Pubdate: Thu, 1 Oct 2009
Source: Register Citizen (CT)
Copyright: 2009 Register Citizen
Author: Sanho Tree is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a 
progressive multi-issue think tank, where he directs its Drug Policy project.


President Barack Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, should be
commended for initiating some basic reforms in U.S. drug policy. One
of his first sensible acts was to drop the phrase "War on Drugs."
"Regardless of how you try to explain to people that it's a 'war on
drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them," he
explained. "We're not at war with people in this country."

As the former chief of the Seattle Police, he lived under some of the
most progressive drug laws in the nation. When it comes to addressing
the basic premise of our failed drug policies, however, he's trapped
in a linguistic box.

When asked about the "L" word, his oft-repeated response is
"Legalization is not in my vocabulary nor is it in the president's
vocabulary." That word isn't in my political vocabulary either. It's a
clumsy term that polarizes the debate and bars the nuanced discussion
we need to have.

The debate over illegal drugs today is cleaved into a false dichotomy
of two polar extremes: prohibition versus legalization. That's partly
thanks to our laws. Title VII in the Office of National Drug Control
Policy Reauthorization Act of 1998 says the office shall "take such
actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize" drugs
currently deemed illicit. Drug czars who respond otherwise would be
fired, in all likelihood. This is because drug warriors have spent
years co-opting the term, making it so radioactive that many voters
think legalization means "anything goes" free-market anarchy. To them,
the term evokes images of selling heroin in candy machines to children.

What we need is regulation instead of prohibition, because we need to
have more control over these substances, not less. Because we have
witnessed the damage illicit drugs can cause, we have allowed
ourselves to fall prey to one of the drug warriors' great myths:
Keeping drugs illegal will protect us. But drug prohibition doesn't
mean we control drugs; it means we give up the right to control them
because we can't regulate an industry we drive underground. We have
made a deliberate choice not to regulate these drugs and are paying
the price for the chaos that followed. These are lessons we failed to
learn from our disastrous attempt at alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

The debate reminds me of the old story popularly attributed to Winston
Churchill. At a dinner party one night, a drunken Churchill asked an
aristocratic woman whether she would sleep with him for a million
pounds. "Maybe," the woman said coyly. "Would you sleep with me for
one pound?" Churchill then asked. "Of course not, what kind of woman
do you think I am?" the woman responded indignantly. "Madam, we've
already established what kind of woman you are," replied Churchill,
"now we're just negotiating the price."
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