The War on Drugs is failing. Everyone knows that. Just yesterday, Rasmussen reported that only 4% of Americans believe that the drug war is being won by the government, almost within the margin-of-error of 3.1%. Even famously unapologetic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that the Justice Department would work to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession, remarking that, "widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable."
This is a long-overdue first step. The drug war that began under the Nixon administration has led to thousands of deaths, exacerbated poverty, overflowed prisons, and if anything expanded both American drug culture and the criminal networks involved in trafficking the substances.
Holder's speech is one of many recent actions made by top level officials acknowledging that the current government strategy is not working. On Monday, Newark Mayor and Senate candidate Cory Booker tweeted that he believed that "The war on drugs has been a tremendous failure driving poverty and disparity & not helping us achieve greater security or health." Additionally, last month's raid on medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington State, which had decriminalized marijuana position with the state of Colorado last year, drew outcries from many. It seems as though the spreading smoke can't be stopped from reaching the U.S. — it already jumped the pond when Uruguay joined Portugal in legalizing marijuana use and possession.
However, the most important indicator of the deteriorating support for the drug war can be seen on the streets. In my hometown of Philadelphia, activists are planning Smokedown Prohibition, a civil disobedience event in which hundreds of people turn out and smoke near Independence Hall, for the eighth time! A couple hours outside of Philly in Reading, Pennsylvania, there is a strong movement to legalize industrial hemp, which could reduce the cost of many everyday products including oil and textiles.
With this overwhelming support for decriminalization, and even legalization, it might seem that it's a clear-cut path. That's far from the case. In the Rasmussen poll, 44% responded that they supported marijuana legalization, while 42% remained opposed. With all of the rhetoric, many Americans are still wary of full legalization, which is reflected in the White House's position.
The executive branch has been harsh on drugs in recent times: the raid on dispensaries mentioned above, the use of NSA technology by the DEA, and the continued leadership of the U.S. pardon office under Ronald L. Rodgers, a 10-year veteran drug warrior who holds one of the strictest policies refusing to endorse petitions regarding drug use, are some examples.
Surely, reducing minimum sentences is an important first step, but the administration needs to realize where this will ultimately lead to and act appropriately. The consumption of a plant should carry no more penalties than the consumption of alcohol or any other food. Perhaps certain individuals are still stuck with the narrow view of people running naked in the streets smoking pot. Maybe they've inhaled once or twice themselves.