Pubdate: Wed, 22 Jul 2009
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2009 The Baltimore Sun Company
Author: Dan Rodricks


Walter Cronkite, once the most trusted man in America and a leading 
figure in broadcast journalism's Mount Rushmore, believed the 
nation's war on drugs was unwinnable, and he said so on television. A 
decade after his years with CBS News, Mr. Cronkite succeeded in 
raising public awareness of the war's futility - an impressive accomplishment.

Of course, Mr. Cronkite is famous for having reached the same correct 
conclusion about the Vietnam War in 1968. All of his obituaries have 
recalled Mr. Cronkite's special report from Vietnam, his 
characterization of the war as stalemate and his call for a 
negotiated peace. President Lyndon B. Johnson was famously quoted as 
saying, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Later that 
year, Mr. Johnson decided not to seek re-election.

In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president, Mr. Cronkite narrated 
a series of investigative reports for the Discovery Channel. One of 
them, in 1995, was "The Drug Dilemma - War or Peace?" In it, Mr. 
Cronkite said: "Just about every American was shocked when Robert 
McNamara, one of the master architects of the Vietnam War, 
acknowledged that not only did he believe the war was 'wrong, 
terribly wrong,' but that he thought so at the very time he was 
helping to wage it. That's a mistake we must not make in this tenth 
year of America's all-out war on drugs."

One of the "Cronkite Reports" for Discovery focused on three women 
who had been incarcerated for drug possession. Ethan Nadelmann, 
founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, noted that, "the extraordinary 
lengths of the prison terms to which they had been sentenced, for 
relatively minor participation in the illicit sale of drugs, combined 
with the impact on their children and families, and the absurd amount 
of money being spent to punish rather than help and treat - all this 
shaped Cronkite's devastating indictment of the drug war.

" Walter Cronkite got it - and he got it early. He knew a failed war 
when he saw one."

It's interesting that Mr. Nadelmann uses the word "early" there. The 
war on drugs dates back to the Nixon administration. It received a 
big push during the Reagan years and got another under George H.W. 
Bush. We have been locking up men and women for drug offenses since 
the 1970s, and drug arrests are the main reason the United States has 
the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world.

Of course, most rational people - in public opinion surveys or coffee 
shop conversation - agree that heroin and cocaine addiction, at the 
root of so much crime and social dysfunction, should be treated 
medically, not criminally. We have come a long way in funding 
treatment, but our prisons remain full.

It's people in power (politicians, primarily) who do not have the 
nerve to challenge all this. Objective analysis and common sense 
should tell them the war on drugs is futile and that the demand side 
of the problem needs the most effort and resources. Yet, they 
maintain status quo. (Two years ago, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley 
called drug dealing a "violent crime" while refusing to support a 
modest reform in the sentencing of low-level, nonviolent dealers.)

There are signs that some in power are wising up. The nation's new 
drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, was in Baltimore this week to learn about 
the city's drug courts, which provide addicts with treatment instead 
of jail time. Mr. Kerlikowske said this will be incorporated into 
national drug policy.

There are those who support an end to the Prohibition-style policies 
of the last 30 years, but they tend to be out of office by the time 
they speak up: former cops and police commissioners, former 
officeholders and retired judges. The time of their greatest 
influence has passed.

That might have been the case with Walter Cronkite. He recognized 
that a lot of the people caught up in the drug life were not 
high-level drug dealers attached to violent gangs but men and women 
who had an addiction and who sometimes sold drugs to feed their 
habits. Mr. Cronkite ended up supporting Mr. Nadelmann's Drug Policy 
Alliance, helping raise funds to end the war on drugs. That's what 
earned him the Bill O'Reilly rant. In other words, the most trusted 
man in America was right again. 
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