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December 2004
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The Folly of our Drug Policies

I don’t know if it’s just because I’m paying additional attention since I started writing this blog, but it sure seems to me that the past couple of years has seen a marked increase in mainstream newspapers and columnists recognizing the folly.
Today, it’s Steve Chapman’s column in the Chicago Tribune (many of his columns end up getting picked up elsewhere, so this could run around the country). It’s a strong indictment of our policies, though a bit depressing.

Thanks to these brutal penalties, New York prisons house 19,000 people convicted on drug charges, or one of every three inmates. The vast majority of them are small-time offenders with no history of violence.

The belated recognition of these failures exemplifies the history of the drug war. It has been a perennial failure, but to a large extent, we persist at it. Citizens in many states adopt humane and comparatively libertarian policies on drugs while voting for presidents (Democratic and Republican alike) who regard even pot as a ghastly menace that must be fiercely resisted.

Chapman goes from the Rockefeller drug laws to discussing the current situation with the federal government and medical marijuana.

In this realm, ideology has a way of overriding mere facts. We have learned, for example, that marijuana is a comparatively benign drug that has few risks and some apparent benefits. In 1999, a National Academy of Sciences panel said pot has “potential therapeutic value” for “pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation.” The New England Journal of Medicine has endorsed medical marijuana.

Ten states have also approved the idea. Yet the Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, has spurned the idea. Not only has it actively fought state initiatives to let sick people get relief from cannabis, it has obstructed research to help patients.

He then talks about the DEA’s efforts to prevent research, including the rejection of the University of Massachussets’ proposal to conduct clinical trials, and he talks about the bizarre logic used by the DEA in denying the application. He concludes:

The DEA would prefer that we not get information that might cause us to change our minds.

In time, the steady accumulation of evidence about the value of medical marijuana may overcome such opposition–just as the experience under the Rockefeller drug laws forced a retreat. Someday, the folly of the entire drug war may bring it to an end.

But don’t hold your breath.

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