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Report Review: New Federal Drug Threat Assessment Finds Prohibition Greatest Drug-Related Menace

Well, not in so many words. But anyone reading between the lines of the National Drug Intelligence Center's National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 could easily come to that conclusion. The annual report from the Justice Department fiefdom based in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, with its thoroughly inside-the-box approach to the harms associated with drug policy, does not look at the data it is reporting and see the obvious, but its conclusions that violent drug trafficking organizations and street-level drug retail gangs are the gravest "drug threats" to America beg the question of why.

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According to the 2009 report: "Mexican DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States. The influence of Mexican DTOs over domestic drug trafficking is unrivaled. In fact, intelligence estimates indicate a vast majority of the cocaine available in US drug markets is smuggled by Mexican DTOs across the US-Mexico border. Mexican DTOs control drug distribution in most US cities, and they are gaining strength in markets that they do not yet control."

Following close on the heels of the bloody cartels -- 5,000 have been killed in Mexico's prohibition-related violence this year -- are the cartel wannabes: "Violent urban gangs control most retail-level drug distribution nationally, and some have relocated from inner cities to suburban and rural areas. Moreover, gangs are increasing their involvement in wholesale-level drug distribution, aided by their connections with Mexican and Asian DTOs."

While the violence of the cartels and the gangs is deplorable, the NDIC assessment makes no effort to address its root cause: the regime of drug prohibition. Instead it conflates the harms associated with prohibition (fighting the drug trade) with those associated with drug use or abuse.

That conceptual confusion is evident from the very beginning of the annual report. In the first paragraph of its summary, the report observes that: "The trafficking and abuse of illicit drugs inflict tremendous harm upon individuals, families, and communities
throughout the country. The violence, intimidation, theft, and financial crimes carried out by drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), criminal groups, gangs, and drug users in the United States pose a significant threat to our nation. The cost to society from drug production, trafficking, and abuse is difficult to fully measure or convey."

Without pulling apart the harms associated with "trafficking and abuse of illegal drugs," the NDIC is conducting an exercise in futility and propaganda. The harms associated with the growth of powerful criminal organizations thriving under a prohibition regime are an entirely different matter from the harms related to drug use, misuse, or abuse, and failing to disentangle them is a service to no one. Similarly, the failure to disaggregate "DTOs, criminal groups, gangs, and drug users" only strengthens the same skewed view of the results of our drug policies.

In the summary's eight bullet points designed to demonstrate the harm of "drugs," four of them -- cartel money laundering, federal anti-drug spending, the huge number of drug arrests, and the high number of federal drug prisoners -- are a direct consequence of drug prohibition. Two others -- a large number of people seeking drug treatment, and children removed from meth labs -- are at least indirectly influenced by drug prohibition. Many people seeking treatment are doing so because of rote court orders, and many home meth cooks would likely simply purchase their drug instead of cooking it if allowed to do so. One bullet point -- that diversion of pharmaceutical drugs is costing insurance companies millions -- is yet another artifact of a prohibition regime, or at least one where access to desired drugs is so restricted that diversion occurs.

The final bullet point -- some 35 million Americans used an illicit drug (or a licit drug illicitly) -- is essentially meaningless without indicating in some way just how those people were actually harmed by using those drugs. But that is typical of a mindset that measures success in drug policy solely by reducing drug use instead of looking at the bigger picture.

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NDIC could have attempted to quantify the harms of drug abuse, for instance by looking at lost work days, or the early onset of disease, or other measures, but it didn't.

Such an attitude is also apparent in the report's blunt ranking of the leading threats by drug: "Cocaine is the leading drug threat to society. Methamphetamine is the second leading drug threat, followed by marijuana, heroin, pharmaceutical drugs, and MDMA (also known as ecstasy) respectively."

Given that marijuana is almost universally understood to be one of the least harmful psychoactive substances known to man (see Professor David Nutt's "rational scale" here), marijuana's role as a leading drug threat -- ahead of heroin and pharmaceuticals! -- can only be attributed to its widespread popularity. Again, instead of demonstrating specific harms associated with marijuana consumption, the report simply assumes that marijuana use generates harm.

By NDIC standards, some progress is being made in combating the drug scourge. The report cites declining cocaine availability and purity in some US markets, and a decrease in domestic meth production (although it warns of a looming increase). But even where NDIC can point to successes, it either misses the costs of waging the drug war or conflates them with the harms of drug use.

And with marijuana in particular, it cannot even claim success. Despite record plant seizures and marijuana arrests last year: "Marijuana availability is high throughout the United States. Outdoor cultivation is going through the roof, thanks in part, the report says, to Mexican DTOs expanding into US public lands, and indoor cultivation has increased "because of high profit margins and seemingly reduced risk of law enforcement detection."

What the National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 shows us is that we are continuing to wage a futile struggle to suppress drug use at a great cost to our society. In failing to disentangle and disaggregate the social ills resulting from our prohibitionist drug policies from the social ills resulting from drug use, it is business as usual. But what do we expect from a drug war bureaucracy motivated mainly by inertia and the imperative of preserving next year's budget?

420 Drug War News 12/15/08

Drug Truth Network Update: 4:20 Drug War NEWS from 90.1 FM in Houston and dozens of radio affiliates in the US, Canada and Australis & on the web at www.kpft.org. We provide the "unvarnished truth about the drug war" to scores of broadcast affiliates in the US, Canada and Australia. 4:20 Drug War NEWS 12/15/08 to 12/21/08 now online (3:00 ea:) Select online at www.drugtruth.net Sun - Col/Dr. Jim Ketchum, author of Chemical Warfare, Secrets Almost Forgotten Sat - Martin Lee, Author of Acid Dreams Fri - Barry Cooper, former narcotics officer sets up Odessa police to bust him for growing Christmas trees Thu - Ethan Nadelmann of Drug Policy Alliance compares the war on alcohol to the war on drugs Wed - Today marks 94 Years of Drug War! Tue - Terry Nelson of LEAP reports on excessive force used in drug raids Mon - Harvey Stein, director of forthcoming movie: RX Cannabis Next - Century of Lies on Tues, Cutural Baggage on Wed (Now With Transcripts): - Cultural Baggage 12:30 PM ET, 11:30 AM CT, 10:30 AM MT & 9:30 AM PT: Neil Franklin, working LEO w/33 Years Exp - Century of Lies 12:30 PM ET, 11:30 AM CT, 10:30 AM MT, 9:30 AM PT: Vicki Hankins served 18 years for crack Hundreds of our programs are available online at www.drugtruth.net, and www.audioport.org Check out our latest videos via www.youtube.com/fdbecker: Please become part of the solution, visit our website: www.endprohibition.org for links to the best of reform. "Prohibition is evil." - Reverend Dean Becker, Drug Truth Network Producer Dean Becker 713-849-6869 www.drugtruth.net

Drug Truth 12/11/08

The Unvarnished Truth About the Drug War From the Drug Truth Network: (To downlad these 29:00 files, click on links below. To simply listen, go to www.drugtruth.net and select the arrow below the shows description.) Cultural Baggage for 12/10/08 Martin Lee, author "Acid Dreams - The Complete Social History of LSD" + Ethan Nadelmann, dir of Drug Policy Alliance re Wall Street Op-Ed vs Czar Johan Walters MP3 LINK: http://www.drugtruth.net/cms/?q=audio/download/2168/FDBCB_121008.mp3 TRANSCRIPT: By Friday Century of Lies for 12/09/08 Dr. Jim Ketchum, author of "Chemical Warware-Secrets Almost Forgotten" which lifts the veil of LSD tests in US Army + Barry Cooper, former narcotics officer, producer of KopBusters video and Never Get Busted DVD MP3 LINK: http://www.drugtruth.net/cms/?q=audio/download/2167/COL_120908.mp3 TRANSCRIPT: http://www.drugtruth.net/cms/?q=node/2167#comments PLEASE NOTE: We now have transcripts, potcasts, searchability, CMS, XML, sorts by guest name and by organization. Next - Century of Lies on Tues, Cutural Baggage on Wed, listen online at www.kpft.org: - Cultural Baggage 12:30 PM ET, 11:30 AM CT, 10:30 AM MT & 9:30 AM PT: TBD - Century of Lies 12:30 PM ET, 11:30 AM CT, 10:30 AM MT & 9:30 AM PT: Vicki Hankins, served 18 years for crack Hundreds of our programs are available online at www.drugtruth.net, www.audioport.org We provide the "unvarnished truth about the drug war" to scores of broadcast affiliates in the US, Canada and Now Australia!!! Programs produced at Pacifica Radio Station KPFT in Houston. www.kpft.org Check out our latest videos via www.youtube.com/fdbecker: More than 55 Drug Policy Videos online) Please become part of the solution, visit our website: www.endprohibition.org for links to the best of reform. "Prohibition is evil." - Reverend Dean Becker, Drug Truth Network Producer Dean Becker 713-849-6869 www.drugtruth.net

Sentencing: US Jail and Prison Population Hits All-Time (Again) -- 2.3 Million Behind Bars, Including More Than Half a Million Drug Offenders

The number of people in jail or prison in the United States hit another record at the end of last year, according to a report from the US Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics released Thursday. According to the report, Prisoners in 2007, 2,293,157 people were behind bars at the end of last year, roughly two-thirds of them serving prison sentences and one-third doing jail time.

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overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (from cdcr.ca.gov)
Drug offenders made up 19.5% of all people doing time in the states, or roughly 400,000 people. In the federal system, drug offenders account for well over half of the 200,000 prisoners (those numbers are not included in this report), bringing the total number of people sacrificed at the altar of the drug war to more than half a million.

Parole and probation violators accounted for about one-third of all new prison admissions last year. It is unclear how many violations were for drug-related reasons, but that number is undoubtedly substantial.

The imprisoned population continued to grow last year, albeit at a marginally slower rate than the decade as a whole. The number of those imprisoned grew by 1.8% last year, down from 2.8% in 2006, and slightly lower than 2.0% a year average since 2000.

The population behind bars continued to grow at a faster rate than the population as a whole last year. The number of people imprisoned per 100,000 population -- the imprisonment rate -- rose from 501 in 2006 to 506 last year. It was 475 per 100,000 in 2000. Since 2000, the number of people behind bars increased by 15%, while the US population increased by only 6.4%.

The prison populations in 36 states and the District of Columbia increased during 2007. The federal prison population experienced the largest absolute increase of 6,572 prisoners, followed by Florida (up 5,250 prisoners), Kentucky (up 2,457 prisoners) and Arizona (up 1,945 prisoners), resulting in 58.7% of the change in the overall prison population. Kentucky (12.3%), Mississippi (6.5%), Florida (5.6%), West Virginia (5.6%), and Arizona (5.4%) reported the largest percentage increases in their prison populations.

The prison populations in the remaining 14 states decreased. Michigan's (1,344) and California's (1,230) prison populations experienced the greatest absolute decrease, while Vermont (down 3.2%), Montana (down 2.8%), Michigan (down 2.6%), and New Mexico (down 2.6%) prison populations had the largest percent decreases.

America's position as the world's leading jailer, in both absolute and per capita terms, remains unchallenged, and the war on drugs is playing a significant role. Interestingly, the BJS report comes one day after a study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that 43 states face budget shortfalls next year. As for the federal budget deficit, well, who can even keep up with that?

Latin America: This Years' Death Toll in Mexico's Prohibition Wars Passes 5,000

The number of people killed in prohibition-related violence in Mexico this year has surpassed 5,000, more than double the number of people killed last year, Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said Monday. The number is likely to grow even higher, he warned.

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poster of assassinated Mexican human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
Violence among drug trafficking organizations and between them and government forces has escalated dramatically since President Felipe Calderón unleashed an offensive against the narcos nearly two years ago. Calderón has sent as many as 40,000 Mexican army troops into the fray, where they've joined tens of thousands of federal, state, and local police fighting against -- and sometimes for -- the traffickers. And the trafficking groups themselves are engaged in a lethal and spectacularly gruesome internecine struggle to control the lucrative multi-billion dollar trade in drugs destined for the insatiable American market.

The death is comparable to that in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the independent monitoring group Iraq Body Count, some 8,000 people have been killed in simmering violence in Iraq this year. In Afghanistan, some 4,000 people have been killed in fighting this year. In Afghanistan, 273 US and NATO troops have been killed this year, according to the independent monitoring organization Icasulaties.org. That is little more than half the number of Mexican police and soldiers killed this year.

Medina Mora put the death toll through the end of November at 5,376, a whopping 117% increase over the 2,477 killed in 2007. Most of the killing took place in the border states of Baja California and Chihuahua, and Sinaloa, the home base of the Sinaloa Cartel, although the violence has spread throughout the country, extending even to the Mexico City door steps of high police commanders, another one of whom was gunned down this week.

"These criminal organizations don't have limits," said Medina-Mora. "They certainly have an enormous power of intimidation."

And the killing continues. At least 18 people were killed in prohibition-related violence in southern Mexico on Sunday, including two people whose heads were left outside the mansion of the governor of Guerrero in Chilpancingo. Ten narcos and one soldier died in a shoot-out the same day in Arcelia, Guerrero.

Four more bodies showed up Tuesday in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, just days after the city saw 36 people killed in a 48-hour period. Meanwhile, 17 people, including a senior police investigator, were killed just days earlier in Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande River from El Paso.

As a result of the escalation of violence in Tijuana, police chief Alberto Capella Ibarra was fired. Last month, Capella Ibarra told the British newspaper The Observer: "This war will continue so long as drugs are illegal and command high prices in the United States. Legalize the drugs, then the Americans can get high and we can live in peace."

But the Americans would prefer instead to pour fuel on the flames. Last week, the US released $200 million in anti-drug assistance to the Mexican police and military, the first tranche in a $1.4 billion, three-year package designed to help the Mexicans crack down on the narcos.

Can Both Sides of the Drug War Debate be Completely Wrong?

Drug policy academic Mark Kleiman is back with another simultaneous assault on both the drug czar and drug policy reform. I enjoyed Pete Guither’s response.

420 Drug News 120808

Drug Truth Network Update: 4:20 Drug War NEWS from 90.1 FM in Houston and dozens of radio affiliates in the US, Canada and Australis & on the web at www.kpft.org. We provide the "unvarnished truth about the drug war" to scores of broadcast affiliates in the US, Canada and Australia. 4:20 Drug War NEWS 12/08/08 to 12/14/08 now online (3:00 ea:) Select online at www.drugtruth.net Sun - NPR looks at Mexican drug war Sat - LEAP conf with Neal Franklin & Richard Van Wickler Fri - LEAP press conf in DC w/ Neal Peirce of Wash Post, Neal Franklin, Howard Wooldridge & Terry Nelson Thu - Harvard Prof Jerremy Miron discusses cost of drug war at National Press Club in Wash DC Wed - NPR regarding drug war in Mexico Tue - Do they celebrate Valentines day in Mexico the way they do in Chicago? - LEAP Report with Terry Nelson Mon - Barry Cooper and KopBusters, busted in Odessa for growing Xmas trees & Plant Police PSA Next - Century of Lies on Tues, Cutural Baggage on Wed (Now With Transcripts): - Cultural Baggage 12:30 PM ET, 11:30 AM CT, 10:30 AM MT & 9:30 AM PT: Ethan Nadelmann, dir of Drug Policy Alliance & Martin Lee, author of Acid Dreams - Century of Lies 12:30 PM ET, 11:30 AM CT, 10:30 AM MT, 9:30 AM PT: Barry Cooper, producer of KopBusters & Col. Jim Ketchum Hundreds of our programs are available online at www.drugtruth.net, and www.audioport.org Check out our latest videos via www.youtube.com/fdbecker: Please become part of the solution, visit our website: www.endprohibition.org for links to the best of reform. "Prohibition is evil." - Reverend Dean Becker, Drug Truth Network Producer Dean Becker 713-849-6869 www.drugtruth.net

DrugSense FOCUS Alert: #388 Repealing Today's Failed Prohibition

DrugSense FOCUS Alert #388 - Sunday, 7 December 2008 Syndicated columnist Froma Harrop wrote the column, below, which ties the ended Prohibition 75 years ago this past week to the modern version - the war on drugs. The column is worthy of your letters to the editor. Newspapers that have printed the column are shown as December 2008 news clippings at: http://www.mapinc.org/author/Froma+Harrop Please also contact your local newspapers and ask them to publish the column. Just tell the newspapers that the column is by Froma Harrop and is available from Creators Syndicate. The newspapers will know how to obtain the column for publication. The reason for the column and the quotes from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition http://www.CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com/ and Criminal Justice Policy Foundation http://www.cjpf.org/ is because of their new joint effort "We Can Do It Again: Repealing Today's Failed Prohibition." Please go to the website to help with this effort http://www.WeCanDoItAgain.com/ ********************************************************************** Froma Harrop's syndicated column is copyrighted by Creators Syndicate. The text of the column is as follows. America ended Prohibition 75 years ago this past week. The ban on the sale of alcohol unleashed a crime wave, as gangsters fought over the illicit booze trade. It sure didn't stop drinking. People turned to speakeasies and bathtub gin for their daily cocktail. Prohibition -- and the violence, corruption and health hazards that followed -- lives on in its modern version, the so-called War on Drugs. Former law-enforcement officers gathered in Washington to draw the parallels. Their group, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition ( LEAP ), has called for nothing less than the legalization of drugs. And before you say, "We can't do that," hear the officers out. They have an answer for every objection. Doesn't the War on Drugs take narcotics off the street, raising their price beyond most Americans' means? Obviously not. The retail price of cocaine is now about half what it was in 1990. When the value of something goes up, more people go into the business. In some Dallas junior high schools, kids can buy two hits of "cheese" -- a mix of Tylenol PM and heroin -- for $5, Terry Nelson, a former U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer, told me. Lunch costs more. Wouldn't legalizing drugs create new users? Not necessarily. LEAP wants drugs to be regulated like alcohol and cigarettes. Regulations are why it's harder to buy alcohol or cigarettes in many schoolyards than drugs. By regulating the purity and strength of drugs, they become less deadly. Isn't drug addiction a scourge that tears families apart? Yes, it is, and so are arrests and incarceration and criminal records for kids caught smoking pot behind the bleachers. There are 2.1 million people in federal, state and local prisons, 1.7 million of them for non-violent drug offenses. Removing the stigma of drug use lets addicts come out into the open for treatment. We have treatments for alcoholism, but we don't ban alcohol. LEAP's members want to legalize drugs because they're tired of being shot at in a war they can't win. They're tired of making new business for dealers every time they arrest a competitor. They're are tired of busting people in the streets of America's cities over an ounce of cocaine, while the Andean region produces over 1,000 tons of it a year. They're tired of enriching terrorists. "In 2009, the violence of al-Qaida will be financed by drug profits," said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, which joined the call for legalization. As counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in the 1980s, Sterling helped write the anti-drug laws he now opposes. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that legalizing drugs would save federal, state and local governments $44 billion in enforcement costs. Governments could collect another $33 billion in revenues were they to tax drugs as heavily as alcohol and tobacco. No one here likes drugs or advocates putting heroin on store shelves alongside ibuprofen and dental floss. Each state or county could set its own rules on who could buy which drugs and where and taxes levied -- as they now do with alcohol. What about taking gradual steps -- say, starting with marijuana. And couldn't we first try decriminalization -- leaving users alone but still arresting dealers? Those were my questions. The LEAP people want the laws gone, period. "We're whole hog on it," Nelson said. Keeping the sale of drugs illegal, he said, "doesn't take the cartels out of it." Ending this "war" won't be easy. Too many police, drug agents, bureaucrats, lawyers, judges, prison guards and sprayers of poppyfields have a stake in it. But Prohibition was repealed once. Perhaps it can happen again. ********************************************************************** Prepared by: The MAP Media Activism Team www.mapinc.org/resource === . DrugSense provides many services at no charge, but they are not free to produce. Your contributions make DrugSense and its Media Awareness Project (MAP) happen. Please donate today. Our secure Web server at http://www.drugsense.org/donate.htm accepts credit cards. Or, mail your check or money order to: DrugSense, 14252 Culver Drive #328, Irvine, CA 92604-0326, tel: (800) 266 5759 DrugSense is a 501c(3) non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the expensive, ineffective, and destructive "War on Drugs." Donations are tax deductible to the extent provided by law. . http://drugsense.org/lists/listform.htm?alerts

DPA: We're in the Wall Street Journal Today

You Can Make a Difference

Dear friends,

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition.  Please read my op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal, and encourage others to do the same. And if you really like it, then please empower our efforts to reform today’s drug prohibitions.

I’d welcome your thoughts on the piece.

Very truly yours,

Ethan Nadelmann

 

 

Ethan Nadelmann
Executive Director
Drug Policy Alliance Network

P.S.  Follow this link to see my article in today's Wall Street Journal -- you can share it on Facebook, MySpace, Digg, del.icio.us and other sites.

Let's End Drug Prohibition

Most Americans agreed that alcohol suppression was worse than alcohol consumption.

Today is the 75th anniversary of that blessed day in 1933 when Utah became the 36th and deciding state to ratify the 21st amendment, thereby repealing the 18th amendment. This ended the nation's disastrous experiment with alcohol prohibition.

It's already shaping up as a day of celebration, with parties planned, bars prepping for recession-defying rounds of drinks, and newspapers set to publish cocktail recipes concocted especially for the day.

But let's hope it also serves as a day of reflection. We should consider why our forebears rejoiced at the relegalization of a powerful drug long associated with bountiful pleasure and pain, and consider too the lessons for our time.

The Americans who voted in 1933 to repeal prohibition differed greatly in their reasons for overturning the system. But almost all agreed that the evils of failed suppression far outweighed the evils of alcohol consumption.

The change from just 15 years earlier, when most Americans saw alcohol as the root of the problem and voted to ban it, was dramatic. Prohibition's failure to create an Alcohol Free Society sank in quickly. Booze flowed as readily as before, but now it was illicit, filling criminal coffers at taxpayer expense.

Some opponents of prohibition pointed to Al Capone and increasing crime, violence and corruption. Others were troubled by the labeling of tens of millions of Americans as criminals, overflowing prisons, and the consequent broadening of disrespect for the law. Americans were disquieted by dangerous expansions of federal police powers, encroachments on individual liberties, increasing government expenditure devoted to enforcing the prohibition laws, and the billions in forgone tax revenues. And still others were disturbed by the specter of so many citizens blinded, paralyzed and killed by poisonous moonshine and industrial alcohol.

Supporters of prohibition blamed the consumers, and some went so far as to argue that those who violated the laws deserved whatever ills befell them. But by 1933, most Americans blamed prohibition itself.

When repeal came, it was not just with the support of those with a taste for alcohol, but also those who disliked and even hated it but could no longer ignore the dreadful consequences of a failed prohibition. They saw what most Americans still fail to see today: That a failed drug prohibition can cause greater harm than the drug it was intended to banish.

Consider the consequences of drug prohibition today: 500,000 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails for nonviolent drug-law violations; 1.8 million drug arrests last year; tens of billions of taxpayer dollars expended annually to fund a drug war that 76% of Americans say has failed; millions now marked for life as former drug felons; many thousands dying each year from drug overdoses that have more to do with prohibitionist policies than the drugs themselves, and tens of thousands more needlessly infected with AIDS and Hepatitis C because those same policies undermine and block responsible public-health policies.

And look abroad. At Afghanistan, where a third or more of the national economy is both beneficiary and victim of the failed global drug prohibition regime. At Mexico, which makes Chicago under Al Capone look like a day in the park. And elsewhere in Latin America, where prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption undermine civil authority and public safety, and mindless drug eradication campaigns wreak environmental havoc.

All this, and much more, are the consequences not of drugs per se but of prohibitionist policies that have failed for too long and that can never succeed in an open society, given the lessons of history. Perhaps a totalitarian American could do better, but at what cost to our most fundamental values?

Why did our forebears wise up so quickly while Americans today still struggle with sorting out the consequences of drug misuse from those of drug prohibition?

It's not because alcohol is any less dangerous than the drugs that are banned today. Marijuana, by comparison, is relatively harmless: little association with violent behavior, no chance of dying from an overdose, and not nearly as dangerous as alcohol if one misuses it or becomes addicted. Most of heroin's dangers are more a consequence of its prohibition than the drug's distinctive properties. That's why 70% of Swiss voters approved a referendum this past weekend endorsing the government's provision of pharmaceutical heroin to addicts who could not quit their addictions by other means. It is also why a growing number of other countries, including Canada, are doing likewise.

Yes, the speedy drugs -- cocaine, methamphetamine and other illicit stimulants -- present more of a problem. But not to the extent that their prohibition is justifiable while alcohol's is not. The real difference is that alcohol is the devil we know, while these others are the devils we don't. Most Americans in 1933 could recall a time before prohibition, which tempered their fears. But few Americans now can recall the decades when the illicit drugs of today were sold and consumed legally. If they could, a post-prohibition future might prove less alarming.

But there's nothing like a depression, or maybe even a full-blown recession, to make taxpayers question the price of their prejudices. That's what ultimately hastened prohibition's repeal, and it's why we're sure to see a more vigorous debate than ever before about ending marijuana prohibition, rolling back other drug war excesses, and even contemplating far-reaching alternatives to drug prohibition.

Perhaps the greatest reassurance for those who quake at the prospect of repealing contemporary drug prohibitions can be found in the era of prohibition outside of America. Other nations, including Britain, Australia and the Netherlands, were equally concerned with the problems of drink and eager for solutions. However, most opted against prohibition and for strict controls that kept alcohol legal but restricted its availability, taxed it heavily, and otherwise discouraged its use. The results included ample revenues for government coffers, criminals frustrated by the lack of easy profits, and declines in the consumption and misuse of alcohol that compared favorably with trends in the United States.

Is President-elect Barack Obama going to commemorate Repeal Day today? I'm not holding my breath. Nor do I expect him to do much to reform the nation's drug laws apart from making good on a few of the commitments he made during the campaign: repealing the harshest drug sentences, removing federal bans on funding needle-exchange programs to reduce AIDS, giving medical marijuana a fair chance to prove itself, and supporting treatment alternatives for low-level drug offenders.

But there's one more thing he can do: Promote vigorous and informed debate in this domain as in all others. The worst prohibition, after all, is a prohibition on thinking. 

Marijuana: Chicago Heights Decriminalizes

The far south Chicago suburb of Chicago Heights, Illinois, has hopped on the marijuana decriminalization bandwagon. The town of just over 30,000 people acted Monday night to craft a local ordinance that it will use instead of prosecuting people under state law.

Under the ordinance approved under the city's home rule authority, people caught with less than 30 grams of marijuana will not face criminal charges, but will instead be ticketed and go through an administrative hearing in city court.

Making simple marijuana possession an ordinance violation rather than a crime will help "unclog" the criminal justice system, said City Attorney TJ Somer. It will also provide extra revenue to the city because the city does not have to share revenue from fines with the Cook County Circuit Court system, as it would have to do if it handled them under state law.

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