President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions seem hell-bent on reviving one of the worst policy failures in U.S. history, the disastrous “war on drugs.”
As Americans increasingly embrace common-sense reforms — Vermont is in the process of becoming the ninth U.S. state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana — the administration wants to waste resources on policies that will worsen the opioid crisis and increase racial disparities.
Trump recently touted the need for tough drug policies, claiming that “very harsh” countries “have much less difficulty” with drugs. The opposite is true. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized possession of drugs, even heroin, so that essentially no one goes to jail for personal possession of small amounts of drugs. The result? Drug use went down, and drug-overdose deaths plunged by about 85 percent.
Portugal shows that when you treat drug abuse as a health problem, you can save lives.
Instead, Trump and Sessions want to double down on policies that have failed for decades. Sessions recently rescinded an Obama administration policy that gave states with legalized marijuana — either for medical reasons or for general adult use — considerable leeway to experiment without federal interference. That will allow federal prosecutors across the country to go after pot possession, distribution and cultivation even in states where it is legal.
It’s hard to imagine what there is to gain from this policy change. In Colorado, which pioneered full marijuana legalization, pot use by teens dropped sharply after the law took effect — perhaps in part because it lets law enforcement focus on preventing drug dealing to minors.
Any increase in marijuana prosecutions will take resources away from truly serious drug problems, like the opioid epidemic that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year. But it’s even worse than that.
Multiple studies have shown marijuana to have pain-relieving properties that may enable reduction in the use of narcotic painkillers. In a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers compared drug overdose deaths in states with and without legal access to medical marijuana.
“We found there was about a 25 percent lower rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths on average after implementation of a medical marijuana law,” lead author Dr. Marcus Bachhuber said when the report was published.
One more point: The drug war that began more than a century ago is rooted in overt racism, fueled by hysterical stories about “Negro cocaine fiends” and claims that “under marijuana, Mexicans [become] very violent.” Decades later, President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” as a pretext to target blacks and antiwar protesters, an aide later admitted.
In practice, anti-drug enforcement has been massively uneven. When the ACLU crunched the numbers a few years ago, it found that, though official surveys consistently find that blacks and whites use marijuana and other drugs at similar rates, blacks are nearly four times as likely to be arrested on marijuana charges. The difference in imprisonment is even worse, with African Americans being nearly six times as likely to be imprisoned for drug offenses.
The good news is that Sessions’ recent move on marijuana triggered bipartisan pushback. If the public keeps up pressure on the politicians, sensible policies may yet prevail.
Orson Aguilar is president of The Greenlining Institute, a national nonprofit group working for racial and economic justice.
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