Sunday, November 15, 2009


Sep 24th 2009

Reform advocates want an honest and open debate on drug policy

IN JANUARY the city council in El Paso, Texas, decided to pass a
resolution expressing support for its neighbour on the Mexican side of
the border. In recent years Ciudad Juarez has become one of the
bloodiest cities in the world, wracked by turf wars between Mexico's
vicious drug cartels. Beto O'Rourke, a young city representative,
thought the resolution could say a bit more about America's role in the
violence. He added an amendment: the city of El Paso was calling for an
"honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics."

The city council approved, on an 8-0 vote. That was unusual, says Mr
O'Rourke, because normally they bicker over where to put a speed bump.
But the resolution hit a speed bump of its own. The mayor vetoed it,
saying that El Paso would be a laughing-stock. Silvestre Reyes, the
city's powerful representative in Congress, warned that if the council
tried to override the veto it might be hard for the city to get its
fair share of federal funding.

The mayor's veto was sustained. But if the goal was to stimulate
debate, the effort has not been wasted. This week the University of
Texas at El Paso held a conference on the costs and consequences of
America's drug policy. Speakers pointed to the carnage in Mexico and
the corruption and graft funded by a huge black market. They mentioned
the hundreds of thousands of Americans in jail on minor drug offences,
and the millions of children with at least one parent somehow yoked to
the criminal-justice system. They spoke of the cost of enforcement, and
the courts gummed up with trivial possession cases.

"To just deny that and say it's all working--it's morally wrong, it's
politically wrong, and some day it's going to come back to haunt us,"
said Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at the university. On the first
day of the conference there were eight murders across the bridge in
Juarez, including one beheading.

Around the country, various noises are suggesting that Americans are
tiring of their 40-year war on drugs. In particular, people are
becoming more critical of marijuana prohibition. A Zogby poll found in
May that a narrow majority of Americans agreed it would be sensible to
legalise marijuana so that it can be taxed and regulated. That is not a
surprising result. The drug is widely available and mostly benign. Yet
it is a highly profitable crop for the cartels, and in 2008 there were
more than 750,000 arrests for simple possession.

Continuing the discussion will require political will, which is in
short supply. Advocates of reform were heartened by Barack Obama's
choice for the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Gil
Kerlikowske was formerly the police chief in Seattle, where marijuana
is officially low on the list of priorities, and he announced that he
would stop talking about a "war" on drugs. But soon after that he
announced that "legalisation" was neither in his vocabulary nor that of
the president.

A handful of national figures have called for a debate on legalisation,
including Arnold Schwarzenegger in California and Terry Goddard, the
attorney-general of Arizona. Reform advocates pin their hopes on Jim
Webb, a Democratic senator from Virginia, who has called for a
commission on prison reform. But compared to debating the legalisation
of drugs, that was a doddle.

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