Former Presidents: End the Drug War, Legalize Marijuana

The practical case against prohibition is overwhelming, and the moral case for it is myopic and deeply misguided

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A major report released Thursday by the Global Commission on Drug Policy affirms what we've long known: the war on drugs is an abject failure, it empowers criminal organizations that undermine democracy, and it makes drug users and non-drug users alike worse off than they'd otherwise be. "Public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately," the report states. "That the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won."

The conclusions are notable mostly because of the people who produced them: former presidents of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the prime minister of Greece, and former high ranking federal officials George P. Schultz and Paul Volcker. The commission had 19 members total. Other notables include writers Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, and the billionaire Richard Branson, who hammered home the fiscal inefficiency of the drug war. "It's estimated that over one trillion have been spent on fighting this unwinnable battle," he said. "A regulated market -- one that is tightly controlled, one that would offer support not prison to those with drug problems -- would cost tax payers much less money."

Emphatically as I affirm these conclusions -- thrilled as I am that presidents who once implemented drug prohibition have come to see its folly -- it is difficult to be optimistic about the prospects for change. It's been 15 years since William F. Buckley declared in National Review that the war on drugs is lost. We're living under our third consecutive president who admitted using drugs in youth. Countless law enforcement personnel are willing to acknowledge the folly of prohibition. But the failed policies of old continue anyway against all evidence and common sense.

President Obama promised that if state governments wanted to experiment with medical marijuana dispensaries federal law enforcement wouldn't interfere, but he hasn't followed through. In the GOP primary race, all the frontrunners favor a continuation of the war on drugs, while the two candidates who vocally favor decriminalization are openly mocked in the media.

Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson was on Fox News just the other day talking drug policy. "Half of what we spend on law enforcement, the courts and prisons is drug-related and to what end?" he said. His plan: decriminalize marijuana and treat harder drugs as a public health issue rather than a matter for the criminal justice system. Host Sean Hannity replied on behalf of his audience:

How do you get the conservative base, a lot of which are Christian conservatives -- the idea that America would legalize or go down this road is repugnant to me. I don't think government should have that role in the moral destruction of a human soul, which is predictable by giving them those drugs.

It's a telling way to frame the issue.

A majority of Americans have persuaded themselves that if they support decriminalizing narcotics, they'll be complicit in drug abuse. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, they feel no complicity in the horrific consequences of prohibition. The impoverishment of farmers in Colombia and Afghanistan, drug cartels undermining democracy in multiple South and Central American countries, tens of thousands dead in Mexico, violent drug gangs on the streets of America, millions of non-violent offenders in US prisons -- these are just some of the actual consequences of the black market in narcotics, and if prohibitionists actually confronted the moral destruction caused by their policies, they wouldn't need Gary Johnson, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, or anyone else to persuade them that by defending the status quo they do harm.  

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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