by Ros Davidson
The Sunday Herald (independent),
Glasgow, Scotland, Jan.7, 2001
World Press Review, April 2001
U.S. drug policy is facing a new battle, not in Mexico or
Colombia, but within its own borders. The American people, including
some prominent figures, are increasingly losing their stomach
for the country's hard-line drug policy. The federal government
spends $19 billion a year, three times as much as was spent a
dozen years ago. Signs that more Americans are questioning the
drug war are everywhere, from Hollywood to Capitol Hill. Reaction
to the actor Robert Downey Jr.'s most recent arrest for drugs,
despite his previous time in jail and in rehab programs, has drawn
as much sympathy as criticism.
The critically acclaimed film Traffic takes a scorching look
at U.S. drug policy-and declares it a failure. Even U.S. customs
and drug-enforcement agents previewing the film, set on the U.S.-Mexican
border, lauded it for showing their jobs as violent and difficult.
Twenty-seven states have now passed laws allowing sick people
to use marijuana for pain management, and public support for legalization
has doubled since 1990-one-third of the population now backs it.
While the world was riveted to the disputed presidential vote,
Californians voted by a 2-1 ratio to give many drug offenders
treatment instead of jail terms. The law, which backers say will
save $200 million a year, comes despite opposition from nearly
every top policeman and politician in the state. The measure was
backed by 7 percent more Californian voters than was Democratic
presidential candidate Al Gore and 18 percent more than George
New York's Republican Governor George E. Pataki on Wednesday
(Jan. 3) called for an easing of his state's punitive antidrug
laws, enacted in the 1970s and the model for - a generation of
laws nationwide. "However well-intentioned, key aspects of
those laws are out of step with both modern times and the complexities
of drug addiction," he said. New York's laws are so tough
that they have been attacked by former White House drug adviser
Barry McCaffrey, whose term saw the government voting to pour
another $1.3 billion into Colombia to combat cocaine traffickers.
A New Yorker caught selling four or more ounces of a controlled
substance can be sentenced to 15 years to life in prison, the
same penalty as for second-degree murder, while a third of the
state's prisoners have been convicted of drug-related crimes.
According to those favoring looser policies, corruption among
public officials grows as the street price of drugs increases
and the job of police and prosecutors becomes more difficult because
of violent traffickers.
"Americans are tired of wasting billions of dollars on
a drug war that is not working, especially when clear pragmatic
alternatives exist," said Ethan A. Nadelmann, director of
The Lindesmith Center, a program run by philanthropist George
Soros, who supports drug-law reform. Contributing to the mood
change is that as many as 40 percent of American adults are thought
to have used drugs at some point. Other well-known reform advocates
on the national stage include Walter Cronkite, the retired newscaster,
Milton Friedman, the Nobel economist and former presidential adviser,
and former Secretary of State George Shultz. Minnesota Governor
Jesse Ventura, the flamboyant former wrestler, favors legalization
of marijuana, as does New Mexico's maverick Governor Gary E. Johnson,
who convened a panel in May to review the state's drugs policy.
In Washington, Senator Arlen Specter [Pennsylvania], a former
prosecutor, was one of a number of prominent legislators who last
summer unsuccessfully opposed the vote to increase America's antidrug
military intervention in Colombia by $1.3 billion, a policy that
Bush has said he may embrace. Opposition, including from Britain
and other European countries, is largely that Colombia's human-rights
record is being ignored. Neighboring Latin American countries
have expressed fears that more antidrugs money in the region could
lead to political instability.
Several weeks ago, Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, called
on the U.S.A. to acknowledge that drug trafficking is financed
by the American public and is not just a Mexican export. The issue
is highly sensitive. Latin American commentators say the U.S.A.
demonizes their countries and can ignore their sovereignty in
the process of fighting drugs. It is on the U.S.-Mexican border
that the drug war seems to have a life of its own-and can seem
most futile. An estimated 70 percent of America's imported drugs
arrive via the border. Officials estimate that they find only
10-15 per- l cent of them. On Tuesday, agents on the Arizona border,
seized 92 pounds of heroin with a street value of $3.3 million.
It may sound like a lot, but it is a drop in the ocean that floods