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In the Race for Sensible Drug Policy, U.S. Snoozes on the Sidelines

Rebecca McCray,
Former Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
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August 10, 2012

Olympics season is upon us, and there’s no shortage of news in which the United States is heralded as the global frontrunner. Beyond athletics, America tends to pride itself on being innovative and forward-thinking on many issues of law and policy, professing to set an example for the rest of the world. But when it comes to our stagnant approach to drug policy, other countries have surpassed us repeatedly by leaps and bounds. From Portugal to Switzerland to Guatemala, it’s as if the rest of the world aced a public health class that the United States skipped because it was too busy fighting a failed, costly “war on drugs.”

This time, it’s Uruguay outpacing us, setting a bold example by unveiling plans to introduce legislation that would create a legal, state-run marijuana industry in hopes of quelling drug cartel violence, forcing illegal dealers to close up shop and generating revenue that can be put toward drug rehabilitation programs.

While Uruguayan President Jose Mujica’s proposal might seem like a gamble, he has described the global drug war as “unwinnable” under current policies, requiring a radically different approach. President Mujica hopes that by legalizing marijuana, the government will ultimately diminish the violence that stems from prohibition. As we reach a global consensus that the War on Drugs has failed to reduce drug use or the violence and corruption associated with the illegal drug market – in fact, it has exacerbated them – it makes sense that leaders like Mujica are pioneering ambitious alternative approaches to tackle the devastation that riddles so many of the world’s communities. Armed with decades of knowledge that the old tactics of expansive criminalization and aggressive enforcement just don’t work, many countries understand that the time for innovation is now. Yet as 23 million people in America continue to struggle with drug addiction, our own government continues to cling desperately to the same old strategies.

Although the U.S. government has begun to shift its rhetoric around drug policy to a more public health-centered approach, we need much more than a new set of good talking points to truly address the failure of the War on Drugs. We need to change our inept policies. For instance, while our government spends approximately $8 billion a year enforcing our marijuana policies, Americans show no interest in curbing their enthusiastic consumption of the drug. If we took a cue from our international neighbors and moved toward a less punitive, more progressive drug policy, that $8 billion could be put to better use – like treating people with drug addictions. It’s time for the U.S. to pick up the pace.

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