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The 'war on drugs' is over

The Obama administration is moving toward demilitarizing a health problem.

May 16, 2009

The Obama administration is saying all the right things about the jumble of ineffective and vindictive laws, policies and practices that have made up this nation's so-called war on drugs. Shortly after he was confirmed, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that he would halt Drug Enforcement Administration raids on medical marijuana dispensaries. Then the Justice Department urged Congress to eliminate the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity in convictions for dealing crack and powder cocaine, which imposed long prison terms on predominantly black defendants.

The most recent reassurance comes from the new drug czar, R. Gil Kerlikowske. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week, Kerlikowske said it's time to retire the phrase "war on drugs." Good. It's as misguided as the policies it frames. "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' ... people see a war as a war on them," he said. "We're not at war with people in this country." These sensible pronouncements inspire hope that the administration is moving toward a more rational approach to drugs. There is much to do.

For example, the DEA apparently did not get the memo about raids; it carried out one the day after Holder's announcement. And although Holder's refusal to deploy federal resources against the clinics is a welcome respite, we're still left with the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws. Also, as a candidate, Barack Obama said he supported lifting the federal ban on needle exchange programs, which study after study concludes slows transmission of HIV/AIDS. President Obama's budget, however, leaves it in place. Administration officials say he now believes the public needs persuading.

It's in that context that Kerlikowske's comments matter: By thinking of drug users as combatants in a war, the nation militarized a health problem. The phrase itself shaped flawed thinking and yielded disastrous policies. When he campaigned for the presidency, Obama promised bold change on drugs. The old paradigm should follow the now-discarded phrase into history.

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