Friday marks the 40th anniversary of one of the biggest, most expensive, most destructive social policy experiments in U.S. history: The war on drugs.

On the morning of June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon, speaking from the Briefing Room of the White House, declared: “America's public enemy Number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive. I have asked the Congress to provide the legislative authority and the funds to fuel this kind of an offensive. This will be a worldwide offensive dealing with the problems of sources of supply, as well as Americans who may be stationed abroad, wherever they are in the world.” So began a war that has waxed and waned, sputtered and sprinted, until it became an unmitigated disaster, an abomination of justice and a self-perpetuating, trillion-dollar economy of wasted human capital, ruined lives and decimated communities. And no group has been more targeted than the African-Americans.

An effort meant to save us from a form of moral decay became its own insidious brand of moral perversion turning people who should have been patients into prisoners, criminalising victimless behaviour, targeting those whose first offence was entering the world wrapped in the wrong skin.

Last week, the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a 19-member commission, declared: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the U.S. government's war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.”

The White House immediately shot back. It presented a collection of statistics that compared current drug use and demand with the peak of the late 1970s, although a direct correlation between those declines and the drug war is highly debatable. In doing so, it completely sidestepped the human, economic and societal toll of the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, many for simple possession. No need to put a human face on 40 years of folly when you can swaddle its inefficacy in a patchwork quilt of self-serving statistics. — New York Times News Service

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