and acts on it.