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Glimmers of Hope on the Drug Front

Neal Peirce / Jan 03 2013

For Release Sunday, January 6, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceIn the midst of fierce winter storms, dire budget crises and a tragedy as deep and disturbing as Newtown, it’s possible to discern at least one glimmer of positive news. It’s new openness to drug law reform.

No, the United States isn’t quite ready to abandon its concerted “war on drugs.” It’s “as vicious as ever,” notes Tony Newman of the Drug Policy Alliance. More than 750,000 people a year are arrested for marijuana possession. More than 500,000 are behind bars for some type of drug law violation. No other nation on Earth even begins to equal these figures. The cumulative negative impact on human lives is nothing less than breathtaking.

Still, change is brewing. A first, dramatic finding was a Gallup Poll, released late in 2011, showing 50 percent of Americans now favor legalized marijuana use – up from 36 percent just six years ago.

But the top drug news of 2012 was the Election Day decision of voters in Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana, not just for medicinal but for recreational sales and use.

The Obama administration could have spoiled the outcome by insisting on prosecuting marijuana sale and use in those states. Marijuana remains – preposterously – classified under the Federal Controlled Substances Act as a substance with high potential for abuse and no accepted medical application.

But President Obama, who’s been mostly silent on drug issues, has made a clear decision. Asked about the Colorado and Washington referendums, he told ABC News’ Barbara Walters: “We’ve got bigger fish to fry. It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined that it’s legal.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the administration – with a record of repeated crackdowns on the medical marijuana industry in California – might not still go after producers in Colorado and Washington.

But liberalization’s time seems finally to have arrived. The cause just received its first truly powerful congressional boost. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wrote in December to the White House drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, suggesting federal legislation might legalize up to an ounce of marijuana, at least in the states that permit it. Leahy also sought assurance that Colorado and Washington officials would not be prosecuted for implementing their new laws.

Leahy’s move, including his suggestion of Senate hearings, is “really significant,” a “shot fired across the bow” of standard “war on drugs” practice, suggests Drug Policy Alliance leader Ethan Nadelmann. Eighteen states have legalized medical marijuana use, Nadelmann notes, but before Leahy, not one of those states’ 36 senators had spoken up to defend their own states’ legalization laws.

Other key signs of new and open debate: endorsement of marijuana decriminalization both by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who has known presidential ambitions, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel (a former Obama White House chief of staff).

Plus, two powerful new films may generate rising popular support for drug reform action.

Noted producer Eugene Jarecki’s image-packed “The House I Live In” depicts America’s drug war as little less than “a holocaust in slow motion.” Wherever he went on a 25-state investigative journey, Jarecki wrote recently to The Nation magazine:

“Everyone involved – prisoners, cops, judges, jailers, wardens, medical experts, senators – all described to me a system out of control, a predatory monster that sustains itself on the mass incarceration of human beings. Their crimes, most often the nonviolent use or sale of drugs in petty quantities, have become such a warping fixation for our prison industrial complex that they are often punished more severely than violent crimes.” (See the trailer online.)

Jarecki’s film doesn’t get into specific drug use reform possibilities. But the other new film, “Breaking the Taboo,” does precisely that. Reviewing the horrors of the oppressive and often bloody drug wars in the United States and worldwide – from Colombia to Afghanistan to Mexico – the film raises the image of more peaceful solutions, legalization of marijuana and, for more serious drugs, individual counseling of addicts to help them reconstruct their lives rather than sentencing them to years or decades of incarceration.

Several ex-presidents of nations are featured in the film, lamenting drug war costs and suggesting humane alternatives – among them Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton of the United States, Fernando H. Cardoso of Brazil, and Ruth Dreifuss of Switzerland. There’s an appearance by Colombia President Manuel Santos, whose nation has been ravaged by drug wars (with heavy U.S. support). Santos recently became the first sitting national leader to join the chorus to “break the taboo,” insisting it’s time to replace the futile “wars” against drugs and drug cartels, even to consider forms of drug legalization.

To see “Breaking the Taboo” for free online, before its box office debut, click here.)

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp.,, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375,


  1. Posted January 3, 2013 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Our War on Drugs is a continuing self-inflicted wound. Its time to abandon this folly.

  2. Barbaara Griffith
    Posted January 3, 2013 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

    They should have done this years ago. Pot is nothing more than a herb that the Indians smoked. It looks like a plain old house plant, not to mention if all of the states passed a law like this it would cut off a lot of income from the drug cartels running into the millions and millions of dollars. That would put a kink in their business. No more escorting illegal aliens across the desert all carrying 100 lb packages of Pot to be sold in the US. Or the Border Patrol having to check each car coming across the check points from Mexico for Pot.

  3. Howard Wooldridge
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Thanks Neal for starting the new year with this topic. As a police officer and detective, i saw the horrific damage done by drug prohibition.
    One small point for vocabulary…you wrote” recreational sales and use.” That is perjorative…please use for ‘personal reasons’ Marijuana truly is God’s Medicine and many vets use it for their PTSD, not recreational use at all.

  4. Posted January 4, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    It’s hard to believe that the consequences of enforcing substance abuse controls result in complications that would justifiably be relieved by liberalizing….the controls.

    Other countries that cooperated with the US in controls will also find it hard to believe that part of their ally’s country will no longer cooperate according to new rules.

    Change is inevitable. But in the absence of leadership, convenience and political expedience rule, and confusion prevails.

  5. Mary DeWolf
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Will Obamacare be extended to cover lung cancer and worse effects for you in favor of hazy, lazy daze?
    Will it be deemed fair to cut my medicare in favor of dope fiends?
    “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” How much weaker can you get?

  6. Rone Kendall
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    My take on this is 4 things
    1) First war on pot by cigarette and alcohol industries
    For profit gains early 20th Centuty.
    2) Pot is god made not man made
    3) Now lobbiest from pharmaceuticals company’s
    And prisons conduct more campaign funding to continue the war on Pot.
    4) Seems to compete with pain killers that kill you
    As a result of continued to big to fail legal drug industry.

    As a united opinion why not work together
    Seems a win win strategy.
    Definitely would make it more difficult to
    Future Drug lords and traditional ways .

  7. Posted January 5, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing this interesting piece. I can’t believe that some penalties for drugs are tougher than some penalties for violent crimes. What about rape and domestic violence? Do they get tougher penalties than for drugs?

  8. Darren Reed
    Posted January 6, 2013 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    Legalizing drug use does not make the problem go away, or the situation “better”.

    All it does is open the door a bit further for “liberalization” of further drugs that can be argued for “medicinal” purposes – not to mention an influx into state coffers for taxable sales.

    Good luck to the US. Let’s see in a generation’s time as to whether this is a good call or not. If it works, well done. If drug usage escalates for more hard-core drugs (as marijuana is often cited as a “gateway” drug) then the liberals can pat themselves on the back for destroying younger generations.

    Once you let the genie out of the bottle, you cannot put it back. Similarly, just because the masses think something is a good idea, does not necessarily mean it actually is.

    Watching the US with interest.

    Yours faithfully
    Darren Reed

  9. Dave Mann
    Posted January 6, 2013 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    If 5 million people spend $20 per week which equates to 5 Billion dollars either to cartels or mainstream economy. That’s conservative.

  10. Pope Fiend
    Posted January 6, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Mary DeWolf wrote:
    > Will Obamacare be extended to cover lung
    > cancer and worse effects for you in favor of
    > hazy, lazy daze? Will it be deemed fair to cut
    > my medicare in favor of dope fiends?

    Mary, be quiet, and get back in the kitchen. (See, that was as silly as what you wrote.)

  11. Posted January 6, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    I live right off beaten path of the the Heroin Highway in New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley. Fortunately, Los Alamos is a cul de sac, so we don’t yet get much of the literal crossfire. My state has, according to the Rio Arriba County Sheriff, targeted assassinations going on courtesy of the Mexican drug cartels.

    So, someone tell me they have evidence the War on Drugs is working. What I see in New Mexico is the nation just south of my border in bloody civil war, illegal drugs available for anyone in the US who wants them, guns constantly shipped back to Mexico as payment, and no light at the end of the tunnel unless you count the oncoming train.

    Prohibition of alcohol had the same effect–violence and organized crime. What we need to do is the obvious–try a different strategy. Since drugs are not going away, we might instead try to regulate them, only proscribe those which are clearly the worst (defined by public health professionals, not politicians and moralists) and tax the legal variety to support the programs needed to educate people to not graduate to hard drugs, and rehabilitate those who have already gone there.

    All the propaganda in the world about supporting the war on drugs will not change the reality we have seen for the last forty years. As far as “gateway drugs” lets get real. Graduating from pot to hard stuff is no more inexorable than going from a casual beer drinker to becoming a hard core alcoholic. It really depends on the person, and legalization isn’t going to change that equation very much.

  12. Craig Anthony Thomas
    Posted January 8, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Good job, NP, for raising the topic of drug use and, more importantly, drug abuse as a cause by so-called political leaders.

    The moment of epiphany in the Breaking the Taboo film was the line:
    “If you can’t control drug use in a maximum security prison how could you control drug use in a free society?”

    Keep up the good work. And a belated happy birthday!


  13. Neal Peirce
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    From a father who lost a son to the drug wars:

    Mr., Peirce: Thanks for the article and taking the time to address this issue. Why do we accept this insanity?

    60,000 dead mexicans

    prisions and police resources wasted

    tax dollars wasted

    lifes and families ruined

    a war on sick people according to the AMA

    inflated drug price leads to crime to pay the inflated price

    banks launder money and walk

    enemies of the state profit

    on and on

    where is reason?

    look at other countries and learn ie Portugal

    use the wisdom of the judges, couenslors, doctors and the police

    who have been in this fight for over 50 years

    where is the treatment? prison over treatment?

    take the profit out of the market and the thugs will leave the market

    yes some adults will use and we can try to help as humanel as possible

    I think the present system benefits too many for change, bloated prisons and police, banks, cartels

    too much money involved for change

    Yes I lost a 19 year old son to this war last christmas

    he is dead

    we are the walking wounded

    God Bless
    Rob Hall