Foreign Policy Magazine Exposes Folly Of Marijuana Prohibition

  • by Allen St. Pierre, Former NORML Executive Director July 5, 2009

    [Editor’s note: The reason why the editor of Foreign Policy magazine Moises Naim’s recent column is significant is because for far too long the foreign policy community has been a willing conduit for exporting America’s wrongheaded and failed cannabis prohibition around the globe. But, the American dominance of the drug policy debate has started to wane over the last 8-10 years in quarters like the United Nations, and columns like Mr. Naim’s underscore the myriad reasons why America’s elected policymakers need to adopt a reform mindset–notably under an Obama administration–not status quo retrenchment into an unyielding, prohibition-centric cannabis policy.]

    The American prohibition on thinking smart in the drug war

    The Washington consensus on drugs rests on two widely shared beliefs. The first is that the war on drugs is a failure. The second is that it cannot be changed.

    Americans are a can-do people. They tend to believe that if something does not work, it needs to be fixed. Unless, that is, they are talking about the war on drugs. On this politically fraught issue, Washington’s elites and, indeed, the majority of the population, believe two contradictory things. First, 76 percent of Americans think the war on drugs launched in 1971 by President Richard Nixon has failed. Yet only 19 percent believe the central focus of antidrug efforts should be shifted from interdiction and incarceration to treatment and education. A full 73 percent of Americans are against legalizing any kind of drugs, and 60 percent oppose legalizing marijuana.

    This “it doesn’t work, but don’t change it” incongruity is not just a quirk of the U.S. public. It is a manifestation of how the prohibition on drugs has led to a prohibition on rational thought. “Most of my colleagues know that the war on drugs is bankrupt,” a U.S. senator told me, “but for many of us, supporting any form of decriminalization of drugs has long been politically suicidal.”

    As a result of this utter failure to think, the United States today is both the world’s largest importer of illicit drugs and the world’s largest exporter of bad drug policy. The U.S. government expects, indeed demands, that its allies adopt its goals and methods and actively collaborate with U.S. drug-fighting agencies. This expectation is one of the few areas of rigorous continuity in U.S. foreign policy over the last three decades.

    A second, and more damaging, effect comes from the U.S. emphasis on curtailing the supply abroad rather than lowering the demand at home. The consequence: a transfer of power from governments to criminals in a growing number of countries. In many places, narcotraffickers are the major source of jobs, economic opportunity, and money for elections.

    The global economic crisis will only intensify these trends as battered economies shrink and illicit trade becomes the only way for millions of people to make a living. Mexico’s attorney general reckons that U.S. consumers buy $10 billion worth of drugs from his country’s cartels each year, a business that propelled Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, to Forbes magazine’s latest list of the world’s billionaires. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, all that money allows the two main cartels to train, equip, and pay for a highly motivated army of 100,000 that almost equals Mexico’s armed forces in size and often outguns them. And this ascendancy of the drug cartels is a global problem. The opium trade is equal to 30 percent of Afghanistan’s legal economy, and from Burma to Bolivia, Moldova to Guinea-Bissau, drug kingpins have become influential economic and political actors.

    Fortunately, there are some signs that the blind support for prohibition is beginning to wane among key Washington elites. One surprising new convert? The Pentagon. Senior U.S. military officers know both that the war on drugs is bankrupt and that it is undermining their ability to succeed in other important missions, such as winning the war in Afghanistan. When Gen. James L. Jones, a former Marine Corps commandant and supreme allied commander in Europe, was asked last November why the United States was losing in Afghanistan, he answered: “The top of my list is the drugs and narcotics, which are, without question, the economic engine that fuels the resurgent Taliban, and the crime and corruption in the country. . . . We couldn’t even talk about that in 2006 when I was there. That was not a topic that anybody wanted to talk about, including the U.S.” Jones is now U.S. President Barack Obama’s national security advisor.

    But such views have set off fierce clashes between military commanders newly focused on creating peaceful economic opportunities for Afghan families and the U.S. drug warriors set on eradicating Afghanistan’s major cash crop at any cost. What’s more, inertia alone almost guarantees strong support for drug eradication from the massive bureaucracy that lives off the tens of billions of taxpayer dollars that have funded the war on drugs for decades. The opinions of these drug warriors are immune to data: After decades of eradication efforts around the world, neither the acreage of land used to grow drugs nor the tonnage produced has shrunk.

    But prohibition at any cost is becoming increasingly hard to defend. As the drug-fueled escalation of violence in Mexico spills across the border into the United States, the American public’s willingness to ignore or tolerate policies that don’t work is bound to decline. And the consequences of failure are already on mounting display: According to the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center, Mexican drug cartels have established operations in 195 American cities. It is much harder to ignore the collateral damage of the war on drugs when it happens in your neighborhood.

    That is the case in many other countries where the nefarious side effects of U.S. drug policies have long been felt. Three of Latin America’s most respected former presidents, Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Colombia’s César Gaviria, and Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo, recently chaired a commission that came out in favor of drastic changes in the war on drugs—including decriminalization of marijuana for personal use. The commission, on which I sat, spent more than a year reviewing the best available evidence from experts in public health, medicine, law enforcement, the military, and the economics of drug trafficking. One of the commission’s main conclusions is that governments urgently need options beyond eradication, interdiction, criminalization, and incarceration to limit the social consequences of drugs. But though smart thinkers increasingly propose confronting the drug curse as a public health crisis—more options are in the commission’s report at www.drugsanddemocracy.org—real alternatives have found no space in a policy debate stalemated between absolute prohibition and wholesale legalization.

    The addiction to a failed policy has long been fueled by the self-interest of a relatively small prohibitionist community—and enabled by the distraction of the American public. But as the costs of the drug war spread from remote countries and U.S. inner cities to the rest of society, spending more to cure and prevent than to eradicate and incarcerate will become a much more obvious idea. Smarter thinking on drugs? That should be the real no-brainer.

    Moisés Naím is editor in chief of Foreign Policy [Editor’s note: emphasis in column added]

    69 responses to “Foreign Policy Magazine Exposes Folly Of Marijuana Prohibition”

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    2. Mike says:

      I suppose it’s easy for someone who doesn’t use Marijuana to argue against its legalization, but this isn’t about the effects it has on its users. It’s about personal freedom. If there is a product that helps some people remain pain free why not let them use it. Seems to me the personal freedom to use this as medication should left to the patient and Doctor, the Government should keep its nose out of it. Our personal freedoms are under attack from the ban of Marijuana to the high sin tax on tobacco. These type laws threaten to rob every American of their right to the pursuit of happiness, it starts with small things on the fringe of society, such as tobacco use, then if left unchallenged works it’s way to things that may affect your rights to peruse things that you enjoy. When the government takes things that are dear to the people, who tells them where and when to stop? The people, I don’t think so, If given the ability to deny a certain section our the society their right to enjoy things that don’t affect others, more and more people are at risk of loosing their rights to enjoy the things they love without undue taxation or threat of being jailed for the simple act of enjoying yourself. Some argue that High medical costs are reason enough to ban certain products. Obesity accounts for many times more deaths a year than Marijuana, but I don’t see a ban on Twinkies, We the people should consider the long range affects of the laws we let pass for some day we may not have any rights left to protect.

    3. propot says:

      In 1916, the U.S. Government predicted that by the 1940s all paper would come from hemp and that no more trees need to be cut down. Government studies report that 1 acre of hemp equals 4.1 acres of trees. Plans were in the works to implement such programs; Department of Agriculture…..then along came Mr. Hearst…..We can plainly see that marijuana legalizations benefits are boundless but until Americans wake up and realize that the true crime surrounding marijuana is the cornering of the market by campaign contributions from Alcohol and Tobacco companies and big pharma and lumber companies…It’s enough to make you sick.

    4. Mars says:

      Law Enforcement personnel don’t want to lose their over-time so you guys can be happy. Who cares if your tax dollars goes to these over-crowded jails, prisons, and soon-to-be drug-treatment clinics? It’s all for the good of the U.S. and A.

    5. Jerry says:

      What else is new ? …………and propot ……….. The BIG three drug Companies ( Alcohol , Tobacco and Pharma. ) got a stranglehold on any type of legalization of marijuana . They use lies , deception , propaganda and misleading advertising to fill the American ignorant with everything they can think of to make people think marijuana is bad .

    6. Manfor Mantis says:

      Why do We the People continually grant to imperfect men, in spite of their imperfections, the most complete possible liberty? “Are not We the People, the master of our own house?”

      Is not, what is true of liberty, also true of the other rights of mankind…especially the “NATURAL RIGHTS OF MANKIND?”

      Is it not something to seriously think about?

    7. Manfor Mantis says:


      People who will sacrafice freedom for order…will receive neither.

    8. The Oracle says:

      We all know government wastes a hell of a lot of money. Now the country doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot going for it, and can’t afford prohibition. It’s a frivolous waste of money, forces an educated and informed part of the public to choose between prescription drugs or the two legal recreational drugs. In you consider yourself free, you should not have to choose a recreational drug that is worse for you than cannabis. Being forced to choose alcohol or tobacco is not acceptable to far too many people, so many that the laws against prohibition are unenforceable on the scale necessary for effectiveness.

      Why don’t you all start schooling the media on Émile Durkheim about this to put them in a mood and mindset for legalization?


      Legalize Now!

    9. Jerry Moler says:

      Here again another intelligent person understands the problem very well. None of this will reach the mainstream media or our elected officials. People from all over the world realize what a terrible drug policy we have in the U.S. It is so discouraging to hear that our government strong arms other governments into carrying out our failed policies. We should not be surprised when we see people of other nations speak poorly of us. We The People of The United States should demand a stop to this destructive practice.

    10. CP says:

      For so long, politician’s positions have been mostly tailored to appeal to senior citizens. The elderly are known to vote at a higher rate than any other segment of the population.

      We could take the long drawn out path of waiting for legalization in 2024 (by then even the majority of seniors will understand pot) or we can expedite it by doing the unexpected. We can stop believing that “they’ll never legalize pot” and start realizing that yes, we cannabis!

      If we, as a collective were able to acquire enough political savvy to effect the 2010 senatorial primaries, cannabis legalization would automatically be a shoo-in issue for the November election, which would inescapably continue on to the 2012 presidential race.

      With the total insanity that seems to keep surrounding most of the potential 2012 Republican nominees, there’s a possibility that we could help to nominate Ron Paul in the 2012. I’m not even a Republican, but I can sure register as one and vote in their primary. If Obama’s opposition wanted to end the drug war, wouldn’t he feel a little safer adopting the same stance (again)?

      The last thing any politician wants is for this issue to come to the forefront. Many know the drug war is wrong, but just want to let the next guy to be the one to deal with it. All it takes is a group effort to effect primary races. We have technology that will allow us to do this better than any political movement in the past. We are some of the most talented and industrious people in the country. Politicians want to keep it on the back burner. Let’s move it to the front and turn up the heat!