What's Next After the War on Drugs?

It's increasingly popular to argue that America went too far cracking down on drug crimes in the 80s and 90s, but a drug policy symposium in Denver last week suggests we still don't know where to go from here.

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Jul 21 2015, 7:03pm

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Between Bill Clinton denouncing the overreach of his own crime policies during the 1990s, and Barack Obama making some refreshingly unequivocal statements about mass incarceration during his historic visit to a federal penitentiary, last week was something of a pivotal moment for criminal justice reform. Yet as we reach the tipping point in the national conversation about the failure of the war on drugs, it's increasingly frustrating to hear experts rehashing the damages of failed policies—over and again—rather than proposing any solid alternatives.

This glaring problem was on display at Thursday night's symposium in Denver called "Legalization, the Next Phase in the War on Drugs?"

The event touted a diverse panel of government leaders like Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, experts like Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse Nora Volkow, progressive advocates like Drug Policy Alliance chief Ethan Nadelmann, and co-founder of the anti-pot group Smart Approaches to Marijuana Kevin Sabet. But the symposium mostly boiled down to these supposedly adversarial speakers all regurgitating the same politically safe talking points about how the war on drugs has failed without suggesting what's supposed to take its place.

Nadelmann spoke with an evangelical fervor about how the US prison system "makes Soviet gulags look like a walk in the park," and credited Colorado's pot legalization with forcing Obama into "a new global drug policy doctrine." Meanwhile, Sabet—who was previously a senior advisor on drug policy for the Obama administration—denounced weed legalization, claiming it could open the door to the marketing of marijuana products to children, making a strong comparison to the tobacco industry of the 20th century.

The panel of Hickenlooper, Volkow, and Lagos continued down the path of criticizing the war on drugs, with all three mostly in agreement that decriminalization (if not outright legalization) is the best answer to the widespread availability of illegal drugs. Lagos praised Uruguay's model, wherein the government controls the production and sale of marijuana, but stopped short of saying it should be applied in his own country of Chile. Volkow made perhaps the only substantive policy suggestion of the evening, advocating the treatment for children who exhibit impulse control failure early in life as a preventative tactic against future problems with addiction. But mostly, she focused on how harmful marijuana is to young, developing brains—something pretty much everyone on earth agrees with.

For anyone following the state's marijuana news, Hickenlooper's contribution to the symposium was nothing more than a greatest hits of his familiar one-liners: "We haven't seen the destruction we anticipated," "If I'd had a magic wand and could've erased [legalization] in 2012, I would've used it, but now I don't think I would," and, "We need to make sure we're not sending the wrong message to kids."

"This debate [over drug laws] has moved so quickly, it's a lot like the gay marriage debate," moderator and former media mogul Tina Brown said toward the end of the evening.

But if that were really the case, we'd be a lot further down the road than we are. If gay marriage were at the same stage as criminal drug policy, than we would be having public debates over whether homosexuality was a sin, a mental disorder, or a crime. Thankfully, we're long past that now. Over the years, we as a society admitted that we had sexuality all wrong, and now we're enacting policies to fix the damages of the past.

Advocates for LGBT rights have been fairly direct and consistent on how to fix the problem: Allow gays in the military (done), allow same sex couples to get married (done), prevent employers from discriminating on the basis of sexuality (not done, yet). When it comes to drug policy, all we've done is come together in agreement to say that the policies of locking up drug offenders—endorsed by Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton—were and are bad.

Which is a start. But we're still a long way from being able to come together as a nation about how to deal intelligently with drug addiction and proliferation.

Follow Josiah Hesse on Twitter.

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