Eric Sterling, who founded the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in part to atone for his role in helping Congress draft draconian federal drug laws in the 1980s, noted that the goal of those federal drug enforcers was "to raise the price of drugs and drive down the purity." The problem with that approach is that "higher prices mean that more people will enter the business." Meanwhile, marijuana today is far more potent than it was when Sterling worked for the House on drug policy.
The other downside of the system: When authorities arrest and jail low-level offenders, they are branding lowlifes with erasable criminal records.
I asked LEAP leaders if, instead of pushing for an end to the prohibition of all illegal drugs, it would make more sense to push for incremental changes -- say, legalizing marijuana, then waiting to see if the sky falls. Or doesn't. Sterling agreed that a more incremental approach seems reasonable and more likely politically: "In my own vision, it's harder to conceive of a regulatory system for cocaine and methamphetamine than it is for the others."
But if people think President-elect Barack Obama will try to end the war on drugs tout de suite , guess again. Sterling does not expect Obama to make "the political mistake Bill Clinton made with gays in the military" by pushing for change before the public demands change. Only when business groups, labor unions and others denounce the drug war as costly and feckless, and demand an end to laws that empower drug cartels, will Washington pols even consider withdrawing in the war on drugs. It is only when "those very powerful political actors speak up on this issue, then we'll see the change. And it's going to be bipartisan change."
Because there is no way to know for sure what will happen if Washington turns on the war on drugs, a go-slow approach makes sense. That said, I don't know many Americans who think that prohibition of alcohol worked -- except for organized crime.
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