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The Drug War Goes Up in Smoke | The Nation

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The Drug War Goes Up in Smoke

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The war on terror may be too new to declare victory or defeat. But this nation has been fighting a war on drugs for more than a quarter-century, ever since New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller mandated harsh drug sentencing in 1973--and it may be time to announce that this is one war we've lost. More than a million people are serving time in our prisons and jails for nonviolent offenses, most drug-related, at a cost to the public of some $9.4 billion a year. Many billions more are spent by the states and the federal government on drug interdiction, drug-law enforcement and drug prosecutions. Harsh laws that require lengthy minimum sentences for the possession of even small amounts of drugs have created a boom in the incarceration of women, tearing mothers away from their children. Much of the country's costly foreign-policy commitments--especially in Latin America and the Caribbean--are determined by drug-war priorities. And yet drug use has actually soared, with twice as many teenagers reporting illegal drug use in 2000 as in 1992.

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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The idea of putting more and more Americans in prison, a great number of them for crimes related to drug addiction, grew out of "broken windows" social theories developed by criminologists such as James Q. Wilson in the 1970s. Wilson and his acolytes believed that unless police and the courts aggressively cracked down on crime, the social compact would degenerate into anarchy. They argued that even nonviolent offenses, such as breaking windows or possessing small amounts of marijuana, contributed to an anything-goes climate in which more serious crimes would proliferate. By the 1980s, these theories had entered the political mainstream, allowing Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton and now George W. Bush to score political points by denouncing addicts and appearing tough on crime all at the same time. Though politicians may have embraced this framework because it sold well to voters, its implications for the nation's health have been extreme. The drug war exiled addiction from the realm of public health, placing it almost exclusively in the hands of law enforcement and the courts.

At the philosophical core of this war on drugs, as fought by the likes of Bush Sr.'s drug czar, Bill Bennett, are twin ideas: Drug use is a moral wrong in itself, and drug use makes people more likely to commit a host of other crimes, from prostitution to burglary to murder. To fight drugs, the drug warriors have insisted, it isn't enough to go after the narco-kingpins; government agencies and courts must disrupt the drug supply-and-demand by prosecuting, and imprisoning, increasing numbers of low-level street dealers, even users themselves.

In the past few years, however, these policies have come under attack from surprising quarters. Opponents range from public health activists to libertarian-minded political figures such as former Secretary of State George Shultz. On the one hand, the critics have argued, these policies have failed to make progress toward a drug-free America. On the other, the war has proved to be too expensive to sustain. In an era of shrinking state resources, legislators have come to understand that budgets cannot be balanced, and needed social programs cannot be maintained, unless the country's bloated prison system is shrunk back down to a more realistic size. These two concerns have converged to create a window of opportunity for drug-policy reformers to push their case where it matters most: in the states.

Winter is hesitatingly giving way to spring, and New Mexico's former Governor Gary Johnson is tending to a broken leg in preparation for an expedition to climb Mount Everest. His daredevil athleticism is a marker of the same temperament that allowed Johnson, a Republican, to become the only governor ever to publicly support drug legalization while in office. The significant progress he made on drug-policy reform during his eight-year tenure helped to turn the tide for state reform movements across the country. "Johnson was a huge advocate," says Jerry Montoya, who runs a county needle-exchange program in the state, "ahead of federal policy in terms of thinking, in terms of philosophy."

In 2002, the last year of Johnson's tenure, state legislators voted to limit the ability of state police to seize the assets of those accused of drug-related crimes; to return a certain degree of case-by-case discretion to judges trying nonviolent drug cases; and to waive the federal ban on welfare benefits for former drug offenders who have completed their sentences.

During his tenure, Johnson, a fiscal conservative, made enemies of liberals through his hostility to tax-and-spend policies and his fondness for privatizing government functions--including prisons. He frequently vetoed the creation of new government programs, using, in his words, "an iron fist" on the state budget. But he made enemies of conservatives as well, primarily over his outspoken views on drug policy. He combatively declared the war on drugs "a miserable failure" and ambitiously investigated alternatives, including legalization.

Although he abstains now even from caffeine, sugar and alcohol, Johnson admits that he once inhaled--quite often. "I didn't hide it," he says. "Growing up [in the 1960s], I smoked marijuana regularly in college and a little bit after college. And I experimented with other drugs." This experience, combined with a strong libertarian streak, allowed him to be an iconoclastic thinker on drug policy. "If we legalized all drugs tomorrow, we'd be better than we are now regarding death, disease and crime reduction," he says. "There'd be more money into education; and more money into treatment for those who want or need treatment. At present rates, I'm going to see, in my life, 80 million Americans arrested for illegal drugs. The human cost of what we're doing is untold."

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