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The Failed Drug War 

In the hopes that research will trump rhetoric, we’re giving this tired and un-winnable war the Boot.

It’s more than three decades since a blazer-bedecked stick figure of a first lady admonished Americans to “Just Say No.”

Believe it or not Americans have actually been heeding Nancy’s advice as of late. According to some of the recent figures, Americans are using fewer hard drugs than in recent years. Methamphetamine, the scourge of the past decade, and cocaine, the scourge of the ‘80s, have both seen a drop in use over the past several years. Cocaine use is down significantly from 5.8 million users in the mid-1980s (at least among those who acknowledged using the drug in the past month) to roughly 1. 5 million users this year, according to a recent New York Times story about changing drug trends and enforcement.

That’s a major sea change in Americans drug use, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at how state and federal law enforcement agencies are approaching the issue. In 2010, they spent, all told, more than $15 billion on the “drug war,” much of it on costly “interdiction” efforts designed to curb the flow of drugs into America. It’s a long-standing and demonstrably failed approach in which the U.S. government attempts to reduce the supply of available drugs rather than the demand. It’s all wrapped up in a heavy-handed and regressive approach to rehabilitation that’s heavy on incarceration and short on treatment.

There are plenty of problems with the country’s archaic approach, but the most glaring one, as highlighted by the Times report, is that the country is throwing money and resources at drugs that no longer pose the greatest threat. Today, it’s not the drugs that come out of a baggie on the street corner, but the ones that are passed over a pharmacy counter and shaken out of childproof bottle that are causing American addicts, and by extension society, the greatest pains.

Consider that of the U.S.’s 36,450 accidental overdose deaths in 2008, more than half of them, roughly 20,000, were attributed to prescription drugs.

But if you’re expecting the United States to undertake a major policy shift, don’t hold your breath. The United States has been chasing cocaine boogeymen from the Caribbean to Panama to Lima for three decades. It’s hard to send black helicopters out to your local pharmacy, though, to say nothing of Pfizer headquarters. And it’s easier to toss addicts into the hoosegow than it is to treat the disease.

So it’s no surprise that as the landscape of addiction has changed dramatically in this country the DEA, Congress and even the White House have remained blithely ignorant, throwing money at a failed approach that misinterprets the basic question before the country. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, it’s time for the country to take a hard look at the hard line approach to drug enforcement. The fact that the U.S. cannot even identify the chief combatant in the conflict is testament to the quagmire. In the hopes that research will trump rhetoric, we’re giving this tired and un-winnable war the Boot. Again. And we’re urging out leaders to adopt an approach that fits the 21st Century rather than continue fighting, like some marooned Japanese soldier on a Pacific island, a war that was lost decades ago.

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