President Barack Obama’s new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, picked up the mantle on the drug war scene by expressing a desire to shift from the descriptive language often used to refer to the drug problem. During an interview with the Wall Street Journal on May 14, Kerlikowske described the terminology “war on drugs” as unhelpful. “Regardless of how you try to explain to people ‘it’s a war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as war on them. We’re not at war with the people in this country,” he said.
Speaking at a Cato Institute policy briefing on Capitol Hill, former congressman Bob Barr—once a drug warrior in the House—echoed Kerlikowske’s sentiments and said there is need to move away from the “war” language. “When you characterize something as a war, you immediately cause people to lock into their position, it’s war, we have battle and it is very difficult thereafter to move people away from that mentality, to get things done,” said Barr.
Timothy Lynch, the director of Project on Criminal Justice at Cato Institute also called on the government to “end the warfare-like mentality,” on drugs. “The federal government needs to take concrete steps to reverse policies that have fed this mentality,” he urged.
Lynch at the same time termed the current U.S. drug policy as a failure. “If the policy is to be judged according to its actual effects instead of just its promised benefits, I think you can come to the conclusion that the drug policy here in the United States has been a failure,” he said.
According to Lynch the large amounts of resources that have gone towards the drug war policy have been wasted. “Despite the effort, the amount of money, the law enforcement, it hasn’t stopped drugs from coming into the country, it hasn’t stopped people from using drugs and it hasn’t kept drugs away from our kids…what the policy has done is produce a lot of crime,” he said.
According to statistics from the Cato Institute, the federal government spends about nineteen billion dollars a year in drug enforcement and about fifty-percent of the federal prison population consists of drug offenders.
An April Cato handbook entitled “War on Drugs” termed the massive federal effort towards discouraging young people from using drugs as a “dud.” “Every year from 1975 to 2006, at least eighty-two percent of high school seniors said they found marijuana, ‘fairly easily,’” stated the handbook.
Lynch said that channeling more money towards combating the drug problem, as has been the norm over the years, was not the solution. He called on the government to move away from tradition and shift its efforts towards other ways of dealing with the drug problem. “The next few months are going to tell us whether this administration is going to break out from this paradigm of just more money and where do we spend it,” he said.