Over the past 41 years, the constant and geometric expansion of America's longest war—the war on drugs—has led us to incarcerate more of our citizens than any other nation on the planet. This should leave no doubt in the minds of thinking people that it is time to scale back or outright end this disastrous experiment in social control.
Since the time that President Richard Nixon first declared the war on drugs in June 1971, some startling events have occurred that would cause even the most battle-hardened general to take a cold look at the situation and calculate that it's better to live to fight another day. But in the war on drugs, we've been told, there is no room for retreat.
This rigid adherence to a failed strategy has wrought terrible unintended consequences. Almost 9 out of 10 high school seniors say that marijuana is "very easy" to obtain (much easier than alcohol and tobacco, which are regulated drugs). The street price of cocaine has dropped by 80 percent since 1982, the exact opposite effect from what was intended. Perhaps most disturbingly, in large part because of our government's simplistic propaganda indicating there are "good drugs" and "bad drugs," the leading cause of death in the United States is no longer car accidents—it's overdoses from prescription pharmaceutical drugs.
That last point gets at the social sickness we have around drugs and the drug war. Federal law says that marijuana is significantly more dangerous than the prescription painkillers that can kill you from taking too much. Yet at the same time, the Drug Enforcement Administration refuses to talk seriously about making medical marijuana available for seriously ill people. There is something very wrong here. The answer, of course, is not to ban pharmaceutical drugs. That clearly hasn't worked for other substances, such as alcohol and marijuana.
The war on drugs persists because good people are cowed into silence. If everyone spoke frankly about their feelings toward the drug war or their experiences with marijuana, this war would end promptly, because people would find out they're not alone.
In the privacy of election booths this fall, Colorado and Washington voters will get the chance to decide if their states should legalize marijuana for adult use. Whether they win or lose, the war is already on the way to winding down, precisely because we're talking honestly about it.
About Aaron Houston Executive Director of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy Foundation
Neill Franklin Retired Cop and Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
David G. Evans Special Adviser to the Drug Free America Foundation