Commentary: Time to start talking about legalizing drugs

The Miami HeraldApril 2, 2009 

Maybe we should legalize drugs.

I come neither eagerly nor easily to that maybe. Rather, I come by way of spiraling drug violence in Mexico that recently forced Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to acknowledge the role America's insatiable appetite for narcotics plays in the carnage. I come by way of watching Olympian Michael Phelps do the usual public relations song and dance after being outed smoking weed, and knowing the whole thing was a ritualized farce. Most of all, I come by way of personal antipathy: I don't like and have never used illegal drugs.

But yeah, I'm thinking maybe we should legalize them.

Or at the very least, begin the discussion.

I find myself in august – and unexpected – company. Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, George Schultz, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and the late conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. have all said much the same thing.

And then, there is Jack A. Cole, who spent 26 years with the New Jersey State Police, 12 of them as an undercover narcotics officer. In 2002, he founded LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which now claims 12,000 members – FBI, DEA, cops, prosecutors and judges united in the belief that the War On Drugs has failed and that the solution to the drug problem is legalization, regulation and taxation.

"So we want to end drug prohibition just like we ended alcohol prohibition in 1933," he says. "Because as law enforcers we understand that the day after we ended that terrible law, Al Capone and all his smuggling buddies were out of business. They were no longer killing each other, they were no longer killing us cops fighting that useless war, and they were no longer killing our children caught in the crossfire."

The War on Drugs came into being under President Richard Nixon, whose chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, once quoted the president as saying, "You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this all while not appearing to." Small wonder blacks account for 13 percent of the nation's regular drug users, but over 70 percent of all those jailed for drug use.

Then there's the collateral damage. "When somebody gets arrested," says Cole, "it's not only that person whose life is crippled. It drags down their whole family." This, because the conviction makes it nearly impossible to get a job, go to college, even rent an apartment.

And for what? This "War" has been an exercise in futility. In 1970, says Cole, about 2 percent of the population over the age of 12 had at some point or another used an illegal drug. As of 2003, he says, that number stood at 46, an increase of 2,300 percent – yet we've spent over a trillion dollars and imprisoned more people per capita than any country in the world in order to reduce drug use?

So yeah, maybe we should legalize them.

By the way, I use that weasel word "maybe" only to cover myself in the event somebody raises an objection I had not considered. But I doubt anyone will: Cole makes a compelling case. He has agreed to take a few of your e-mailed questions and comments, so we'll continue this discussion on my blog and, if warranted, in this space.

In the meantime, I leave you one last statistic. Cole says that in 1914, when the first federal drug law was enacted, the government estimated 1.3 percent of us were addicted to illegal drugs. In 1970, when the War on Drugs began, the government estimated 1.3 percent of us were addicted to illegal drugs. Thirty-nine million arrests later, he says, the government says 1.3 percent of us are addicted to illegal drugs.

"That," says Cole, "is the only statistic that's never changed at all."

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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