More reasons to end the drug war

BY GUEST OPINION | JUNE 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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The war on drugs has failed. It’s time to legalize marijuana, decriminalize other drugs, and implement science-based policies instead of fear-mongering.

These are not the words of drug-reform advocates, but those of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a 19-member panel made up of high-profile international experts. The panel’s June 2 report declared the war on drugs a failure in no uncertain terms.

If the drug war was supposed to accomplish anything, it was to decrease the consumption of drugs and limit access to them. Quite the opposite has happened.

The commission found that for three categories of drugs — opiates, cocaine, and cannabis — consumption increased by 34.5 percent, 27 percent, and 8.5 percent, respectively, between 1998 and 2008. A 2010 survey conducted by Monitoring the Future noted an increase in marijuana consumption among high-school-age students. This directly contradicts the notion that making drugs illegal will make youth less likely to consume them. Despite one’s position on the criminalization of drug consumption, there is no denying that the drug war’s attempts to limit access and consumption have clearly failed.

One need not condone illegal drug use to see that the unintended consequences of the drug war far outweigh the failed attempts at reducing drug use.

To focus on some results of domestic U.S. policy: The war on drugs has led to paramilitary-style SWAT raids on private residences and medical cannabis dispensaries; mass incarceration with overwhelming racial disparities, despite the relatively similar rates of drug use among black and white demographics; the denial of federal financial aid to college students with drug convictions, despite violent offenders remaining eligible; and more money spent on interdiction in the United States than on K-12 education.

Then we have the deaths and addiction. Let’s get one thing clear: Incarceration is not a cure for addiction. SWAT raids and black-market violence results not only in the deaths of the bad guys but also the deaths of innocent bystanders and nonviolent consumers. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office, black-market cartel violence has claimed more than 34,000 lives. Our policies are not merely ruining the lives of nonviolent offenders and shaming families, they directly cause the deaths of countless innocent civilians.

There are better options, and we see them reflected in harm-reduction efforts and alternative-treatment programs. One such program the commission considered was syringe exchange. These have been successful in that “countries that implemented harm-reduction and public-health strategies early have experienced consistently low rates of HIV transmission among people who inject drugs.” Similarly, we have our own harm-reduction policy in place at the University of Iowa in the form of the newly implemented medical-amnesty policy. These are not “tough on drugs” policies; these are policies that save lives.

Everyone should read the commission’s report in full. For those unfamiliar with the far-reaching consequences of the global war on drugs, it is an eye-opening experience. The recommendations the report makes can help negate the harmful effects that come not only from dangerous drug consumption but also from the unintended consequences of the war on drugs. These are not issues that can wait; the war on drugs has failed, and we must change now.

Marni Steadham is a 2011 University of Iowa alumna and founder of Iowa Students for a Sensible Drug Policy.

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