When I reported this a few weeks ago, I think I was the first to see significance in what former Drug Czar Brigadier General Barry McCaffrey said – and to be honest, I’m surprised it hasn’t been picked up more. (The full video of the Council on Foreign Relations event on US-Mexico relations is here.) One of our more aggressive drug czars who vehemently attacked those politicians who suggested even allowances for medicinal marijuana and under whom arrests for mere marijuana possession went way up [pdf] now says this:
QUESTIONER: …[W]hy not just legalize drugs?
Former Drug Czar, General BARRY MCCAFFREY (retired): …[S]ince I’m not in public life, [I can say] I actually don’t care. I care about 6th graders through 12th graders. If you’re 40 years old, and you’re living in Oregon, and you have 12 giant pot plants in the back of your log cabin, knock yourself out.
(For those watching the video, the first questioner who did not identify himself sounded like Ted Sorenson, the venerable former Kennedy speechwriter who is a frequent guest at Council on Foreign Relations events. )
McCaffrey is not the first drug czar to reveal more nuanced views after his tenure was over. Matthea Falco, a drug czar in the 1970s, has become a strong proponent of the harm reduction over the prohibition approach. When asked why by PBS, she responded:
It’s very hard not to change your vision if you stay in the field long enough…
If you look over the sweep of time, what changed for me from 1980 until about 1990, and continuing today, is that the price of drugs has just plummeted in this country…So that’s got to be a failure [of the War on Drugs]…
It’s also a flawed strategy. Many people argue that it just hasn’t been implemented enough, that, “If you just put ten times as much money into it, it would change everything.” But, in fact, it’s a flawed strategy at its very core. [my emphasis]
Yet another former Drug Czar Peter Bourne commented on the evolution of the War on Drugs into the war on marijuana – beginning here with the claims that marijuana had significantly bad health effects:
It was policymakers trying to hide behind the skirts of science, trying to say that marijuana poses a threat to the health of young people.
Taking any drugs is probably not a good idea. But [marijuana] certainly posed no significant public health problem. In many ways, it’s somewhat reminiscent of 50 years ago when moralists argued that masturbation was morally wrong. They couldn’t just argue that it was morally wrong, so they argued that it made you insane. They were able to get enough physicians to say, “Yes, masturbation makes you insane,” and people argued that this was causing insanity. Therefore, you were justified in condemning masturbation. I see the same sort of process with the use of marijuana, which is a trivial health problem.
These are the men and women who were in charge of the War on Drugs – and in running this war, they have come to see it’s madness. As Matthea Falco said, “It’s very hard not to change your vision if you stay in the field long enough.” Those who are engaged with these issues begin to see the obvious:
The War on Drugs is a war on our citizenry which has led us to imprison a higher percentage of our population than any other country on earth. It is destabilizing our neighbors and other countries essential to our national security with the Pentagon going to far as to claim that Mexico is at risk of a complete collapse due to the effects of the Drug War. Domestically, it competes with police resources leading to a measurable rise in non-drug related serious crimes [pdf] as police attention is diverted. It competes with counterterrorism measures and resources. The War on Drugs is actively making us less safe – and it has failed to stop or even reduce the availability or price of drugs. As one wise senator said in 2004:
The war on drugs is an utter failure.
Now that senator is president of the United States of America – and though he offers better policies and a softening of the hardest edges of the Drug War (which includes refraining from calling it a war), he does not offer the bold action that we need to make us safer. The Obama administration seems content to maintain the prohibitionist policies “firmly rooted in prejudices, fears and ideological visions” that have failed decisively (in the words of the major report on the Drug War by the former presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and Columbia.) But the War on Drugs and the prohibition it is based on endanger both our liberty and our security. Both must end.