Battle Fatigue

by Ros Davidson

The Sunday Herald (independent),
Glasgow, Scotland, Jan.7, 2001

World Press Review, April 2001


U.S. drug policy is facing a new battle, not in Mexico or Colombia, but within its own borders. The American people, including some prominent figures, are increasingly losing their stomach for the country's hard-line drug policy. The federal government spends $19 billion a year, three times as much as was spent a dozen years ago. Signs that more Americans are questioning the drug war are everywhere, from Hollywood to Capitol Hill. Reaction to the actor Robert Downey Jr.'s most recent arrest for drugs, despite his previous time in jail and in rehab programs, has drawn as much sympathy as criticism.

The critically acclaimed film Traffic takes a scorching look at U.S. drug policy-and declares it a failure. Even U.S. customs and drug-enforcement agents previewing the film, set on the U.S.-Mexican border, lauded it for showing their jobs as violent and difficult. Twenty-seven states have now passed laws allowing sick people to use marijuana for pain management, and public support for legalization has doubled since 1990-one-third of the population now backs it.

While the world was riveted to the disputed presidential vote, Californians voted by a 2-1 ratio to give many drug offenders treatment instead of jail terms. The law, which backers say will save $200 million a year, comes despite opposition from nearly every top policeman and politician in the state. The measure was backed by 7 percent more Californian voters than was Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore and 18 percent more than George W. Bush.

New York's Republican Governor George E. Pataki on Wednesday (Jan. 3) called for an easing of his state's punitive antidrug laws, enacted in the 1970s and the model for - a generation of laws nationwide. "However well-intentioned, key aspects of those laws are out of step with both modern times and the complexities of drug addiction," he said. New York's laws are so tough that they have been attacked by former White House drug adviser Barry McCaffrey, whose term saw the government voting to pour another $1.3 billion into Colombia to combat cocaine traffickers.

A New Yorker caught selling four or more ounces of a controlled substance can be sentenced to 15 years to life in prison, the same penalty as for second-degree murder, while a third of the state's prisoners have been convicted of drug-related crimes. According to those favoring looser policies, corruption among public officials grows as the street price of drugs increases and the job of police and prosecutors becomes more difficult because of violent traffickers.

"Americans are tired of wasting billions of dollars on a drug war that is not working, especially when clear pragmatic alternatives exist," said Ethan A. Nadelmann, director of The Lindesmith Center, a program run by philanthropist George Soros, who supports drug-law reform. Contributing to the mood change is that as many as 40 percent of American adults are thought to have used drugs at some point. Other well-known reform advocates on the national stage include Walter Cronkite, the retired newscaster, Milton Friedman, the Nobel economist and former presidential adviser, and former Secretary of State George Shultz. Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, the flamboyant former wrestler, favors legalization of marijuana, as does New Mexico's maverick Governor Gary E. Johnson, who convened a panel in May to review the state's drugs policy.

In Washington, Senator Arlen Specter [Pennsylvania], a former prosecutor, was one of a number of prominent legislators who last summer unsuccessfully opposed the vote to increase America's antidrug military intervention in Colombia by $1.3 billion, a policy that Bush has said he may embrace. Opposition, including from Britain and other European countries, is largely that Colombia's human-rights record is being ignored. Neighboring Latin American countries have expressed fears that more antidrugs money in the region could lead to political instability.

Several weeks ago, Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, called on the U.S.A. to acknowledge that drug trafficking is financed by the American public and is not just a Mexican export. The issue is highly sensitive. Latin American commentators say the U.S.A. demonizes their countries and can ignore their sovereignty in the process of fighting drugs. It is on the U.S.-Mexican border that the drug war seems to have a life of its own-and can seem most futile. An estimated 70 percent of America's imported drugs arrive via the border. Officials estimate that they find only 10-15 per- l cent of them. On Tuesday, agents on the Arizona border, seized 92 pounds of heroin with a street value of $3.3 million. It may sound like a lot, but it is a drop in the ocean that floods America.

Prison watch

Index of Website

Home Page