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“Breaking The Taboo” on the War on Drugs

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By Paul Armentano

Several cover stories appearing in the new issue of The Nation take issue with United State’s ‘war on drug’ policies. The entire issue is arguably worth reading, but the following essay, penned by Drug Policy Alliance director Ethan Nadelmann, is particularly relevant to marijuana law reformers as we look to 2011 and beyond.

Breaking the taboo
via The Nation

The prospects for reforming drug policy have never been so good. The persistent failure and negative consequences of drug war policies, combined with budgetary woes and generational change, are mainstreaming reformist ideas once considered taboo.

Nowhere is this convergence more evident than with respect to marijuana. In 1969, when Gallup first asked Americans if they support legalizing marijuana use, 12 percent were in favor. Support hovered in the mid-20s for many years, then started drifting upward—from 25 percent in 1995 to 36 percent in 2005. In October, at the height of the landmark campaign for legalization in California, the latest Gallup poll found 46 percent in favor nationally, with 50 percent opposed. Prop 19 garnered 46.5 percent of the vote—and roughly a quarter of Californians who voted against it said they favored legalization but were hesitant to vote yes for one reason or another.

Criminal justice reformers know that marijuana offenses account for “only” 50,000–100,000 of the roughly 500,000 Americans behind bars for a drug law violation, but arrests for marijuana possession represent 45 percent of the 1.7 million drug arrests made annually in recent years. And as Queens College professor Harry Levine has amply documented, African-Americans and Latinos are arrested for marijuana offenses at dramatically higher rates than whites, even though they are no more likely to use or possess marijuana. It’s only a matter of time before the racial justice implications of marijuana prohibition and legalization overcome the cultural conservatism of African-American and Latino communities.

According to the Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans who live in the West now favor legalizing marijuana use. It’s thus highly likely that 2012 will see more legalization initiatives in Western states, and with the support of young people—who consistently say they care a lot about this issue and turn out in higher numbers for presidential elections—a few may actually succeed.

The Nation
isn’t the only mainstream media outlet taking aim at the drug war. Earlier this month the Associated Press published the second installment in their ‘AP Impact’ series. Their first analysis, published in May (and summarized on NORML’s blog here) concluded that the United States drug ‘war’ has cost over $1 trillion dollars, has led to the arrest of over 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, and yet has done “little” to reduce Americans’ access to or desire to use illicit substances. The AP’s second analysis takes an equally critical approach to the United State’s efforts in Mexico, which have led to “little, if any, slowdown in the drug trade.”

AP IMPACT: Cartel arrests did not curb drug trade
via San Luis Obispo Tribune

Almost four years later, a grave Eric Holder called his first news conference as attorney general and announced where those phone numbers had led – to a sweeping investigation called Operation Xcellerator, which produced the largest-ever federal crackdown on Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, with 761 people arrested and 23 tons of narcotics seized.

Standing with Holder that day in 2009 was acting Drug Enforcement Administration chief Michele Leonhart, who declared: “Today we have dealt the Sinaloa drug cartel a crushing blow.”

But just how crushing was it? An Associated Press investigation casts doubt on whether the crackdown caused any significant setback for the cartel. It still ranks near the top of Mexico’s drug gangs, and most of those arrested were underlings who had little connection to the cartel and were swiftly replaced. The cartel leader remains free, along with his top commanders.

The findings confirm what many critics of the drug war have said for years: The government is quick to boast about large arrests or drug seizures, but many of its most-publicized efforts result in little, if any, slowdown in the drug trade.

For decades the drug warriors functioned with the full complicity of the press. That isn’t the case any more. And without a lapdog media, it is becoming glaring obvious to the majority of the public that the Emperor absolutely wears no clothes.


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