- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 5, 2000

Here's our quiz for today: Was it Al Gore or George W. Bush who said, “On my first day in office, I will pardon everyone who has been convicted of a nonviolent federal drug offense. I will empty the federal prisons of the marijuana smokers and make room for the truly violent criminals who are terrorizing our citizens”?

No, it wasn't Gore or Bush. It was another presidential candidate — Harry Browne of the Libertarian Party. Browne, who favors free markets, limited government, and deep tax cuts, has virtually nothing in common with Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, who thinks the only thing better than big government is giant government. But the two do converge on the drug issue.

Nader has come out in favor of legalizing marijuana and drastically changing policy on other drugs: “Addiction should never be treated as a crime. It has to be treated as a health problem. We do not send alcoholics to jail in this country. We do not send nicotine users to jail in this country. Over 500,000 people are in our jails who are nonviolent drug users.”

It takes outsiders like these to state the obvious. The American war on drugs has been going on for more than two decades, and not only is victory nowhere in sight, but no one really expects that it will ever be won. It has been called our domestic Vietnam — long, costly and unsuccessful. The difference is that in Vietnam, we eventually acknowledged the futility of our efforts.

The two major party nominees ought to be able to see through the myths of drug prohibition. Gore has acknowledged smoking cannabis in his younger days, and Bush has been careful not to deny ever using illicit substances.

But instead of drawing the logical conclusion from their experience — that drug offenders who are not arrested and incarcerated generally go on to lead responsible, productive lives — they insist on enforcing laws that, due to good luck, were never applied to them. All we can expect of a Bush or Gore administration is to identify what's failed in the past and do twice as much of it.

This is a tried and true approach. Since 1980, notes Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation in New York, federal spending on anti-drug efforts has risen from $1 billion to $18 billion, and state spending has followed the same upward trajectory. The number of people in state prisons for drug offenses has climbed more than tenfold. Nearly 60 percent of all inmates in federal prison are there on drug charges.

To a large extent, law enforcement in America is just busting crackheads and pot peddlers. Last year, the number of people arrested for marijuana offenses exceeded 700,000, the highest in American history — and 88 percent of the arrests were for simple possession, not trafficking.

We now arrest more people for marijuana offenses than for all violent crimes combined. We incarcerate more people for drug crimes than the countries of the European Union incarcerate for all crimes.

The people most likely to get caught in the dragnet are not people resembling the young George W. Bush and Al Gore. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws says that blacks and whites use pot at roughly the same rate. But blacks are more than twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites.

What have we gotten for all this, except lots of jobs for correctional officers? Not much. The White House itself admits that illegal drugs are cheaper now than they were in 1980. Amid the barrage of anti-drug messages, illicit drug use among high school students and young adults has risen, not fallen. Meanwhile, treatment programs of proven effectiveness go begging for money.

Despite the rigidity of their leaders, the American people seem open to a different approach. Measures to legalize the medical use of marijuana horrify White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, but they have been approved by voters in seven states and the District of Columbia.

Californians are about to vote on a ballot initiative that requires probation and treatment, not jail, for those convicted of drug possession — a change that would spare at least 25,000 people a year from going to prison and save California taxpayers $1.5 billion over the next five years. The measure is leading in the polls. Arizonans approved a similar measure in 1996. Alaskans may go even further: They'll vote Tuesday on whether to legalize marijuana outright.

On this issue, change will have to come from the bottom, because it's not coming from the top. The drug war has been a costly, destructive failure for 20 years. With a President Gore or Bush, you can make that 24.

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