What not to do in the war on drugs

Just after midnight on Jan. 1, a former U.S. Marine named Sean Azzariti made history by becoming the first person in the world to legally buy marijuana for recreational use. Azzariti, who served in Iraq and claims the weed helps relieve his post-traumatic stress disorder, made his purchase just as a new law allowing its licensing and sale in Colorado came into force.


That it’s now legal to purchase and sell the demon weed in two American states (a similar law in Washington took effect with the start of the new year) is a particularly striking development when you consider how hard the United States has tried to stamp out illegal drug use. In the late 1960s, then-president Richard Nixon — seizing an opportunity to make political hay from voters’ fear of violent crime, and the strange people who take mind-altering substances — declared a “war on drugs,” and it’s still going strong today.

Its consequences and effectiveness are reviewed in America’s Longest War, a documentary directed by Paul Feine and commissioned by the libertarian Reason Foundation. Its verdict is clear: the war on drugs has not only failed miserably in eliminating or even reducing drug use, it has ravaged civil liberties, ruined countless lives, and wasted billions of taxpayers’ dollars.

Nixon may have started the war, but except for a brief lull under Jimmy Carter, every American president since has poured more and more resources into it. Not just conservative Republicans, but even Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who both admitted to experimentation with marijuana in their college years and who were propelled into the Oval Office largely by the strength of younger voters.

Several of the interviewees in America’s Longest War (including law enforcement officials, a former judge, and even a former Drug Enforcement Agency administrator) express their exasperation with the Obama administration, which not only continued but ramped-up the Bush-era policy of raiding medical marijuana dispensaries even where it was allowed by state law. (To his credit, Obama has held off enforcing federal drug laws against purchasers of legal marijuana in Colorado and Washington — so far.)

Meanwhile, American police forces have become increasingly aggressive and militarized, largely in the name of drug enforcement. Post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism laws have also been a factor — but as America’s Longest War notes, the Bush administration tried to link the drug trade to international terrorism in public service announcements. (Old anti-drug PSAs, featuring upstanding citizens like Mike Tyson, are featured as something of a running gag in this documentary.)

The film opens with the disturbing story of another Marine veteran, Jose Guerena, who bled to death on his kitchen floor after being injured by a rampaging SWAT team carrying out a drug raid — a raid in which nothing incriminating was found.

As noted in Radley Balko’s indispensable book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces (reviewed in this space last year, and whose author is featured in America’s Longest War), in much of America it’s now customary for heavily armed police forces clad in body armour and using military-grade weaponry to execute search warrants where narcotics might be involved.

And no wonder: not only are police forces being showered with federal money to fight the drug war, but they often get to keep property seized in drug raids under civil-forfeiture laws. Hence, the existence of Hummer and Cadillac Escalade police vehicles, with “this was seized from a drug dealer” emblazoned on the windows.

And yet, after all of this, the war on drugs has been no more successful in stamping out drugs than Prohibition was in ridding America of alcohol. Use of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, not to mention the comparatively benign marijuana, has been steady for decades, even with all the resources thrown at the problem.

Actually, there is one drug for which usage rates have plummeted: tobacco. And, as America’s Longest War notes, this was caused by public education, but also punitive taxation and increasing restrictions on the use of a legal substance. In other words, everything that hasn’t been tried for other substances.

If there is a problem with Feine’s film, it’s that it’s too short. At only 48 fast-paced minutes, America’s Longest War doesn’t examine the question of whether marijuana should be treated differently from other, more harmful drugs, or the acts carried out by American drug warriors in other countries.

Just this month, the Mexican newspaper El Universal reported the Drug Enforcement Agency made a devil’s bargain with that country’s largest and most violent drug cartel, in exchange for information about other drug syndicates.

That 48 minutes isn’t enough time to say what’s wrong with the drug war tells you a lot. America’s Longest War is making the film-festival rounds at the moment, but it’s also available for purchase on DVD. With politicians in this country debating whether Canada’s drug laws should be strengthened or relaxed, maybe copies of this film should be sent to them so they’ll know what not to do.

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