Editorial: The long slog: America has mostly been fighting the ‘war on drugs’ the wrong way

·2 min read

June 17 marked the 50th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s 1971 speech beginning the war on drugs. By any objective accounting, the drawn-out conflict has been a colossal failure. It was begun under false pretenses, has cost billions, has destroyed livelihoods and lives — and perhaps most glaringly, has not made a dent in drug abuse, which is unhealthy to individuals and society.

The nation’s awakenings on two substances, marijuana and prescription opioids, point the way to what can and should be a better approach: increasingly treating addiction and its consequences as public health problems rather than criminal ones.

The shift in cannabis policy has been swift, stark and valuable, as more than a dozen states have legalized it for adults. Yet the persistence of idiotic federal policy underlines how dangerously entrenched the drug war’s punishing approach remains. The Drug Enforcement Administration has, for nearly half a century, classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, lumping pot in with far more dangerous substances, as having high potential for abuse and no medical value, despite the fact medicinal marijuana is legal in 36 states. That, and parallel policies remaining in many states, turn many Black and brown Americans into criminals for doing what whites routinely do with impunity.

Meantime, in recent years, an exploding opioid crisis that hooked millions on prescription pharmaceuticals and drove hundreds of thousands into overdose deaths has led to widespread calls to begin getting addicted individuals into treatment rather than serving up cycles of punishment. It’s a long-overdue corrective, and one that should apply to more substances.

More, not all. Some substances are so addictive and dangerous they must be banned for sale, and those bans enforced by police and prosecutors. And many narcotics are so tightly linked to organized crime and deadly violence, they too demand a tougher approach.

Keep fighting that good fight, while profoundly recalibrating the larger war.

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