Pubdate: Wed, 03 Jan 2001
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 2001 St. Petersburg Times
Contact:  490 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Author: Gary E. Johnson
Bookmark: (Johnson, Gary)


SANTA FE, N.M.  -- While many Americans followed the coverage of President 
Clinton's symbolic gesture granting clemency to two federal drug offenders 
last week, an important development in national drug policy received less 
attention: Mr.  Clinton became the first sitting president to question the 
impact of our nation's war on drugs.

In a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Mr.  Clinton said he supported 
decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana and an end to the disparity 
in sentencing for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine.  He also 
questioned the use of mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and 
called for serious reconsideration of the federal imprisonment policies 
that result in hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders winding 
up behind bars for years.

I hope that governors, members of Congress and other elected officials will 
take note of Mr.  Clinton's comments.  Americans want policies that save 
lives, keep drugs out of the hands of children and humanely treat those 
suffering from drug addiction.  The drug war accomplishes none of 
that.  Too many Americans have lost faith in our approach to the war on 
drugs, as shown on Election Day when voters in five states approved various 
ballot initiatives that moderate harsh drug policies, including some 
measures that allow drug treatment instead of prison for nonviolent 
offenders or approve the medical use of marijuana when it is recommended by 
a doctor.

As governor of New Mexico, I have called repeatedly for a serious 
reevaluation of our current drug strategies.  I'm neither soft on crime nor 
pro-drugs in any sense.  Yet when I ask whether our costly, protracted war 
on drugs has made the world safer for our children, I must answer no.

The federal anti-drug budget in 1980 was roughly $1 billion.  By 2000, that 
number had climbed to nearly $20 billion, with the states spending at least 
that much.  Yet according to the federal government's own research, drugs 
are cheaper, purer and more readily available than ever before.

As a nation we now have nearly half a million people behind bars on drug 
charges, more than the total prison population in all of Western 
Europe.  And the burden of this explosion in incarceration falls 
disproportionately on black and Latino communities.

When we consider the social and public health costs, the illogic of our 
distinction between legal and illegal drugs is staggering.  Nearly 70 
million Americans have smoked marijuana, which remains the third-most 
popular recreational drug in the country after tobacco and alcohol.

Deaths attributable to marijuana are very rare. In fact, deaths from all 
illegal drugs combined, including cocaine and heroin, are fewer than 20,000 
annually.  By contrast, more than 450,000 Americans die each year from 
tobacco or alcohol use ( not counting drunk-driving fatalities ).  Should 
we outlaw liquor and cigarettes? Ask anyone who remembers our nation's 
disastrous experiment with alcohol prohibition.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the drug war, in fact, is the crime 
and violence that drug prohibition generates.  Without achieving anything 
like the goal of a drug-free America, our policies have empowered a lethal 
black market, complete with international armies of latter-day Al 
Capones.  Their warfare against each other and against law enforcement will 
not be stopped until the public takes the regulation and control of their 
commodity away from them.

We might look to Holland as a model.  The Dutch, who decriminalized 
marijuana in 1976 and treat drug addiction medically rather than 
criminally, enjoy far lower rates of crime and drug use than we do.

It is not outlandish to suggest that an alternative approach might lead to 
less drug-related harm, less imprisonment and less crime in America as 
well.  Let me be very clear: We must never tolerate the violence resulting 
from the use of drugs.  But neither should we, nor do we have to, tolerate 
the needless casualties of drug prohibition.

Here in New Mexico, I am looking for new ways to deal with drug- related 
problems at the state level.  We are working to redirect our resources into 
drug education programs; into harm reduction programs like needle exchange 
for injection drug users, which has been proven by numerous government 
studies to reduce the spread of diseases like AIDS and hepatitis without 
increasing drug use; and into treatment programs like methadone 
maintenance, the treatment proven most effective for heroin addiction.

President Clinton's recent words on drug-policy reforms were a welcome 
first step.  His comments should be the start of a new national debate, and 
not simply the last word of a departing administration.
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