Is the war on drugs succeeding?, continued

Drug policy, he believes, should focus on initiatives such as neighborhood- and school-based programs aimed at high-risk 8- to 13-year-olds. He also favors outreach programs specifically tailored to particular categories of people who may abuse substances for very different reasons and in very different patterns, such as mothers on welfare, families torn by domestic abuse, families living in public housing, college students and people with HIV.

He sees the medical marijuana initiatives, the push for reduced sentences and the needle-exchange programs as vehicles to pave the way for the reformers' true goal: broad drug legalization.

But Nadelmann rejects the claim that decriminalization of marijuana is a Trojan horse for a broader legalization agenda. With regard to decriminalizing other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines, he says, "A majority of my organization and my board and the drug-policy reform movement as a whole are basically very cautious. We basically don't support that." But, he adds, he and his group support an elimination of prison time or severe punishment for possession of small quantities for personal use.

He also believes that opinion polls are "trending our way." Majorities of Americans now favor decriminalization of marijuana, treatment instead of incarceration for many drug offenses, elimination of police asset-forfeiture powers and needle-exchange programs, he says.

Maybe so, but few national politicians have jumped on the bandwagon. One who has is Kurt Schmoke '76, who, as mayor of Baltimore from 1987 to 1999, argued for decriminalization of marijuana and for a radical rethinking of national drug policy. The war on drugs, Schmoke has said, is America's "domestic Vietnam."

"The problem of substance abuse is more a public health problem than a criminal justice problem," he says. "The drug traffickers can be beaten and the public health of the United States can be improved if we are willing to substitute common sense for rhetoric, myth and blind persistence," he wrote. Schmoke worked with Nadelmann in developing a needle-exchange program in Baltimore when he was mayor. Are such programs making a difference?

"I think they are," Schmoke says. "But it's simply a long and difficult process because there are some people who believe that it's just morally wrong. Forget whether the war on drugs is actually effective or not; they would say that it's morally wrong to legalize drugs that are currently illegal."

Perhaps the best-known spokesman for that view is Bennett, who is buoyed by a recent study showing a slight dip in drug use among high school students. "People should associate drug use with a penalty," he maintains. "We need an unambiguous message."

Dick Dahl contributed to this story.

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See also RX for a public health problem


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