Updated: May 21, 2012 8:34AM
‘Legalization is not the answer,” President Barack Obama told Latin-American leaders complaining that U.S. demand for drugs is fueling the appalling violence and rampant corruption from the narcotics production and trafficking in their countries. Well, as has become painfully obvious, the war on drugs isn’t the answer either.
That futile campaign waged predominately in Central and South America and in poor neighborhoods in U.S. cities is a failure — and that’s putting it mildly. If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the never-ending, never-succeeding megaflops that the war on drugs is, we would be heading for the exits at breakneck speed or ordering up a troop surge and committing the nation to do whatever it takes to win.
Escalation of the war on drugs hasn’t worked. When did you ever read about drug pushers going straight because they had no marijuana, cocaine or heroin to sell? Or that drug rehab clinics were inundated by addicts who could no longer afford their habits because the feds had so squeezed the supply line that a coke snort cost as much as a bottle of Echezeaux Grand Cru 1990, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti ($1,000)?
And no one is advocating escalating the war on the demand side by jailing more users. Our prisoners are bursting at the seams with non-violent drug offenders.
So, what to do?
“I think,” Obama told the Summit of the Americas last week, “it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are ones that are doing more harm than good in certain places.” But he offered no ideas beyond that vague remark.
Republicans have been no better. When former Rep. Dennis Hastert visited the Sun-Times editorial board a few years ago (before he became House speaker), I brought up the issue. He said no moral society legalizes drugs.
Yet how can a moral society stand by and watch the tens of thousands of killings by drug cartels terrorizing Mexico in service of a trade that goes into the lungs, up the noses and into the veins of millions of Americans? And while the gang violence plaguing our inner cities is a complex issue that goes beyond the drug trade, there’s no denying that pushing dope enriches gangs and contributes to the senseless killings.
With war failing, why not give peace a chance? By peace, I mean venturing into legalization. Marijuana doesn’t strike me as significantly more hazardous, if at all, than the beer, wine, Scotch and vodka that are my recreational drugs of choice. Legalize, regulate and tax its production and use.
I understand that legalizing marijuana would not end the illegal trade in more serious substances such as heroin or cocaine.
But it would deprive the cartels of serious money. It would save lives. Yes, there would be a moral tradeoff in that decriminalizing marijuana would bring more pot smoking and addiction, but that’s a tradeoff we accepted on alcohol by repealing Prohibition to end mob bootlegging and violence and to liberate millions of Americans from the ranks of aiding and abetting crime. How is respect for the law enhanced with laws that millions thumb their noses at?
If legalization fails, we can always go back to prohibition. Alas, I’m under no illusion that our society will take a common sense approach of trying this anytime soon. We’ll stick to the illusion that we can win the war on drugs.