Drug war: An unhappy 40th birthday party

On June 17, 1971, President Richard Milhous Nixon announced that the United States of America would commits its vast resources to armed conflict against a hostile enemy known as "drugs." Yes, that's right. Next week, the War on Drugs officially turns forty years old, and it's showing every bit of its age, like a pot-bellied, balding Kmart clerk hooked on Big Macs.

Drug reform activists plan to hold rallies in fifteen states to mark the anniversary, including this one scheduled for Skyline Park (16th and Arapahoe) between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. That will be followed by a "Liberty on the Rocks" debate featuring folks from the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, the ACLU, the Independence Institute, the Drug Policy Alliance and others.

Four decades of bad policy can't be undone in a moment, of course. But it's also an occasion to reflect on some incremental reforms in drug sentencing laws over the past few years, locally and federally, even as the "war" itself continues to rage, and claim lives -- at home, in cartel-ravaged Mexico, and across the world. It's easy to forget that Nixon's original plan for ridding the nation of the scourge of drugs (heroin habits brought home by Vietnam vets were the focus in those days) put more emphasis on treatment than law enforcement, a sensible approach that hasn't been tried by any other president since Dick resigned.

What did we get instead? Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign and moral hysteria from the media over the crack "epidemic" and the death of college basketball star Len Bias; massive violence and corruption in Latin America -- and to some extent, in our own law enforcement community -- over the profits to be made supplying an eager public with its vices; more than 22 million Americans with some reported substance abuse problem; a justice system scrambling to feed its own $50-billion-a-year habit, which is roughly what's spent every year locking up folks for (primarily nonviolent) drug offenses; and a template for any other cause (the war on terror, the war for energy independence, etc.) that appears to have no clear goal other than the proliferation of government agencies and misery.

That's the condensed version. As the anniversary approaches, we'll no doubt hear plenty about the other legacies of this deadly war. For me, one moment stands out. Early in his presidency, George H. Bush tried to whip up interest in a further expansion of the drug war by holding up a baggie of crack in the Oval Office and explaining to the country that it was purchased in a park right across the street from the White House. In other words, the scourge had spread from the ghettos to nice parts of town and was hovering right on the president's doorstep.

It later turned out that drug cops had lured the dealer to the park to make the buy. It wasn't easy. When told where to make the delivery, the young man --an eighteen-year-old high school senior with no prior arrest record -- asked, "Where the fuck is the White House?"

Where indeed.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Prison frenzy and drug war a huge drag on economy, new report says."

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