Pubdate: Mon, 23 Apr 2012
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2012 The Dallas Morning News, Inc.
Author: Kevin Sabet
Note: Kevin Sabet was a senior adviser for drug policy in the Obama 
administration and also served in the Bush and Clinton 
administrations. He is an assistant professor at the University of 
Florida College of Medicine


Strategies That Strike a Middle Ground Are Best, Say Kevin Sabet

"I personally, and my administration's position, is that [drug] 
legalization is not the answer."

Which U.S. president uttered these words about our nation's drug 
policy? Was it Woodrow Wilson, a progressive leader who urged the 
country to unite against drugs? Perhaps it was FDR, who signed the 
first federal law banning marijuana? Or maybe it was the guy who 
everyone thinks started the war on drugs (he didn't), Richard Nixon?

The answer is none of these. The position was actually articulated by 
President Barack Obama. To say he burst the bubble of the 
legalization camp is an understatement. But with that single 
sentence, expressed during the recent Summit of the Americas, the 
president cemented his own anti-legalization position once and for all.

But why?

There are many reasons. After all, given drug cartels' grip on 
multiple underground markets - in guns, humans, DVDs, etc. - it is 
difficult to believe that any form of legalization could end their 
bloody ways. We know from the nonpartisan Rand Corp. that the price 
of drugs would plummet under legalization, resulting in more users, 
more addiction and more crime committed under the influence of drugs. 
After all, our most prevalent drug, alcohol, is legal, and it causes 
many more crimes than other drugs and is used on a scale 10 times 
greater than illegal drugs.

But what about legalization's prettier sister, decriminalization? It 
turns out that such a policy may actually make us worse off. 
Decriminalization simply means that users are not punished, but 
trafficking remains illegal. It would not be unimaginable, then, to 
have a situation where we have more drug users and therefore more 
money going to the cartels, who remain unscathed under such a policy. 
Mexico has had such a policy of decriminalization for "personal use" 
amounts of all drugs on the books for the past two years. It has done 
nothing to curb violence, and today Mexico has more drug users than 
ever before. The cartels are getting richer while the Mexican people 
are getting sicker.

Just because legalization and decriminalization won't work, it does 
not mean that current policy cannot be improved. There is little 
doubt that the region is in crisis and in need of fresh ideas. 
Judicial reform, for one, is badly needed, and professional police 
training could go a long way toward stopping the violence. In a 
recent piece by Eric Olson of the Wilson Center and Vanda 
Felbab-Brown of Brookings, they argue persuasively for prioritizing 
focused law-enforcement strategies. To cut U.S. demand, Obama 
recently released a strategy outlining innovative ways to deal with 
addicts and dealers alike - testing and sanctions programs that 
provide certain but short stays in jail for drug-related crime or 
restorative community-justice techniques that offer economic 
opportunities to low-level dealers.

As Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said at the end of the 
summit, "One side can be all the consumers go to jail. On the other 
extreme is legalization. On the middle ground, we may have more 
practical policies." And he would know about those. Since Presidents 
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush implemented Plan Colombia, which 
focused on military and humanitarian aid, cocaine production there 
has been cut by 60 percent while the U.S. has seen a 40 percent 
decline in use. Isn't it time for a modified, hemisphere-wide version 
of such a policy?

Implementing these approaches, of course, is not easy. It requires 
resources, intergovernmental cooperation and good old-fashioned hard 
work. Unlike legalization or decriminalization, these policies don't 
fit on a bumper sticker and can't be adequately described in a 
30-second sound bite. But they represent elements of a comprehensive 
and balanced approach. And if we are truly interested in reducing the 
toll and heartache of drug abuse in the entire hemisphere, we are 
left with no other options.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom