War on Drugs (Huh! Good God.) What is it Good for?

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The White House’s new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, recently announced that he’s abandoning the term “war on drugs,” telling reporters: “We’re not at war with people in this country.” The change in rhetoric seems to signal a move toward a more moderate, public-health approach on drugs, rather than the militarized stance the country currently takes. 

Kerlikowske may have the right idea, but a focus on policies inside the United States still neglects the far more globalized problem of the U.S. drug war abroad. According to Foreign Policy editor Moisés Naím, “the United States today is both the world’s largest importer of illicit drugs and the world’s largest exporter of bad drug policy.” 

The global economic crisis has created a situation where the drug trade is one of the few economic engines in countries like Mexico, Bolivia, and Afghanistan. “In many places,” Naím writes, “narcotraffickers are the major source of jobs, economic opportunity, and money for elections.”

If policy makers want to move toward a more effective drug policy, Naím writes that a focus on the social consequences of drugs would be a good place to start. But should the United States simply replace the “war on drugs” with an “conflict against mind-altering substances” or a “battle to combat banned medications,” the drug czar’s change in tone won’t have much of an effect.

“Rhetoric matters,” writes Reason’s Radley Balko, who is encouraged by Kerlikowske’s recent decision. “War implies a threat so existential, so dire to our way of life, that we citizens should be ready to sign over some of our basic rights, be expected to make significant sacrifices, and endure collateral damage in order to defeat it. Preventing people from getting high has never represented that sort of threat.”

Though a step in the right direction, Balko admits that rhetoric alone won’t solve the drug war’s underlying problems, at home or abroad. For one thing, Kerlikowske won’t be able to create policy reforms on his own. He’ll have to work with congress and other agencies for that. Jacob Sullum, also on the Reason blog, cautions readers: “We should not be fooled by medicalized language into believing that drug prohibition is less brutal or less of an assault on our rights.”

Sources: Foreign PolicyWall Street JournalReason

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