A Drug War Truce?

Obama's new drug czar says the administration won't legalize pot — but pressure for real reform is growing

March 25, 2011 12:33 PM ET
A Drug War Truce?
Illustration by Victor Juhasz

Looking at the headlines, you might get the impression that America is approaching a cease-fire in the War on Drugs. After four decades of mindless prohibition and draconian prison sentences for addicts and casual users, the first four months of the Obama era have seen a rapid turn toward rationality. The administration has announced that it will no longer bust clinics that legally dispense medical marijuana, and incoming drug czar Gil Kerlikowske declared flatly in May that he had "ended the War on Drugs." Prominent politicians from Virginia to California — including Sen. Jim Webb and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — have begun to discuss the merits of legalizing and taxing marijuana. And most striking of all, New York — the state that pioneered the use of prison cells for drug addicts — has repealed its repressive Rockefeller drug laws, replacing the nation's harshest sentences with a progressive approach to treatment. "We put a stop to 35 years of bad policy," Gov. David Paterson tells Rolling Stone.

The Case for Obama

The pace of change has shocked even the most optimistic drug-reform advocates. "I could never have predicted the way things have opened up in the last four months," says Ethan Nadelmann, the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "We haven't had an open and honest conversation about drugs like this on a national level since the 1970s."

This article appeared in the June 25, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

But while states like California and New York are challenging the fundamentals of prohibition and punishment that have governed America's drug policy since the Nixon era, the Obama administration is largely staying the course. The president, who has blasted the drug war as an "utter failure," has nonetheless delegated oversight of drug policy to one of the chief architects of that failure: Vice President Joe Biden, who coined the term "drug czar" and steered the passage of the nation's harsh drug sentences as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Far from scaling back funding for drug interdiction and law enforcement, the administration's 2010 budget increases the levels established under George W. Bush. And despite the growing bipartisan discussion among state leaders about decriminalizing marijuana, Kerlikowske tells Rolling Stone that legalization is not up for debate "under any circumstances."

Just Say Now

"There's an urgent need to end this mistaken drug war," says Kevin Zeese, head of Common Sense for Drug Policy. "This is just an example of an administration that says one thing and does another."

Political pressure to end the War on Drugs is building in surprising quarters. In recent months, three distinct rationales have converged to convince a growing number of politicians — including many on the center-right — to seriously consider the benefits of legalizing marijuana.

MarijuanAmerica: Inside America's Last Growth Industry

For Webb, a Democrat from Virginia who served as secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, it's a crisis of incarceration. "Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1,200 percent since 1980," the senator says. "Yet the illegal-drug industry and the flow of drugs have remained undiminished." For Schwarzenegger, who says it is "time for a debate" about legalization, it's a crisis of cost: A bill in the California legislature to legalize and tax cannabis — the state's largest cash crop — would provide more than $1 billion annually to balance the state's busted budget. And for Terry Goddard, the attorney general of Arizona, it's a crisis of violence: With Baghdad levels of bloodshed raging in Tijuana and other border towns, legalization would deprive Mexican cartels of as much as 65 percent of their illegal income. "Much of the carnage in Mexico is financed because of profits from marijuana," Goddard told reporters in April. Last month, a Zogby poll that presented all three rationales found, for the first time ever, that a majority of Americans — 52 percent — say they support decriminalizing marijuana.

RS Politics Daily: Political and national news coverage from RS contributing editor Tim Dickinson

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