It's been forty years since President Nixon declared a "war on drugs." And we're not winning. In local communities, Black and Latino men are being singled out unfairly and fed into the prison system for minor drug offenses; in Mexico, an unspeakably brutal drug war continues with no signs of cessation; sick people continue to be denied legal access to medical marijuana that could ease their pain. But there are signs that things are changing.
The 43-year-old war on drugs had never seen such a barrage of opposition as it did in 2014, with successful marijuana legalization initiatives in several U.S. states, California’s historic approval of sentencing reform for low level drug offenders and world leaders calling for the legal regulation of all drugs — all of which cement the mainstream appeal of drug policy alternatives and offer unprecedented momentum going into 2015.
Since time immemorial, Mexicans have argued that were it not for U.S. demand for illicit substances, Mexico would have a manageable drug problem. More recently, we have also contended that absent the U.S.'s laxity on arms sales and its tolerance for the possession of extraordinarily dangerous weapons, the violence in our country would not be what it has become. Lately our leaders have added a new gripe: Americans are hypocrites because they support prohibitionist and costly drug-enforcement policies — yet, through the specious fallacy of medical marijuana, are legalizing drugs without saying so.
I recently returned from the desert city of Durango, Mexico, where forensic officials are still trying to identify some 240 corpses discovered this year in mass graves. More than 200 other bodies have been found in similar fosas across northern Mexico. All were victims, many of them innocent victims, of the drug-trafficking violence whose barbarity seems bottomless. But it's fueled in large part by the just as endless American appetite for illegal drugs – which itself is due in no small part to the fact that our anti-drug policies are so narrow-mindedly focused on battling supply instead of reducing demand.
"The war on drugs has failed," said a recent report compiled by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which comprised a former UN secretary-general, former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, a former US Secretary of State and a host of public intellectuals, human rights activists and politicians.
Tomorrow marks the 79th anniversary of the beginning of the end of the U.S. prohibition on alcohol. On that day in 1932 John D. Rockefeller Jr., a vociferous advocate of temperance, called for the repeal of the 18th amendment in a letter published in the New York Times. Rockefeller had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying for the constitutional prohibition on alcohol. But his letter did more than admit the error of his investment. Because of his moral authority on the matter, it effectively ended the conservative taboo against admitting that the whole experiment had failed.
In an extraordinary new initiative announced earlier this month, the Global Commission on Drug Policy has made some courageous and profoundly important recommendations in a report on how to bring more effective control over the illicit drug trade. They probably won’t turn to the United States for advice. Drug policies here are more punitive and counterproductive than in other democracies, and have brought about an explosion in prison populations.