Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Republicans and Democrats Agree: End the War on Drugs

One of America’s greatest mistakes over the last century was the war on drugs, so it’s thrilling to see voters in red and blue states alike moving to unwind it.

The most important step is coming in Oregon, where voters easily passed a referendum that will decriminalize possession of even hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, while helping users get treatment for addiction. The idea is to address drug use as a public health crisis more than as a criminal justice issue.

In Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota, voters decisively passed measures liberalizing marijuana laws. Marijuana will now be legal for medical use in about 35 states and for recreational use in 15 states.

But not all the country is onboard. In Alabama, a disabled military veteran named Lee Carroll Brooker, about 80 years old, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole because he was caught in 2011 growing marijuana plants for personal medical use.

Because he had been convicted of previous felonies (robberies committed 20 years earlier), the mandatory sentence was life without the possibility of parole. So for marijuana possession, which is legal in much of the country, Brooker is slated to die in prison.

President Richard Nixon began the war on drugs almost half a century ago, after legitimate worries about the rise of addiction, especially among Vietnam veterans. Yet many years later a top aide, John Ehrlichman, explained (with some exaggeration) the policy’s roots: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”

One result of the war on drugs is that today there are as many Americans with arrest records as with college degrees. Yet we still lost the war. Addiction has soared in the United States, and more Americans die from overdoses each year than died in the Vietnam, Afghan and Iraq wars combined. A baby is born dependent on drugs every 15 minutes.

Drugs are also an example of a practical issue that this divided country may still progress on even if there is gridlock in Washington. Left and right both recognize the need for new thinking on the topic, and one of the best drug programs I’ve seen is in a red state: It’s the “Women in Recovery” initiative that helps women in Tulsa, Okla., overcome addictions, get jobs and become great moms.

Yet here’s one thing I worry about: As we celebrate these ballot efforts, there’s a risk that we downplay the threat drugs pose. As I’ve written, a quarter of the kids on my old school bus in Oregon are dead from drugs, alcohol or suicide — “deaths of despair” — so I strongly believe that decriminalizing drugs should not lead to any relaxation about their dangers.

Under the new Oregon measure, manufacturing or selling drugs will still be crimes, but possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine would be equivalent to a traffic ticket. The aim is to steer people into treatment so that they can get help with their addictions.

That focus on treatment, which Oregon will fund with marijuana taxes, is critical. Seattle has in effect decriminalized possession of hard drugs, by exercising prosecutorial discretion, but it never adequately funded social services for people wrestling with substance abuse. That has led to a backlash among voters irritated by open drug use.

“We did miss the boat here in Washington State when we licensed cannabis,” Dan Satterberg, the prosecutor in King County, which includes Seattle, told me. “We should have dedicated much more of the tax revenue to building a better public health response to our behavioral health crisis. The states that are just getting into the pot business should learn from our mistake.”

The new Oregon law is modeled after one in Portugal, which pioneered decriminalization and has emphasized treatment of those with addictions. As a result, Portugal now has, along with Greece, one of the lowest drug fatality rates in Western Europe. I visited Portugal a few years ago to report on its drug situation, and I found that while no narcotics policy works as well as we might hope, Portugal’s succeeds much better than others.

I hope other states will also experiment with addressing addiction through public health measures. A useful next step would be to provide safe injection sites, thus saving lives of many people who now die from overdoses.

“Criminalization of drugs in the United States has failed by every metric,” notes Alex Kral, an epidemiologist with the nonprofit RTI International. “Oregon’s new policy offers us a much needed opportunity to evaluate alternatives to criminalization of drugs.”

That’s a rare point that liberals and conservatives seem able to agree on, and it offers hope for ending America’s longest war.

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