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Is the War on Drugs a Failure?

Posted by Josh Rothman  June 6, 2011 09:06 AM

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That's the conclusion of The Global Commission on Drug Policy, which just published a new report about the war on drugs:

The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.... Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers.

The commissioners say that we need to "break the taboo on debate and reform" when it comes to drugs, placing a far larger emphasis on treatment, and experimenting with decriminalization. Countries need to "end the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others," and "encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime."

It's an extraordinary report, created by an extraordinary group of commissioners: the list includes Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker, George Schultz, Ernesto Zedillo, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and Richard Branson. It provides a largely international perspective. The war looks just as bad, however, from the domestic point-of-view: just listen to David Simon, the creator of The Wire:

would decriminalize drugs in a heartbeat. I would put all the interdiction money, all the incarceration money, all the enforcement money, all of the pretrial, all the prep, all of that cash, I would hurl it as fast as I could into drug treatment and job training and jobs programs. I would rather turn these neighborhoods inward with jobs programs.... You talk honestly with some of the veteran and smarter detectives in Baltimore, the guys who have given their career to the drug war, including, for example, Ed Burns, who was a drug warrior for twenty years, and they’ll tell you, this war’s lost. This is all over but the shouting and the tragedy and the waste. And yet there isn’t a political leader with the stomach to really assess it for what it is.

Part of what makes the war on drugs so problematic, Simon argues, is that the "war" metaphor forecloses thinking. No one wants to lose a war. In fact, though, the drug problem is unique, even bizarre, and can't be thought about in terms of other sorts of problems: it's not a war, but a Franken-problem that's partly economic, partly epidemiological, partly social. If we dealt with the drug problem without the fog of war, we might be more adventurous in coming up with solutions.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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