Commentary: If drug legalization is not the answer, then what is?

The Miami HeraldApril 22, 2012 

Leonard Pitts Jr.

If President Obama had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin. So the president famously said.

And the president’s son would thereby find himself at significantly greater risk of running afoul of the so-called “War on Drugs” than, say, a son of George W. Bush. Depending on what state he lived in, a Trayvon Obama might be 57 times more likely than a Trayvon Bush to be imprisoned on drug charges.

This is not because he would be 57 times more likely to commit a drug crime. To the contrary, white American men commit the vast majority of the nation’s drug crimes, but African-American men do the vast majority of the nation’s drug time. It is a nakedly racial disparity that should leave the U.S. Department of “Justice” embarrassed to call itself by that name.

So it is difficult to be anything but disappointed at President Obama’s recent declaration at a summit in Colombia that “legalization is not the answer” to the international drug problem. The president argued that drug dealers might come to “dominate certain countries if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint.” This dominance, he said, “could be just as corrupting if not more corrupting than the status quo.”

One wonders if the president forgot to engage brain before operating mouth.

Dealers might “dominate certain countries?” Has Obama never heard of Mexico, that country on our southern border where drug dealers operate as a virtual shadow government in some areas? Is he unfamiliar with Colombia — his host nation — where, for years, the government battled a drug cartel brutal and brazen enough to attack the Supreme Court and assassinate the attorney general? That scenario Obama warns against actually came to pass a long time ago.

Similarly, it is a mystery how the manufacture and sale of a legal product could be “just as corrupting if not more corrupting than the status quo.” How could that be, given that there would no longer be a need for drug merchants to bribe judges, politicians and police for protection? What reason is there to believe a legal market in drugs would be any more prone to corruption than the legal markets in cigarettes and alcohol? Or, popcorn and chocolate?

The president’s reasoning is about as sturdy as a cardboard box in a monsoon. Even he must know — who can still deny? — that the drug war has failed. When it comes to quantifying that failure, several numbers are stark and edifying:

Forty-one. That’s how many years the “War” has raged.

Forty million-plus. That’s how many Americans have been arrested.

One trillion-plus. That’s the cost.

Two thousand, eight hundred. That’s the percentage by which drug use has risen.

One-point-three. That’s the percentage of Americans who were drug addicted in 1914.

One-point-three. That’s the percentage of Americans who are drug addicted now.

The numbers come from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of cops, judges, DEA agents and other drug warriors who are demanding an end to the drug war. Their statistics call to mind an old axiom: the definition of crazy is to continue doing the same thing but expecting a different result.

That said, it is not difficult to understand why the president — or anyone — might flinch at the notion of legalizing drugs. It is a big, revolutionary idea, an idea that would change the way things have been done since forever. If someone feels a need to pause before crossing that line, that’s understandable.

But let none of us do as the president did — hide behind a specious argument that offers no solution, no way forward and, most critically, no leadership.

Drug legalization is not the answer? OK, Mr. President, fair enough.

What is?

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.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service