The Inhumane Drug War: Top 10 Reasons for Optimism

Republicans and Democrats. Young and old. Black and White. The majority in every poll, for every demographic supports medical marijuana for people who are sick and dying.
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The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars waging a 40-year "war on drugs" that is responsible for the imprisonment of 500,000 of our fellow Americans. Despite the enormous waste of money and lives, drugs are as easily available as ever. The warmongers say it is for the protection of the kids, yet high schoolers can easily obtain whatever they are looking for in this unregulated market. Fifty percent of high-school seniors will try marijuana before they graduate.

While I could easily write about my frustration and despair when thinking about how our elected officials wage this war on their fellow Americans and around the world, there is reason to be optimistic for change.

Here are my Top 10 reasons for optimism in the Fight Against the War on Drugs

* #1) The Public Supports Treatment instead of Jail for nonviolent drug offenders

The issue of addiction touches most families. Almost everyone has a family member that has struggled with cigarettes, alcohol, cocaine or prescription pills. Polls find that 70 percent of Americans support treatment instead of jail for nonviolent Americans. In 2000, Californians approved Proposition 36, a law that gives treatment instead of jail to nonviolent drug offenders. Thanks to Prop 36, tens of thousands of people are receiving treatment for their addiction instead of sitting in a jail cell.

* # 2) Millions Have Been Able to Overcome Addictions

Despite the nightmarish grip of addiction, millions of people have been able to quit. It has been said that quitting cigarettes is one of the most difficult drugs to give up. Think of all of all of the cigarette smokers you know who have been able to give up cigarettes. Interestingly, no cigarette smoker ever needed to spend years in jail to quit smoking. Different people have used different tools to beat addiction: 12 step programs, treatment centers, religion and their own strength of will and determination.

* #3) The Science is with Us

Rehabilitation instead of incarceration. Clean syringes reduce HIV transmission. Cannabis eases the suffering of seriously ill patients. The science is with us on all of these issues. While the Drug Czar's office tosses around billions of dollars to distort the truth, having to sell lies has proven to be a lot more difficult than previously thought. Although it is discouraging to see the science be trumped by propaganda and scare tactics, I take inspiration from the issue of global warming. For years, President Bush, the GOP and oil companies blatantly disregarded the scientists and research. But, the tide has turned and they are now on the wrong side of history.

* #4) Booker, Newsome, Rocky: Mayors Speaking Out Forcefully

What do San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson share in common? They are three mayors who are speaking out forcefully against the failed, racist drug war.

All three mayors have done multiple interviews where they talk about the insanity of the drug war and the need to move away from jails and towards hospitals. They talk about the futility of trying to incarcerate ourselves out of this problem.Voters are craving elected officials who are courageous and principled enough to speak out against a failing war, whether it is in Iraq or here at home. The three mayors will continue to rise and grow, especially if they give voice to alternatives to our failed wars.

* #5) Legalization reconsidered?

Once considered an unrealistic and unthinkable prospect, mainstream discussion of the "L-word" - yes folks, legalization) is starting to bubble. The idea was advanced in a recent cover story in the influential Foreign Policy magazine. The article, "Why It's Time to Say No to Prohibition," by Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, explains how global drug prohibition is an extraordinary failure that is responsible for stunning levels of violence, crime, corruption, disease and suffering throughout much of the world. More and more people, including global leaders, know it. But few dare speak out and say that this emperor has no clothes. Inspired by the article, the growing debate has reached the highest levels of government in Latin America, Europe and even Asia. This conversation and debate need to happen on more and more levels. We can not come up with solutions if our leaders are afraid to put all options on the table.

* #6) The Public Supports Medical Marijuana for People with HIV, Cancer and Others in Need

Republicans and Democrats. Young and old. Black and White. The majority in every poll, for every demographic supports medical marijuana for people who are sick and dying. A dozen states have passed laws to allow marijuana for medical purposes. The Drug Czar and misguided elected officials are in the minority when it comes to harassing and arresting HIV and cancer patients for using medicine that brings them relief.

* #7) The Democrats Control House and Head Committees

Americans frustration with the miserable war in Iraq helped sweep the Democrats into power in 2006. The Democratic takeover had put some of the more progressive Democrats into leadership of key committees. I have to admit I've experienced extreme disappointment with Congress' lack of progress in ending the war in Iraq or reforming the drug war here at home, but there is no question that Representatives Conyers, Pelosi, Kucinich are much more rational and humane on drug policy than their GOP predecessors.

* #8) Europe Continues to Lead the Way

Rick Steves, a well-known travel writer wrote an eye-opening op-ed in the Los Angles Times earlier this month that contrasted how Europe and the United States deal with drugs and addition. Needle exchange programs to reduce HIV, safe injection sites to reduce overdose deaths, the decrimilization of small amounts of marijuana, these are all standard practices in much of Europe. Steves said it best, pointing out:

" The Netherlands' policies are the most liberal, but across Europe no one is locked away for discreetly smoking a joint. The priority is on reducing abuse of such hard drugs as heroin and cocaine. The only reference to marijuana I found among the pages of the European Union's drug policy was a reference to counseling for "problem cannabis use."

Meanwhile, according to FBI statistics, in recent years about [800,000] of the roughly [1.8 million] annual drug arrests were for marijuana -- the majority [88 percent] for possession.

"In short, Europe is making sure that the cure isn't more costly than the problem. While the U.S. spends tax dollars on police, courts and prisons, Europe spends its taxes on doctors, counselors and clinics.

"European leaders understand that a society has a choice: tolerate alternative lifestyles or build more prisons. They've made their choice. We're still building more prisons."

* #9) The Public Is Tiring From Failed Wars

Both the war in Iraq and the drug war at home are unwinnable wars. Thousands of lives are being destroyed every year by both. We are wasting precious dollars that could be used to help people instead of harm people. More and more Americans are tired of the death and destruction and want exit strategies from both failed wars. I strongly believe elected officials who can articulate an alternative vision to the failed wars will be rewarded.

* #10) The Movement for Alternatives to the Drug War is Growing on Left, Right and Center

More and more people are joining the movement to end the failed war on drugs. There are passionate people from around the country from both the left and right of the political spectrum. This December over 1,000 people from around the world will be meeting in New Orleans at the International Drug Policy Conference. People in recovery, will join with students, who will join with the formerly incarcerated, who with join with law enforcement, who will join with elected officials to all share with each other, learn from each other, bond with each other and figure out how we can change the way our country deals with drugs.

I have been a part of the drug policy reform movement for 8 and ½ years. There are times that I am discouraged and feel like we are taking two steps forward, two steps backwards and sometimes two steps to the side. But in my heart, I truly believe that there are many reasons to be optimistic and hopeful. We have to learn how to coexist with drugs. They have been around for thousands of years and will be around for thousands more. We are smart and passionate people and we can figure out how to reduce the harms from drugs and from drug prohibition.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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