"The war on drugs has failed."
Those are the words of retired newsman Walter Cronkite from a March Huffington Post blog. Some argue that Cronkite single-handedly sparked the movement against the Vietnam War -- when he speaks, people listen. I did too.
Twenty-four years ago, former President Ronald Reagan perpetuated an American convention of the Oval Office: proclaim a war on drugs. In his Oct. 14 yearly radio speech, the 40th president repeated words used by the successive administrations of Bush I, Willie I, Willie II and Bush II. The American government's encounter with drugs began before Reagan, and the first inklings of hostility date back to the '70s, with former President Richard Nixon's founding of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
But it was the success of drug enforcement agencies in the '80s, romanticized by Don Johnson's highlighter suit jackets and Ferraris, which cemented the dunce cap on presidents for years to come. The "war on drugs," along with health care, remains one of the longest, and most costly, political fumbles in history. Currently, it costs our federal government about $600 per second, according to the Office of National Drug Policy's budget.
Ironically enough, Americans' attack on drugs goes hand in hand with the hippies of the 60s. The counterculture birthed from free love, free drugs and paraded in "Easy Rider" continued through the decades. The whiplash against drugs came in government form, and was renamed for each decade (1960s: Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, 1970s: Drug Enforcement Administration, 1980s: South Florida Task Force, 1990s: Office of National Drug Control Policy).
Reagan's reign -- which began with a campaign statement that marijuana was "probably the most dangerous drug in America" -- emphasized enforcement over treatment, and the trend has continued, especially regarding still-Schedule I marijuana. About half of all drug arrests are related to marijuana, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports.
After Reagan, Bush Sr. created the Office of Drug Control Policy, one of the most storied enemies of drug America. Led by a "drug czar," the department has helmed the social, cultural and legislative "war on drugs." The first drug czar, William Bennett, campaigned to establish and bolster the druggie stereotype, aka that lazy, deflated stoner we see on anti-drug commercials. But it's the latest drug czar, albeit a fake one, who caught my fancy.
"If there is a war on drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy," said fictional U.S. drug czar Robert Wakefield, a character played by Michael Douglas in the Oscar-winning film "Traffic." "And I don't know how you wage war on your own family."
It's a mentality we all should adopt. Drugs are in our life, burrowed in our children and colleagues. To continue this war would be to incite battles with the people around us.
The anecdotes are countless, but eerily similar: a kid clueless about the justice system makes a stupid mistake, and pays a life sentence for it. For reference, see the account in "Reefer Madness" -- a written 2003 expose of America's marijuana laws -- of Mark Young, an Indianan with a clean record sentenced to life after connecting a marijuana seller with a buyer. There are a million stories like his.
But still the war continues, as do the extremely conservative views of our nation's drug czars. Following Bennett was Barry McCaffrey, who secretly and illegally inserted anti-drug messages in advertisements.
Bush Jr.'s version, John Walters, is no better. According to Time magazine, the leading voice on America's drug policy came to a drug treatment center in Reno in 2002, talked about billionaires funding efforts to decriminalize marijuana, and then addressed them frankly: "Let's stop hiding. I'm here. Where are you?"
Yes, let's fight. Let's goad and provoke until your child, your coworker, your boss and almost every teenager is jailed. To take cues from our nation's leaders such as Walters would be to damn anyone who has ever tried drugs.
Think about that.
Think about facetime with Walters and what he would say to you, your lab partner, your mother or anyone who could have possibly experimented.
I know he would probably hate me. A lot.
And not even former President Bill Clinton, the lone Democratic president since 1981, can claim a more liberal drug stance than his Republican counterparts. The famous "smoked, but didn't inhale" excuse might have been a sign, but Clinton kept the same stranglehold on Drug America as did Reagan and Bush Sr. The number of marijuana arrests during Clinton's tenure hit historic levels.
American policy is as lazy as the stoner stereotype it peddles through its politicians. Imagine this scenario as a commercial from the now-defunct D.A.R.E. program:
Sober kid: "Hey man, feel like revolutionizing America's drug policy? Create a comprehensive, but standardized treatment system for addicts? Permit but regulate substance abuse to pull profits from government-taxed goods? Lower crime rates, while sparing crunched prisons and courts and prosecutors' social lives?"
Stoned kid: "Nah man, let's just do what Reagan did."
Sober kid: "Want to at least talk about it?"
Stoned kid: "Nah man, he's a movie star. Let's just listen to him."
Perhaps it isn't laziness, but just another one of America's reactive prototypes of policy, bound to an uncompromising set of morals. This commentary, facing the anti-drug mob, will most likely go unheard, like so many choked efforts to the same means.
But I'll play America's version of "Simon/Reagan Says."
Cronkite says: It's time to rethink how we deal with drugs.
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