It has been nearly four decades since President Richard Nixon declared illegal drugs “public enemy number one in the United States” and launched the modern day drug war.1 Drug policy reformers—an articulate minority within the legal and health professions, law enforcement, government, science, academics and the arts—have argued for years that the war on drugs does more harm than good.2 More recently, explosive escalation of drug cartel violence in Mexico has generated wider recognition of the need for drug policy reform.3 The issue has not been prominent in public conversation on healthcare or the economy or foreign policy even though it lingers at the horizons of all three.
Economic crisis, if not drug war bloodshed, brings the topic of drug policy closer to center stage in American awareness: in a Presidential town hall meeting in late March of 2009, the question of whether legalization of marijuana might provide a valuable stimulus for economic growth ranked highly—in fact, highest by some reports—in frequency among questions submitted online.4 In California, the Governor has acknowledged that it is time to talk about taking a critical look at existing marijuana policies in light of experiences in other countries and especially in light of current economic realities.
1. Washington Post, June 6, 1971; cited in Gerber RA. Legalizing Marijuana: Drug Policy Reform and Prohibition Politics. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
2. For examples, see the following: Baum D. Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1996; Masters B (Editor). The New Prohibition: Voices of Dissent Challenge the Drug War. St. Louis: Accurate Press, 2004; Gray JP. Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001; Robinson MB, Scherlen RG. Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007; Earleywine M (Editor). Pot Politics: Marijuana and the Costs of Prohibition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007; Rowe TC. Federal Narcotics Laws and the War on Drugs: Money Down a Rat Hole. New York: Haworth Press, 2006. An Open Letter from Lawyers and Judges, posted by the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers at www.vcl.org and quoted by Gray, JP (2001: 3-4), includes the following statement: “As Congress and state legislatures enact more punitive and costly drug control measures, we conclude with alarm that the war on drugs now causes more harm than drug abuse itself.”
3. See Wallace-Wells B. How America lost the war on drugs. Rolling Stone, December 13, 2007; Lawson G. The War Next Door. Rolling Stone, November 13, 2008; Serrano RA, Quinones S. Mexico drug wars spill across the border. Los Angeles Times, November 16, 2008; Quinones S. 23 seconds of the Mexican drug war. Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2008; McKinley Jr JC. Two Sides of a Border: One Violent, One Peaceful. New York Times, January 23, 2009; Quinones S. Phoenix, kidnap-for-ransom capitol. Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2009; Lawson G. The Making of a Narco State. Rolling Stone, March 4, 2009; Editors, How to Stop the Drug Wars, The Economist, March 4, 2009; Quinones S. Senators take their concerns to the border. Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2009; Quinones S. State of War. Foreign Policy, March/April, 2009.
4. Stolberg SG. Obama’s twist on town hall; top Internet query was about marijuana. New York Times, March 27, 2009.