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

Why are politicians so far behind, even as calls for legalization go mainstream?

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.

Critics of the drug war predicted years ago that state laws prohibiting marijuana would slowly fall like dominos despite federal prohibition. These state-level initiatives provide perfect political cover for Clinton and the Republican candidates, who fear alienating older, socially conservative voters but know that the majority of people in the US now support marijuana legalization.

Clinton does not support legalizing weed, but she has promised not to interfere with state marijuana reforms, and to direct federal agents to focus on violent criminals instead of pot smokers. Republicans Donald Trump and even archconservative Ted Cruz, who have said little about drug policy beyond the debate over securing the US-Mexico border, agree that states should be free to decide the issue on their own, even if they personally oppose legalization. Only Ohio Gov. John Kasich has expressed firm opposition to legalization.

Marijuana has long been the media’s drug policy bellwether, but legal weed alone will not stop the violence ravaging Mexico, Latin America and cities across the United States. Allowing the vast marijuana industry to go legit would certainly put a dent in the profit margins of drug cartels, but it may also increase competition in black markets for drugs like cocaine and heroin, making those trades even more dangerous and bloody than they already are.

Still, localized marijuana legalization flies in the face of federal law and longstanding international drug control agreements, which continue to label marijuana as dangerous and illegal. US diplomats affirmed the three major drug prohibition and anti-trafficking treaties last week along with the rest of the UN, suggesting that these agreements are open to interpretation or can simply be ignored by policy makers on the ground.

“Once you start to say there is a place for legalization in controlled markets, then the [UN drug control] conventions can mean anything that you want them to,” Raymond said. “At the same time, you are pretending that they say something solid.”

How to End the War on Drugs

To end the war on drugs, the conversation around the uppers, downers and psychedelics with tougher reputations than weed must change as well. Politicians must accept a few facts, and not just behind closed doors, where drug reform lobbyists often find sympathetic lawmakers who claim their hands are politically tied.

First of all, humans have used psychoactive drugs for thousands of years and won’t be stopping anytime soon. From caffeine to codeine, drug use is inevitable in all realms of society, whether drugs are legal or not. We know this because prohibition has failed so miserably at its stated goal. Criminalizing drugs does not reduce the amount of harm they can cause; in fact, it has the opposite effect. Proven harm reduction strategies and medical treatments for addiction, on the other hand, can help make drug use safer for everyone.

We must also change the way we view drug users, who are much less dangerous than the drug warriors, as it turns out. Last month, an international team of experts sponsored by Johns Hopkins University pointed to the UN’s own data showing that only 11 percent of drug users worldwide are considered “problem users” because they have an addiction or drug abuse disorder. Drug prohibitionists, however, wrongly assume that there is no difference between use and abuse, and total abstinence is the only acceptable way to approach certain drugs. This mentality has fueled sensational and racist myths about “crack babies,” “bath salt zombies” and “reefer madness.”

Meanwhile, anti-drug laws have contributed to lethal violence, forced displacement, human rights abuses and an increase in the transmission of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C, according to the team sponsored by Johns Hopkins. The researchers called on governments to embrace harm reduction strategies like syringe exchange and decriminalize all minor drug offenses, suggesting that doctors and public health experts, not cops and politicians, should be guiding our personal and political decisions about drugs. Every day, people use drugs of all kinds without seriously hurting themselves or others, while the police are busy locking people in cages and reinforcing stigma that drives users underground and away from social services.

Research continually shows that drugs become much less dangerous when users can access health care and knowledge about how drugs work. That’s why honest public drug education based around reality, not just abstinence, is so crucial to ending the drug war.

Dr. Carl Hart, a neurologist who has studied the effects of illicit drugs for years, argues that drugs often deemed too dangerous to be legal could actually improve the quality of some people’s lives if used correctly. Many artists and writers could safely use amphetamines, for example, to boost their creativity and focus, as long as they stay hydrated, remember to eat and get enough sleep afterward. If we replace stigma with science and common sense, drugs begin to look more like complex tools than vice when used properly.

The global war on drugs will end when all nations agree that drug users have human rights, including the right to get high if they want to, as humans have always done. What happens after that is still up for debate. Activists agree that decriminalization is necessary, but not all agree that legalization is advisable. Decriminalization removes criminal penalties for using and possessing drugs, while legalization allows for some form of drug market regulated and sanctioned by the government. Governments could choose to regulate drugs for quality control and divert tax revenues to health care and addiction treatment, but they could also set up corporate monopolies on production and distribution and use drugs as a source of profit and social control.

Luckily, there are people all around us who can inform our political decisions on drugs: drug users. People who use drugs are best positioned to explain their own needs and provide insight on the real-life impacts of drugs and drug policy, so we can all decide what’s best for our own bodies and communities. Drug users and doctors, not diplomats and drug warriors, should be leading the conversation. Until that happens, the war on drugs — and on the millions of human beings who use, produce and sell them — is certain to continue.

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