To Win the Drug War: Follow the States

The war on drugs has had a devastating impact in the U.S. Yet, as Republicans and Democrats gather at their national conventions, neither party has taken a strong stand on the critical need to support drug policy reform.

And that's surprising. Drug reform is not a partisan issue. For Republicans, reform efforts both ensure and secure states' rights and at the same time minimize waste of limited federal dollars. For Democrats, minorities who make up a large portion of their constituency disproportionately bear the greatest burden of current drug policies.

In fact, we have reached a watershed moment for drug reform in the U.S. as attitudes and opinions across the country have dramatically shifted. A Gallup Poll this past year found that fully 50 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana.

As a business leader, I have learned the importance of delegating responsibilities and letting entrepreneurs get on with it. In U.S. drug reform, those entrepreneurs are the states. Buoyed by polls like the one I mentioned, states like Colorado, Oregon and Washington have been driving legalization initiatives to regulate marijuana similar to alcohol. They have received majority support and slight opposition (about 38 percent). At least seventeen states as well as the District of Columbia already allow provisions for medical marijuana. California, of course, has continued to embark on new frontiers, and politicians would be wise to ensure that legitimate medical marijuana dispensaries are not undermined by federal statutes.

With states as our innovators we know what we need to do on drug reform. Which is good, because the cost of the alternatives has gotten completely out of hand. The U.S. currently spends no less than $51 billion -- per year -- on the war on drugs. That's double what Apple profited last year. It's a horribly depressing number when you think how far even a fraction of that money would have gone if invested in prevention and rehabilitation efforts. With so much rhetoric on the economy in this election year, it is startling that no one has looked to drug reform to unlock resources.

A large portion of the money spent on the war on drugs goes toward criminalization. I recently had the privilege of spending time with Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative. I was shocked when he pointed out that back in the 1970s there were only 300,000 people in prison in the U.S.! Forty years later, the number of people incarcerated -- 2.3 million -- is greater than the population of Houston, Texas. He attributes much of the increase to American drug policy, with minorities taking the hardest hit. Stevenson shared that 1 in 3 black men in the U.S. will be incarcerated between the ages of 18 and 30. (Michelle Alexander has written a book, The New Jim Crow, which illustrates how the war on drugs has in fact created this system of mass incarceration.)

A focus on criminalization also undercuts future economic development. A recent Pew study revealed that incarceration reduces former inmates' earnings by 40 percent -- further devastating their families and their communities.

This type of blanket incarceration dismisses root causes, disenfranchises millions and most likely results in repeat offenses rather than cleaning up the problem. We need new approaches that treat drug use as a health issue and not a criminal one.

In fact, several countries have already led the way. Portugal, Switzerland and Germany, for example, have been taking a public health approach to their drug response. I became a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy to help unlock barriers to drug reform and create access to fact-based research so we can all learn from these innovative models. But that's not enough. Especially in an election year, we must encourage political leaders to learn about these new approaches -- ones that will decrease the emotional, legal and financial burdens created by outdated policies.

With a clear majority behind legalization, it is mind-boggling to think that Americans will continue to support the current approach. And this change will be welcome across the continent. Just next door in Mexico, we are witnessing a devastating human rights catastrophe. According to Isaac Campos, the author of Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs, in the past 5 years alone, due to cartel-related violence, about 55,000 lives have been lost. At least 5,000 and perhaps twice that many have simply disappeared and a staggering 1.6 million have been displaced.

Marijuana is the lynchpin drug. Half of all U.S. drug arrests are for marijuana. More than 850,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana in 2010 -- 88 percent of these for possession alone. In Mexico, marijuana distribution drives a significant portion of drug trafficking income. Legalization of marijuana -- the most politically feasible way of rolling back current drug policies -- is not a silver bullet that will remove cartels from power. However, if we can get U.S. political leaders to understand the opportunity and take action, we have a very real chance to turn the tide on the war on drugs and end needless suffering.

In the run up to the election, we need to encourage both parties to take a stand in favor of reform. As my friends at the Drug Policy Alliance tell me, strong majorities of both Democrats and Republicans already believe that the federal government should not interfere with state medical marijuana laws. 74 percent of Americans also support alternatives to incarceration for marijuana possession.

Legalization is a win-win for both parties. The door is open. If we do not come together to support reform efforts in the U.S. now, we risk backtracking and missing the opportunity.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at America's failed war on drugs August 28th and September 4th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.