The War On Drugs: Just say "No More!"

By Arianna Huffington, syndicated columnist in over
180 newspapers around the country

You won't find the latest good news about our war in the foreign-news section of the paper. That's because this war is being fought at home. But you won't find it in the domestic-news section either. That's because the media are barely reporting anything outside the talking points of the presidential candidates. And George W. Bush and Al Gore would rather talk about drugs they did or didn't take than mention America's ongoing drug war - unless to say that we need to get tougher. Elected officials are usually the last to agree with the little boy crying out that the emperor wears no clothes - or, in this case, that the drug war has been a disaster. But yesterday's heresies are becoming today's wisdom.

"The most common reaction I get from my colleagues," Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.), in the vanguard of drug-policy reform, told me is, "You're absolutely right, but, boy, I'm not going to take that risk." Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) is one who has decided to take the risk. "A fanatic is someone who redoubles his efforts when he's forgotten his purpose," he told me, quoting Santayana. "We need to question policymakers' sanity when the purpose - in this case protecting people's health - is forgotten in favor of a fanatical pursuit of the drug war."

"We're on the cusp of this debate bursting wide open," said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, a leading drug-policy institute. "Drug-policy reform is rapidly emerging as the movement for political and social justice of the new decade."

An overwhelming majority of Americans now feel that it's time to mobilize new thinking on our drug problem. According to a recent Zogby poll, 74 percent favor treatment over prison for those convicted of possession. And when given the chance to express their feelings at the ballot box, voters across the country - the ground troops on the side of common sense - have repeatedly shown their support for reforming drug policy. In Arizona, voters have twice approved a measure replacing mandatory incarceration with treatment, while ballot initiatives making marijuana available for medical use have been passed in California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, Colorado, Maine and Washington, D.C.

State legislatures are following suit. Hawaii recently became the first state to approve medical marijuana through the legislative process. And last year, Missouri passed a bill encouraging judges to sentence certain drug users to community service and treatment facilities rather than jail.

Indeed, it is at the state level that the critical mass for bipartisan drug reform is emerging. In November, Massachusetts and California ballots will feature groundbreaking initiatives. The Massachusetts initiative requires that any properties forfeited in drug cases go to education or drug treatment rather than to police coffers - a critically important reform if we are to end our distorted law-enforcement priorities.

Meanwhile, in California, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act requires that nonviolent drug offenders be sent to treatment rather than prison the first two times they're arrested. Its backers point out that the average cost of maintaining a prison inmate is $23,406 a year, while the average annual cost of a drug-treatment program is $4,300.

More evidence of this emerging critical mass comes, surprisingly, from a growing number of law-enforcement officials and judges. Although, on second thought, it's not that surprising since these front-line conscripts have seen the ravages of the war up close: overflowing prisons, devastated inner-city neighborhoods, the militarization of our nation's peace officers, ruined lives.

We look back now at things like judicial enforcement of the fugitive slave laws and wonder how we could have let that happen," a U.S. District Court judge told me. "I think many years from now people will look at our current drug laws that require very long, mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders and think this is a comparable kind of injustice."

Even tough-on-crime conservatives like Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist are rethinking the mandatory minimum sentences fostered by the drug-war mind-set. Such sentences "impose unduly harsh punishment for first-time offenders," said Rehnquist, "and have led to an inordinate increase in the prison population."

Finally, families of those doing time for drugs have begun to organize. "The loved ones of the drug war's victims shouldn't be ashamed," said Nora Callahan, who in 1997 founded the November Coalition to give families of those serving draconian drug sentences a voice. "The government should be ashamed because our nation's drug laws are the real culprit." Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which now has branches in 21 states, was founded by Julie Stewart after her brother got five years in a federal prison for possessing three dozen marijuana plants.

College students have opened yet another front in the fight to end the drug war. They're battling against an outrageous provision in the 1998 Higher Education Act that disqualifies young people for federal aid for college if they've ever been convicted of marijuana possession, but not if they've been convicted of rape, robbery or manslaughter. "It was this bill that got students active on the drug issue," said Kris Lotlikar, national director of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy. "They resent having their education dragged into drug-war politics."

"There is a growing acknowledgment," Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) told me, "that the drug war hasn't worked." Or as Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) put it: "The war on drugs is a total failure. It does more harm than good." Campbell, Nadler, Schakowsky and Paul are still in the minority - a minority that includes some pretty high-profile pols, including New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. But common sense finally seems to be gaining the edge on demagoguery and pandering. The government's war on drugs has become a war on its own citizens. It's heartening to see more and more people crying out that it's time to sue for peace.

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