So it is difficult to be anything but disappointed at Obama’s recent declaration in Colombia that “legalization is not the answer” to the international drug problem. The president argued that drug dealers might come to “dominate certain countries if they were allowed to operate legally,” which “could be just as corrupting, if not more corrupting, than the status quo.”
One wonders if the president forgot to engage brain before operating mouth. Dealers might “dominate certain countries”? Has Obama never heard of Mexico, that country on our southern border where drug dealers operate as a virtual shadow government in some areas? Is he unfamiliar with Colombia, his host nation, where the government battled a drug cartel brutal and brazen enough to attack the Supreme Court and assassinate the attorney general? The scenario Obama warns against actually came to pass long ago.
Similarly, it is a mystery how the manufacture and sale of a legal product could be “just as corrupting, if not more corrupting, than the status quo.” How could that be, given that there would no longer be a need for drug merchants to bribe judges, politicians, and police for protection? What reason is there to believe a legal market in drugs would be any more prone to corruption than the legal markets in cigarettes and alcohol? Or popcorn and chocolate?
The president’s reasoning is about as sturdy as a cardboard box in a monsoon. Even he must know that the drug war has failed. Several numbers quantify that failure:
41: That’s how many years the “war” has raged.
40 million-plus: That’s how many Americans have been arrested.
$1 trillion-plus: That’s the cost.
2,800 percent: That’s how much drug use has risen.
1.3 percent: That’s the share of Americans who were drug-addicted in 1914.
1.3 percent: That’s the share of Americans who are drug-addicted now.
These numbers came from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of cops, judges, Drug Enforcement Administration agents and other drug warriors who are demanding an end to the drug war. They call to mind an old axiom: The definition of crazy is to continue doing the same thing but expecting a different result.
That said, it is not difficult to understand why the president — or anyone — might flinch at the notion of legalizing drugs. It is a big, revolutionary idea, an idea that would change the way things have been done since forever. If someone feels a need to pause before crossing that line, that’s understandable.
But let none of us do as the president did: hide behind a specious argument that offers no solution, no way forward, and, most critically, no leadership.
Drug legalization is not the answer? OK, Mr. President, fair enough.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.