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Drug Policy Reform: Is the Timing Perfect, or Are We Ahead of the Times?

Are those of us who seek changes in the American approach to drugs whistling in the dark, or is now the time to strike?
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So far, Barack Obama has indicated little penchant for pushing a drug policy reform agenda. Although Dominic Holden sees great hope in his selection for Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske, formerly police chief of Seattle, he is largely an unknown and passive quantity who has neither espoused reform nor opposed it in that city. Are those of us who seek changes in the American approach to drugs whistling in the dark, or is now the time to strike?

Arguing for a radical new approach is the drug violence that is running wild in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, and spilling over the border into the United States. In Mexico itself, violent drug-related deaths numbered 5,000 in 2008. The pace of these murders has increased this year, with over 1,000 people having been reported killed so far through February.

As a result of this violence -- and the widespread corruption and intimidation of local police -- Mexican President Felipe Calderon has called out 40,000 federal troops to combat the drug trade. When the Mexicans speak of a War on Drugs, they mean it literally! Recently, a Mexican general was killed in Cancun -- which most Americans still think of as a vacation destination.

Worse still are the towns bordering the U.S., where constant drug violence rules. Ciudad Juarez (just across from El Paso in Texas) stands out as Mexico's most violent city. But the drug war has spread widely within the United States--including surprisingly far-flung locales. The AP reports that Mexican cartels are operating in over 230 U.S. cities. Five men were killed recently in Alabama over drugs: their throats were slit after they were tortured with electrical shocks!

Texas Governor Rick Perry has now asked for 1,000 American troops to guard the border with Mexico, with special attention to El Paso. I watched as former General -- and the Drug Czar under Bill Clinton -- Barry McCaffrey, who serves as a military consultant and news analyst, was questioned about this step. McCaffrey was dubious about the chances for success -- since, after all, the cartels are already present throughout the U.S.

McCaffrey suggested other military alternatives -- the man knows how to wage war! I fantasized asking him about the February 23rd Wall Street Journal editorial by three former Latin American Presidents (from Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico) -- which claimed that the drug war had definitively failed, and was decimating the continent. These respected men want to address drug (and drug policy) harms, and since marijuana is less harmful than heroin and cocaine (except for the warring dealers, that is), it should be decriminalized.

Shocking! McCaffrey would only grimace and sneer at this proposal -- he certainly never entertained any such suggestion during his regime, being matched in his intransigence by Bush Drug Czar John Walters. These men (I wonder when we will have our first woman as Drug Czar) are charged, after all, with combating drugs, not permitting their use. Such a discussion is completely outside the pale in the U.S.

If someone were to confront McCaffrey and Walters with the current rampant violence throughout the U.S. and Latin America -- "Well," they'd say, "it's not on my watch." Both men claimed great success for their tenures. Walters was just trumpeting marginal reductions in high school drug use as he left office. As for McCaffrey -- he's been out of office since 2001 -- his successor Walters bollixed this deal up! So, as usual, the Drug Czar has left town before the latest policy failures are fully realized.

In the midst of this mess facing the new Czar, a California state legislator from San Francisco, Democrat Tom Ammiano, has proposed legally selling and taxing marijuana for those over the age of 21. Other legislators immediately denounced the bill -- Republican Paul Cook, of Yucca Valley, declared, "I think substance abuse is just ruining our society." But you wonder if Ammiano's logic -- "why not tax something which is already being widely used?" - will be more appealing given California's financial woes. Simply taxing the $2 billion medical marijuana trade -- a fraction of overall use of the drug in the state -- would bring in an estimated $100 million.

I'm daydreaming. Any true reform requires U.S. government approval. Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder promised not to raid California medical marijuana clubs, like his predecessor did. But creating a new drug policy will take more leadership than this. Barack Obama's got two young daughters who he certainly doesn't want taking drugs, like he did before he got over his own identity crisis as a youth. Conservatives are already assailing his economic stimulus package, and he hasn't been willing to take on the risk of nodding his approval of gay marriage. So legalizing marijuana is a couple of steps too far down Obama road. I guess we'll have to wait for his Republican successor!

Aww, I'll just go back to my pipe dreams.