Stopping another war

(@ noon – promoted by NLinStPaul)

Why is it that so often when we want to tackle a problem in this country, we think we need to declare war on it? Haven’t we learned over the years that wars tend to make things worse instead of better? If we ever needed proof of that, all we have to do is take a look at this crazy war on drugs our country has been fighting for years.

I’ve firmly believed for a long time that we need to stop this particular war. In my professional life, I see the pipeline to prison that it provides for too many of our young people – especially those of color. But this week, I’ve been devastated to see what its done real close to home. A couple of people I care alot about got caught up in this war because they grow and sell a little marijuana. Their home was invaded by cops last week and they were hauled off to jail in handcuffs. They lost everything they own, including possessions, bank accounts (even the one they’d set up to cover expenses for their father in a nursing home), and all forms of ID due to these crazy laws we call asset forfeiture. I’ve been devastated with and for them.

As a result, I’ve been paying closer attention the last few days to stories about our war on drugs. And while we certainly have a long way to go and I’m not over the devastation it has caused my friends, I’m seeing some encouraging signs.

Perhaps the biggest news comes from outside our borders. In Rio de Janeiro, former presidents C├ęsar Gaviria of Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Fernando Enrique Cardoso of Brazil – all heads of state that had presided over prohibitionist policies in their lands – issued a joint report together with various Latin American intellectuals: Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift. (pdf)

Calling current drug policies “a failed war,” the former presidents concluded:

   …it is imperative to rectify the “war on drugs” strategy pursued in the region over the past 30 years.

   Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results…

   Current drug repression policies are firmly rooted in prejudices, fears and ideological visions. The whole issue has become taboo which inhibits public debate. The association of drugs with crime blocks the circulation of information and segregates drug users in closed circles where they become even more exposed to organized crime.

   Hence, breaking the taboo and acknowledging the failure of current policies and their consequences is the inescapable prerequisite for opening up the discussion about a new paradigm leading to safer, more efficient and humane drug policies…

Their recommendations:

   1. Change the status of addicts from drug buyers in the illegal market to that of patients cared for in the public health system

   2. Evaluate from a public health standpoint and on the basis of the most advanced medical science the convenience of decriminalizing the possession of cannabis for personal use

   3. Reduce consumption through campaigns of information and prevention that can be understood and accepted by young people, who account for the largest contingent of users.

   4. Redirect repressive strategies to the unrelenting fight against organized crime

   5. Reframe the strategies of repression against the cultivation of illicit drugs

Sounds like once again, the winds of change are blowing sweet from south of our border. But there are signs of some smaller change here at home too. Many people feel that the appointment by the Obama administration of Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske as Drug Czar (HATE that title) is at least a small step in the right direction.

“Oh God bless us,” said Joanna McKee, co-founder and director of Green Cross Patient Co-Op, a medical-marijuana patient-advocacy group. “What a blessing…”

McKee said Kerlikowske knows the difference between cracking down on the illegal abuse of drugs and allowing the responsible use of marijuana.

Douglas Hiatt, a Seattle attorney and advocate for medical-marijuana patients, said his first preference would be for a physician to oversee national drug policy.

But Kerlikowske would be a vast improvement over past drug czars, who have used the office to carry out the so-called “war on drugs,” Hiatt said.

In addition, the Obama administration has affirmed that DEA raids in medical marijuana states will end and has ended the Bush administration objections to needle exchange programs in negotiations with the UN.

And finally, we should remember that its not just urban areas where this war on drugs is having devastating effects. This is the powerful message of a film currently running on most PBS stations titled Tulia, Texas. Here’s a preview.

At the bottom of the screen on the link above, you can find out when the film will be showing on your local PBS station. But I want to emphasize what I think is the most important quote in the clip above…

This is a story about how our idea of justice gets corrupted when we declare war on something.


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  1. …well taken.

    Eh, Chief Kerlikowske, while not notably conservative, has a city reputation of being extraordinarily lenient in police misconduct cases.  Granted, it is part of his job, to keep the loyalty of the force and so on, and he leads one half of a polarized environment, but…articles like this one have not been uncommon during his tenure:


    Seattle has a local law directing the police to put marijuana enforcement at the very, very bottom of their priorities.  The penalty at that level is quite low here in any event, but basically there isn’t much political support on the west side of the lake for weed enforcement.  Heavier drugs are of course a different story.  But stuff like this has still occured on his watch:

    Just general FYI.  But, eh, to drag this back to your underview, my fuzzy sense of Kerlikowske — as a fourth generation resident of this fair city — is that he’s not going to be so much about being a general in a war as a cop’s cop; that he’ll generally respect more liberal directives (to some point), but his deepest loyalty is to his force, as he sees it.

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