Time to rethink 'War on Drugs'

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Decades of failure have impacted society in destructive ways.

THERE'S AN OLD spiritual called "Dem Bones" and it goes like this: "Toe bone connected to the foot bone, foot bone connected to the heel bone, heel bone connected to the ankle bone, ankle bone connected to the shin bone, shin bone connected to the knee bone ..." and so on and so on.

The message, quite obviously, is that connections make the whole.

Which comes to mind as a new year dawns and a new governor and legislature in Illinois appear all but certain to legalize recreational marijuana possession and use. The usual arguments are coming from the usual spaces. Advocates say marijuana is no different than alcohol and people are using it anyway, while outlawing it creates a criminal market. Opponents say it's a gateway drug and legalizing it will make a bad situation worse.

Public opinion, though, has shifted dramatically. The respected Pew Research Center, for example, conducted a poll in October showing nearly 2 in 3 Americans favor legalization.

As for the politicians, this will surprise no one: It's about the money. Legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana is projected to bring in about $1 billion a year for bankrupt Illinois.

IN OUR VIEW, legalizing pot is neither great public policy nor a death sentence for civilized society. For the most part, people who want to use pot already are, and people who don't want to use pot won't start now.

The proposed law would make selling pot to minors illegal, and that's as it should be - though it's naive to think kids who want to smoke pot won't find a way. It's illegal to drink alcohol as a minor, too, but any kid who really wants a jolt can find it. And, yes, it was like that when you were a kid, too. Admit it.

A major benefit of legalizing marijuana would be crimping the criminals' style. Your unfriendly neighborhood pot dealer would watch his market quickly dry up.

Could that mean a bigger push by the criminal element to peddle harder drugs?

Probably. The bad guys won't shrug and apply for a job at Walmart.

And that brings us back to "Dem Bones."

WITHOUT A SHRED of doubt we say this: America's so-called "War on Drugs" has been a miserable failure.

It has cost hundreds of billions of dollars since being initiated in the 1970s. The Center for American Progress, a lefty think tank, puts the annual cost today at about $80 billion.

Beyond dollars, the dope wars have filled America's prisons and decimated communities, particularly in urban areas. America can't keep up with the demand to build new prison cells, filled in substantial part by individuals with drug connections and/or drug dependencies. Many of the inmates are nonviolent.

As the streets are swept of individuals connected to the drug culture, families often lose breadwinners and, yes, that tends to mean fathers. Too many families fall into poverty and pathologies, and kids grow up without dads. Young males, in particular, are at risk to become what they see - an outlaw culture rather than a work culture - thus repeating the cycle.

None of that, mind you, materially has reduced drugs on the street. Call it next-man-up, when the dealer goes down somebody takes his place. The lure of easy money is too strong.

Dollars devoted to locking people up might better be spent treating addictions and trying to stabilize family disintegration factors, but that runs headlong into the hardcore law-and-order mentality.

Which is silly. If arresting and locking up people connected to the drug culture could solve the problem, we'd be done. Obviously, we're not.

AMERICANS ALWAYS CRAVE easy solutions and the vision of a big old wall along the southern border fits, existing to cast blame and supposedly keep out drugs and outlaws.

Two thoughts:

• First, apply the law of supply and demand. If a person is on one side of the wall waving hundred dollar bills, the person on the other side will find a way.

• Second, one word: Drone.

If we could wave a magic wand, the first step would be to declare the obvious: The War on Drugs is a failure.

Next, we would spend a lot of the money being sucked up in that war to pay for treatment of dependencies.

Then we would stop building prison cells for nonviolent drug offenders, while continuing to lock up people who have proven themselves to be predators.

And we would get serious about tackling what may well be the most serious and debilitating issue afflicting America's cities - the collapse of the family structure. Kids need a mom and a dad. Breadwinners need a way to provide that doesn't involve illegality. Communities need to accept responsibility for troubled neighborhoods, not just point fingers and heap disdain. Cultural collapse did not happen overnight. Rebuilding a culture of responsibility and accountability will take time and resources - starting with an effort to seek and earn trust.

Pay for a big chunk of that by, yes, decriminalizing marijuana.

THESE ISSUES ARE not isolated. Like "Dem Bones," they are connected, one to another. The War on Drugs failed for many reasons, but if we had to focus on something it's this: Prioritizing interdiction of substances and jailing peddlers missed almost entirely the demand side and the profit motive, while discounting the collateral damage caused to families and communities.

If the politicians in Illinois vacuum up $1 billion a year and waste it - as they've wasted so much before - that will be an unmitigated disaster. Watch the professional politicians - whose first impulse always is to grab money and channel it to their political base and donors - like a hawk.

Done right, legalization could become an opportunity to accept failure and start anew with something broader, smarter - and connected.

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