What Happened to the War on Drugs? Answers to Five Common Questions About U.S. Drug Policy
By Hugh C. McBride
Forty years after President Richard Nixon committed the United States to a War on Drugs, the leader of the nation's Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has signaled a cease-fire.
"We should stop using the metaphor about the war on drugs," U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said in a telephone interview that was reported in a June 8 Reuters article. "People look at it as a war on them, and frankly we're not at war with the people of this country."
Kerlikowske is hardly a "softy" when it comes to crime. He is an Army veteran, he has both bachelor's and master's degrees in criminal justice, and his law enforcement career has included stints as police commissioner in Buffalo, New York, and police chief in Seattle, Washington.
But at a time when even a prominent Republican (California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) has advocated looking into the benefits of legalizing marijuana, Kerlikowske's comment adds to the appearance that the United States may be at a turning point in its official attitude toward drugs.
With this potentially watershed moment at hand, the following are answers to five common questions relating to drug laws and their enforcement in the United States:
1. What is the War on Drugs?
Echoing President Lyndon Johnson's 1964 declaration of a War on Poverty, Pres. Nixon first used the term War on Drugs in 1969 to describe the numerous anti-drug efforts undertaken by the U.S. government. According to a March 25 Time magazine article, the term began to receive more widespread attention in 1973, when Pres. Nixon created the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
That same Time article reports that the U.S. government has spent more than $2.5 trillion dollars to wage the war on drugs over the previous four decades, with that money being spent on efforts including anti-drug advertisements; the enforcement of drug possession, manufacture, sale and smuggling laws; drug-related incarcerations; and myriad other prevention and enforcement activities.
2. If the War on Drugs is over, does this mean legalization is at hand?
No. In a March 26 public forum in which he took questions that had been submitted online, President Barack Obama shot down any thoughts that he might pursue the legalization of marijuana as a means of pulling the nation out of its current economic doldrums:
There was one question voted on that ranked fairly high and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation. And I don't know what this says about the online audience, but ... this was a popular question. We want to make sure it's answered. The answer is no, I don't think that's a good strategy to grow our economy.
When he spoke with Reuters for the June 8 article, ONDCP Director Kerlikowske reiterated that the U.S. government will not be pursuing the repeal of anti-drug legislation. "The discussion about legalization is not a part of the president's vocabulary under any circumstances and it's not a part of mine," said Kerlikowske.
3. Isn't marijuana already legal in the United States?
Yes and no. California is one of 13 states that allow medical marijuana to be used under certain conditions. According to information on the DEA website, the state leaves medical marijuana laws (and their enforcement) up to local jurisdictions.
"For example," the DEA site reports, "Marin County allows up to six mature plants, and/or a half-pound dried marijuana. Its neighbor, Sonoma County permits possession of three pounds of marijuana, and allows cultivation up to 99 plants, and physicians may recommend more for 'exceptional patients.'"
California requires patients to have a valid prescription before legally purchasing medical marijuana. Citing statistics provided by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the DEA reports that the following are the primary afflictions cited by legal medical marijuana users in California:
• Chronic Pain (40 percent of medical marijuana users)
• AIDS-Related (25 percent of medical marijuana users)
• Mood Disorders (15 percent of medical marijuana users)
• Other Reasons (23 percent of medical marijuana users)
On Feb. 27, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Obama administration was ending the Bush administration's policy of conducting federal raids on state-approved medical marijuana dispensaries. Thus, while respecting state laws regarding medical marijuana, the Obama administration will not call for federal legislation to legalize marijuana or other currently illicit drugs.
4. So if drugs are going to remain illegal, what's going to change?
Though its still early in Pres. Obama's term in office, his administration appears to be attempting to shift the nation's drug policy from primarily a law enforcement effort to an endeavor that increases opportunities for addicted individuals to get treatment for their disease.
In his campaign booklet, The Blueprint for Change: Barack Obama's Plan for America, the then-candidate established the following three goals:
- Expand Use of Drug Courts: Give first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior.
- Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Support: Provide job training and substance abuse and mental health counseling to ex-offenders, so that they are successfully re-integrated into society.
- Eliminate Sentencing Disparities: The disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated.
5. I have a drug problem. What do these changes mean to me?
Clearly, the Obama administration has signaled some fairly significant changes regarding federal drug policy. Some of these changes (such as stopping the DEA raids on state-approved medical marijuana dispensaries) will be felt immediately, while others (such as increasing the role of public health services in the fight against drug addiction) will take more time to take effect.
But if you or someone you love is struggling with an addiction to alcohol or any other drug, waiting for changes in government policy is not a good idea. Talk to your family physician or make an appointment to consult with a local alcohol or drug counselor today.
Finding the best drug treatment program depends upon a number of factors, such as your geographic location, the nature and severity of your addiction, your financial circumstances, and the presence of any co-occurring conditions. But regardless of your situation, know that you do have drug addiction treatment options, and the path to recovery may be as close as a phone call or mouse click away.