It's said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again—and expecting a different result. If so, the United States’ three-decade-long “war on drugs” must be one of the least sane public policy initiatives in recent memory. Tens of billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of arrests, prisons full to bursting—and yet illicit drugs are as easily available as ever before.
All this has long been painfully obvious to liberals and leftwingers who argued for spending less money on prosecuting and imprisoning small-time drug users, and more on treatment and research into addiction. For years, Americans dismissed them as softheaded or (worse) “soft on drugs.” Now, though, there are clear signs that the United States may be reaching what Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian author and deep thinker, calls a “tipping point” on how to deal with the dilemma of drugs. Exhibit A would be the man who is arguably the most unconventional politician south of the 49th parallel (leaving aside for the moment Jesse Ventura of Minnesota and the XFL). He’s Gary Johnson—obsessive triathlete, conservative Republican, governor of New Mexico, and leading advocate for a radically new approach. How radical? Johnson calls for legalizing drugs (starting with marijuana), regulating and taxing them like alcohol. Drug abuse, he says, should be treated as a health issue—not left to the police and the courts.
His opponents like to portray Johnson as a flake, and on the phone from his office in Santa Fe the 48-year-old governor sometimes sounds like an enthusiastic kid rather than the chief executive of an American state. “The war on drugs has been a miserable failure,” he says, “and we’ve been afraid to even talk about it. How many people can you lock up? How many prisons can you build? How many billions can you spend? Nobody wants our kids to use drugs, but do we want to turn them into criminals for doing it? It’s plain nuts!”
The drug war got under way seriously in the 1980s, when Americans and their political representatives panicked over spiralling use of illegal substances and the violent crime that came with the trade. Draconian laws were passed, notably “mandatory minimum” sentences that require judges to send many nonviolent drug offenders away for 15 or 20 years—even life.
The result: the U.S. prison population quadrupled to two million since 1980. The number imprisoned for drug offences went up by 11 times, to nearly half a million. Almost 80 per cent of drug arrests are for simple possession, and 44 per cent
of those involve marijuana. Fifteen years ago, 31 out of every 100,000 young Americans were in state prisons for drug offences; by 1996 that had quadrupled to 122 out of 100,000. In 1980, Washington was spending $1.5 billion fighting drugs. Now, the war on drugs is a $60-billion-a-year enterprise, with quasi-military operations as far away as Colombia and Peru (witness the tragic killing of a woman and baby aboard a small plane operated by a Baptist group, shot down by the Peruvian air force with the help of U.S. anti-drug operatives). Yet drug use by young people in the United States has actually increased.
For a while, Johnson was something of a lone voice calling for change—though a refreshingly candid one. Unlike most boomer politicians who coyly acknowledge that they once “experimented” with marijuana, Johnson admits he was a regular user in college and tried cocaine as well. The problem, he says, is that he liked it way too much, so he quit completely. He hasn’t even touched alcohol in a dozen years and is known as a fitness fanatic, competing in gruelling “Ironman” triathlons.
Now, Johnson is getting support from some unlikely sources. George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s former secretary of state and Republican stalwart, called him recently to say he agreed that the war on drugs is a flop. Many other conservatives are coming to the same conclusion. The Cato Institute, a Washington think-tank and hotbed of rightwing ideas, is campaigning against U.S. drug policies on the grounds that they lead to massive violations of civil liberties.
Another Republican governor, George Pataki of New York, is trying to soften his state’s harsh drug laws, which impose lengthy prison sentences for minor violations. Even Bill Clinton, the supposed liberal who vigorously prosecuted the war on drugs during his tenure in the White House, changed his tune on the way out and told Rolling Stone that possession of small amounts of marijuana should be decriminalized, and that draconian drug sentences serve no purpose. And, of course, the movie Traffic vividly brought home to a mass audience the hypocrisy and futility of current policies.
This isn’t just a mass outbreak of common sense. The biggest change is that U.S. crime rates are way down from the high point reached during the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s and early ’90s. The public is less fearful, so more open to change. Most politicians are lagging behind, mired in old think on drugs. Suddenly, people like Gary Johnson are looking less like cranks, and more like prophets.
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