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The War on Drugs Failed – So Why Isn’t It Over?

Truthout – By Mike Ludwig/Truthout News Analysis – Saturday, 30 April 2016

2016_0430d_
Photo: A man is arrested after police found drug paraphernalia in a home in Camden, New Jersey, October 22, 2006. (Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)

At the request of Latin American leaders who have grown weary of bloody battles over drugs, the United Nations held a summit last week on the “world drug problem” at its headquarters in New York City. For a moment, it seemed as if the global war on drugs was beginning to crumble under its own weight.

Before the summit even began, the UN officials were under fire for making concessions to powerful countries with harsh drug control regimes and failing to push the global discourse beyond the decades-old treaties that laid the foundation for international drug prohibition. Hundreds of political leaders and policy groups condemned the summit’s guiding statement for refusing to recognize that decades of prohibition have done more harm than good, fueling mass incarceration, organized crime, infectious diseases and general bloodshed across the world while failing to reduce supply or demand.

At a press conference during the summit, Nick Clegg, a former deputy prime minister of the UK and a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, said the UN system is “increasingly divorced from reality.” Former Columbian president and commission member César Gaviria, whose country has been violently ravaged by the drug war, said the idea that governments can rid society of drugs is “totally unrealistic” because 50 years of prohibition have “totally failed.” The commission, which supports drug decriminalization, is made up of current and former leaders from several countries, including Mexico, Switzerland, Canada and the United States.

Clearly, the global conversation around drugs has changed since the last drug summit in 1998. There, UN leadership declared that a “drug-free world” could be achieved within 10 years, a goal that now seems laughable. Since then, drug decriminalization in countries like the Czech Republic and Portugal has been linked to improvements in public health, and marijuana legalization efforts in major UN member states, including the United States and Canada, have caused political fissures throughout the stubborn institutions of prohibition. These efforts may well be undermining the international drug control framework altogether.

Calls for drug legalization are going mainstream, but millions of people continue to be arrested for nonviolent drug offenses each year, including 1.5 million in the US alone. Political leaders are only starting to catch up, at least on paper. Shortly before the UN summit, Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, along with 1,000 political and cultural leaders, signed a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling for “a new global response to drugs” and declaring 20th century drug control regimes to be “disastrous for global health, security and human rights.”

The signatures of two major US presidential candidates on an international statement effectively condemning the global drug war mark a stark departure from decades of US policy. However, the letter appeared to have had little impact on the summit beyond a kerfuffle between UN security and activists dressed in prohibition-era costumes who showed up to distribute copies of it. The US served as the de facto leader of a global drug crackdown for decades after President Richard Nixon first declared the war on drugs, with the intention of crushing the Black liberation and antiwar movements. Yet recent changes in policies at home have left the United States in an awkward position on the current global stage.

Daniel Raymond, a spokesman for the Harm Reduction Coalition, a US-based group that sent advocates to the summit, told Truthout that the US diplomats have found themselves in a “double bind.” The US, Raymond said, must convince its international partners that a multibillion-dollar legal and medical marijuana industry in nearly half of US states can be reconciled with responsibilities to longstanding international drug control agreements.

“The US seems to have taken a middle-of-the-road approach in these negotiations: They are trying to play nice with everybody and keep all parties at the table,” said Raymond, who added that the US is more focused on UN procedure than real policy goals. “Because the United States has skin in a lot of different games, they have taken a less proactive role in the UN negotiations and occupied the middle.”

Hillary Clinton and Obama’s Drug War Legacy

Beyond a handful of outspoken progressive Democrats and libertarian Republicans, drug policy reform never enjoyed much political capital in Washington, until recently. The movement for Black lives and widespread protests against law enforcement have drawn national attention to the drug war’s contributions to mass incarceration and racism in the criminal legal system. Meanwhile, the nation’s “opioid crisis” has put a whiter, wealthier and more politically salient face on drug addiction.

President Obama has responded by reducing sentences for some federal drug war prisoners and declaring the opioid crisis a public health challenge instead of a criminal problem. His current drug czar, Michael Botticelli, has been praised for prioritizing treatment over incarceration, when it comes to people charged with drug possession, but the White House continues to support law enforcement crackdowns on drug trafficking, which can drag marginalized people perceived as dealers into the criminal legal system. The administration has also been less than transparent about efforts to allow certain addiction medications in prisons, where people with opioid addictions are often cut off from prescribed regimens.

If elected, Hillary Clinton is expected to take a similar path. President Obama has asked Congress to appropriate $1 billion to combat the opioid crisis with treatment and prevention, and Clinton has proposed to spend $10 billion over the next decade. Clinton touts her support for reducing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and has said she would prioritize treatment over prison time for low-level offenders, but she has said nothing about defanging drug war institutions like the scandal-ridden US Drug Enforcement Administration.

Bernie Sanders says that the war on drugs has “failed” and proposes to go even further than Clinton by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and removing marijuana from the list of federally outlawed drugs, but his chances of winning the Democratic nomination are increasingly slim.

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Posted by Teri Perticone

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