Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Space for Discussing Decriminalization

Perhaps the most fascinating single trend in politics over the past month is the sudden space to have legitimate discussions about decriminalizing drugs. The utter failure of the war on drugs has been clear for 20 years. Drug use has not declined. Prison populations have skyrocketed. Drug gangs have grown. Drug farms infect our national forests and national parks. Etc. Lots of people have talked about this for a long time now.

But over the past month, the forums for decriminalization proponents have grown drastically. It's clearly for two reasons. First, the violence in Mexico spreading into the U.S. Second, the economic cost of the war on drugs and the potential to tax drugs. I wonder if this is a blip or whether we have reached a point of no return where support for ending the war on drugs will continue to grow and become more mainstream.

For instance, here's Jack Cafferty talking about the stupidity of the war on drugs. Meanwhile, Virginia Senator Jim Webb is exploring decriminalization through his fight to reform the prison system. While he won't use the word "decriminalization," Webb is open to any option suggested by his recommended bipartisan commission on how to end the expensive imprisonment of people for nonviolent offenses, the majority of whom are in on drug charges. As Webb says, "There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice." Not only is a moderate U.S. senator pushing this cause, but he even had a forum in last Sunday's Parade magazine of all places. What's more, some conservatives are also supporting Webb's commission.

The anti-drug warriors are clearly on the offensive, at least for the time being. Much of this is because their arguments are bankrupt. Examine the comments to Cafferty's piece. The anti-drug people say things like:

I disagree with making drugs legal. I don't want to see rapists running around with unlimited amounts of GHB, nor do i want to see babies that are addcted to cocaine at birth! While legalizing drugs would solve some problems, it would create many more.


Tell this to my brother who died of a heroin overdose.

OK, but how does making drugs legal change either of these scenarios? If the war on drugs had stopped anyone from taking drugs, then you'd have an argument. But it's made virtually no difference whatsoever on that front. I don't like cocaine-addicted babies or dead brothers anymore than you do, but that's already happening.

Ultimately, I think the fate of this debate will reflect where the culture war is at. Is the culture war over? Have the culture warriors lost for good? A real debate about legalization or decriminalization will test their ability to rile up their people for a new cause. I know they can lobby enough people to keep gay marriage illegal in California, but just barely. I really wonder if there's enough people in this country committed to the drug war to keep hard-core prohibition and prosecution of violators with long prison sentences the default policy in this country for much longer.