A Hundred Years After the War on Drugs Began, Is It Finally Winding Down?

There have been a lot of encouraging signs for sane American drug policy since January.

One hundred years ago this March, the Harrison Narcotics Act came into force, heralding the onset of American drug prohibition. It promptly spread across the globe. 2015, however, may well be remembered as the year that the cure for criminalization broke the drug war fever.

If nothing else, there have been an awful lot of encouraging signs since January.

For starters, 2015 was marked by a hastening of the end of the national war on pot. Two new states—Oregon and Alaska—joined Colorado and Washington in implementing recreational marijuana legalization, as did Washington, DC, (albeit in a bizarre fashion that doesn't actually provide a reliable source of legal pot other than growing your own.)

Gallup polling in favor of complete national legalization also matched an all-time high of 58 percent, with support having roughly doubled since the 1990s, and more than a dozen states could vote on pot legalization either through ballot initiatives or legislatures in 2016. The only apparent setback was the failure of a legalization initiative in Ohio. But that was a special case, as it was clear that what voters didn't like in that case was creating another rich oligopoly by limiting sales to a small group of companies—they didn't oppose legalization, per se.

The top two contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have both expressed some openness to allowing states to legalize, with Sanders going further and suggesting that marijuana be removed from federal drug prohibition laws, as well. And even Republican candidates Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and Ted Cruz are in favor of letting the states decide—an unprecedented level of mainstream political support for what as recently as the 1990s seen as a fringe position.

While some Republican contenders like Marco Rubio remain firmly opposed to legalization, the lack of a clear frontrunner in the GOP race means that it is distinctly possible we have an election where both the Republican and Democratic candidates agree on allowing states to legalize pot. The Obama administration, moreover, just urged the Supreme Court to reject a case brought by neighboring states that seeks to end legalization in Colorado because it is supposedly flooding Nebraska and Oklahoma with dank.

The good news goes far beyond marijuana, however. Although Republican candidate Chris Christie still staunchly opposes legalization of any type, a speech he made urging that addiction be viewed as a disease rather than a criminal justice problem—one that sounded like it could have been written by legalizers—went viral in late October, garnering millions of page views.

Not long thereafter, "drug czar" Michael Botticelli appeared on 60 Minutes making the same case. "We can't arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people," he said. "We've learned addiction is a brain disease. This is not a moral failing." So now the White House office once devoted exclusively to promoting the drug war is at least saying a public health approach to all drugs is better, though the national drug control budget still suggests otherwise.

Even the cops began taking steps towards drug decriminalization in 2015. A formal initiative, started in 2011 in Seattle and known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), showed stunning results in an outcomes evaluation published this year. The idea of LEAD is to bring the concept of "harm reduction" into policing: Rather than trying to force drug users to quit by arresting and incarcerating them, the program aims to cut harm by attracting users into recovery, or at least less-harmful use instead.

In the study, LEAD participants—typically, homeless and often mentally ill people with addictions—were around 60 percent less likely to be re-arrested, compared to those who were simply booked as usual, in the six months after being evaluated. To spur recovery, LEAD offers services like housing, health care, and treatment. Unlike in drug courts, participation is voluntary and abstinence from drug use is not required.

LEAD has been so successful that it is already being replicated in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Albany, New York—and a White House conference was held in July to get the word out to representatives of at least 25 police departments, including New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

This is nothing like your parents' anti-drug policy.

And LEAD isn't even the only police-driven step towards drug decriminalization. Other departments and officials made moves in the same direction, like Leonard Campanello, the police chief of Gloucester, Massachusetts. After seeing repeated overdose deaths, he announced on his department's Facebook page that he would offer amnesty from possession charges and help get treatment to drug users who came to the station. The post went viral and the program he eventually developed has now been picked up by roughly 40 departments in about a dozen states.

Opioid harm-reduction also expanded dramatically this year. Last month, the FDA finally approved a nasal spray version of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, and it seems like every day, a new police force, fire department, school, or program for drug users and their loved ones announces a distribution and training program. Shortly thereafter, without fail, reports of lifesaving use of the drug have followed. Pharmacies like CVS began making naloxone available over the counter in 14 states, including California and New Jersey, and Rite Aid is now joining in to do the same in New York.

Perhaps more important, conservatives and liberals in Congress actually joined forces to craft legislation that would cut mandatory minimum drug sentences and pledged to seek additional ways of ending what everyone now—disparagingly!—labels "mass incarceration." Sadly, complete elimination of these harmful and ineffective sentences is not on the table, but since the proposed law would be retroactive, it would at least help bring many people who have been incarcerated for far too long home.

Of course, no consideration of drug policy in 2015 could be complete without highlighting the resilient Black Lives Matter movement, which arose following the police killing of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin in 2013 and Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014. This year, BLM confronted both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, taking her to task in particular for her role in supporting the harsh drug policies of her husband.

Racism has played a starring role in American drug policy right from the start. Indeed, the Harrison Act was passed with clear racist intent, with Southern states traditionally opposed to federal intervention embracing a ban on cocaine because it supposedly made black men both harder to kill and more likely to rape white women. Around the same time, California banned opium because it was said to allow Chinese men to seduce or rape white women.

Now, however, many media outlets are emphasizing that the latest drug epidemic—heroin and prescription opioids—is mainly a white problem ( actually, this has been true for decades). At the same time, support for criminalizing users is crumbling—and this is obviously no coincidence, even the New York Times noticed. While it's shameful that framing addiction as a white problem may be what it takes to end or dramatically scale down the drug war, at least it helps move the needle in the right direction. One hundred years of using drug laws to demonize and repress minorities while continuously increasing the harm related to addiction—rather than addressing it—is more than enough.

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