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January 1, 2018

Prez Reagan's Secretary of State laments "The Failed War on Drugs"

There is nothing really all that notable about this recent New York Times op-ed, headlined "The Failed War on Drugs," save for its authors.  George Shultz, who served as Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration, penned the piece alon with Pedro Aspe, a former secretary of finance in Mexico.  Actually, the op-ed is also notable because it is has some shaky statements (like its suggestion Nancy Reagan tried to charge the modern US drug war), but it is still worth seeing how it makes its case for modern reform in the Americas:

The war on drugs in the United States has been a failure that has ruined lives, filled prisons and cost a fortune.  It started during the Nixon administration with the idea that, because drugs are bad for people, they should be difficult to obtain.  As a result, it became a war on supply.

As first lady during the crack epidemic, Nancy Reagan tried to change this approach in the 1980s.  But her “Just Say No” campaign to reduce demand received limited support. Over the objections of the supply-focused bureaucracy, she told a United Nations audience on Oct. 25, 1988: “If we cannot stem the American demand for drugs, then there will be little hope of preventing foreign drug producers from fulfilling that demand.  We will not get anywhere if we place a heavier burden of action on foreign governments than on America’s own mayors, judges and legislators. You see, the cocaine cartel does not begin in Medellín, Colombia. It begins in the streets of New York, Miami, Los Angeles and every American city where crack is bought and sold.”

Her warning was prescient, but not heeded.  Studies show that the United States has among the highest rates of drug use in the world.  But even as restricting supply has failed to curb abuse, aggressive policing has led to thousands of young drug users filling American prisons, where they learn how to become real criminals.

The prohibitions on drugs have also created perverse economic incentives that make combating drug producers and distributors extremely difficult.  The high black-market price for illegal drugs has generated huge profits for the groups that produce and sell them, income that is invested in buying state-of-the-art weapons, hiring gangs to defend their trade, paying off public officials and making drugs easily available to children, to get them addicted.

Drug gangs, armed with money and guns from the United States, are causing bloody mayhem in Mexico, El Salvador and other Central American countries. In Mexico alone, drug-related violence has resulted in over 100,000 deaths since 2006.  This violence is one of the reasons people leave these countries to come to the United States.

First the United States and Mexican governments must acknowledge the failure of this strategy.  Only then can we engage in rigorous and countrywide education campaigns to persuade people not to use drugs.  The current opioid crisis underlines the importance of curbing demand.  This approach, with sufficient resources and the right message, could have a major impact similar to the campaign to reduce tobacco use.

We should also decriminalize the small-scale possession of drugs for personal use, to end the flow of nonviolent drug addicts into the criminal justice system.  Several states have taken a step in this direction by decriminalizing possession of certain amounts of marijuana.  Mexico’s Supreme Court has also declared that individuals should have the right to grow and distribute marijuana for their personal use.  At the same time, we should continue to make it illegal to possess large quantities of drugs so that pushers can be prosecuted and some control over supply maintained.

Finally, we must create well-staffed and first-class treatment centers where people are willing to go without fear of being prosecuted and with the confidence that they will receive effective care.  The experience of Portugal suggests that younger people who use drugs but are not yet addicted can very often be turned around.  Even though it is difficult to get older addicted people off drugs, treatment programs can still offer them helpful services....

We have a crisis on our hands — and for the past half-century, we have been failing to solve it.  But there are alternatives.  Both the United States and Mexico need to look beyond the idea that drug abuse is simply a law-enforcement problem, solvable through arrests, prosecution and restrictions on supply.  We must together attack it with public health policies and education.  We still have time to persuade our young people not to ruin their lives.

January 1, 2018 at 02:13 PM | Permalink


"The war on drugs in the United States has been a failure that has ruined lives, filled prisons and cost a fortune."

The Prohibition debacle taught us this long ago, but we buried our heads in the sand.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Jan 1, 2018 5:33:23 PM

Schultz and Aspe, not lawyers.

Posted by: David Behar | Jan 1, 2018 6:24:09 PM

Thank goodness he said that now, and not 30 years from now when he's no longer relevant.

Posted by: C.E. | Jan 1, 2018 6:55:56 PM

This would only be notable if he took some responsibility for the problem on behalf of the administration he served in, which executed the platform of political party that elected Reagan. The defense of Nancy Reagan's simplistic 'just say no' campaign, without noting his administration's and party refusal to fund treatment, destroys much credibility of the piece.

It would be refreshing to see a Republican/Right on Crime type say, "My party lead the charge in making a mess of the war on crime and drugs," noted much of the problematic rhetoric and police, THEN discussed the need for reform. It's a bit like the Catholic Church talking about the need to protect young people from sexual abuse without noting their own history.

Posted by: Paul | Jan 2, 2018 2:35:31 AM

Paul. What false propaganda attacking dead people for policies of 30 years ago.

The War on Drugs is a welfare program for worthless government make work lawyers and other worthless make work government worker rent seekers. Most of this thieving scum, as the overwhelming majority of criminals do, vote for the Democratic Party. They resist all attempts to shrink government.

The War on Drugs will end soon, as most addicts will pass away. Their fecundity will also be decreased by their early deaths.

You lawyer rent seekers should seek employment elsewhere. You would make compelling high school American History teachers. You have insider knowledge of what is destroying our country. Your pay and retirement will also be more, average.

Posted by: David Behar | Jan 2, 2018 6:47:29 AM

Mr. Behar, when I read the first reports of your escape from the asylum, i thought they were fake news, but now, regretfully, I see they were correct.

Posted by: anon2 | Jan 2, 2018 10:42:41 AM

Anon2, they just don't make straightjackets the way they used to. I understand that Behar was able to slip out of his quite easily.

Posted by: Emily | Jan 2, 2018 10:44:25 AM

Ironic personal insults from people holding supernatural beliefs.

Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo. Ding.

Posted by: David Behar | Jan 3, 2018 12:22:52 AM

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