Will The Decades-Long War on Drugs End With a “Negotiated Surrender”?


Unexpectedly in the past five years, condemnations of the war on drugs have migrated from the left-wing cul-de-sacs that they have long inhabited and into the political establishment, says New York magazine. “The war on drugs, though well-intentioned, has been a failure,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said. A global blue-ribbon panel that included former Reagan secretary of State George Shultz and Kofi Annan reached the same conclusion: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies.” The pressures from south of the border have grown far more urgent: The presidents of Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Belize, and Costa Rica have all called for a broad reconsideration of the drug war in the past year, and the Organization of American States is now trying to work out what realistic alternatives there might be.

“There's now no question,” says Mark Kleiman of UCLA, an influential drug-policy scholar, “that the costs of the drug war itself exceed the costs of drug use. It's not even close.” What is happening now, says New York, “is a collection of efforts, some liberating and some scary, to reset that moral calibration, to find a new equilibrium.” The prohibition on drugs did not begin as the prohibition on alcohol did, with a constitutional amendment, and it is unlikely to end neatly, with an act of a legislature or a new international treaty. Nor is the war on drugs likely to end with something that looks exactly like a victory. What is happening instead is more complicated and human: We are beginning to experiment with a negotiated surrender.

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