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
"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,
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.