The Beginning of the End of the Drug War: Top 10 Stories of 2013

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December 16, 2013 - By Tony Newman

2013 will go down in history as the beginning of the end of our disastrous war on drugs. 58% of Americans nationally support marijuana legalization. World leaders like former UN head Kofi Annan are calling for an end to the drug war. US Attorney General Erik Holder is speaking out against racist mandatory minimum drug laws and mass incarceration. Celebrities like Will Smith, Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Hudson joined 175 other celebrities saying No More Drug War in a letter to the President. Just last week, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana. Below are some of the top stories that made 2013 a watershed year in the fight to end America’s longest failed war.

#1. White House Allows Marijuana Legalization Laws to Proceed in Colorado and Washington

Last November Colorado and Washington made history when they voted to legalize marijuana. The big question was how were President Obama and the federal government going to respond.  In August, Attorney General Eric Holder informed the governors of Washington and Colorado that the Department of Justice would allow the states to implement their ballot initiatives that legalized the production, distribution, and sale of marijuana for adults.

#2. Gallup Poll Finds Record 58% of Americans want to Legalize Marijuana

In October a Gallup poll found a record breaking 58% of Americans support making marijuana legal, with only 39 % opposed.  Support for legalization has jumped an extraordinary 10 percentage points since last November when Colorado and Washington State legalized marijuana. Colorado and Washington showed the world that it is possible to legalize marijuana. More U.S states and countries are sure to follow in 2014 and 2016.

#3. Uruguay Becomes 1st Country in the World to Legalize Marijuana

Last week, Uruguay became the first nation to make recreational marijuana legal for adults and to regulate its production, distribution and sale. The marijuana legalization proposal was put forward by President José Mujica and approved by the House and Senate. By approving this measure, Uruguay represents the vanguard of growing opposition to the drug war in Latin America and throughout the world.

#4. Attorney General Eric Holder Slams U.S. Mass Incarceration and Mandatory Minimums

In September, Attorney General Eric Holder offered the Obama administration’s most forceful critique to date of U.S. mass incarceration policies, at a meeting of the hemisphere's security ministers in Medellín, Colombia. He also emphasized the Obama administration's efforts to scale back mandatory minimum sentencing policies.

“The path we are currently on is far from sustainable,” said Holder.  “As we speak, roughly one out of every 100 American adults is behind bars.  Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners… It carries both human and moral costs that are too much to bear.  And it results in far too many Americans serving too much time in too many prisons – and beyond the point of serving any good law enforcement reason.”

#5. Superstar-Studded Coalition to President Obama: Let’s Tackle Mass Incarceration and Failed Drug War

In April, a coalition of over 175 artists, actors, athletes, elected officials and advocates, brought together by hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons and Dr. Boyce Watkins, presented an open letter to President Obama, urging him to change the United States’ criminal justice policy from that of a punitive, suppression-based model to one that favors evidence-based prevention and rehabilitation. The letter, signed by Will Smith, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Scarlett Johansson, Ron Howard, Jennifer Hudson, Demi Moore, Eva Longoria, Michael Moore, Mark Wahlberg, Harry Belafonte, Jada Pinkett Smith, Cameron Diaz, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Chris Rock, Russell Brand and John Legend generated worldwide media.

#6. New Zealand Becomes First Country in the World to Legally Regulate New Synthetic Drugs

New Zealand’s Parliament enacted a landmark law to regulate and control – rather than criminalize –new synthetic drugs.  The first-of-its-kind law, the Psychoactive Substance Act of 2013, came into effect on July 18, after being approved in Parliament by a 119-1 margin, with the support of seven different political parties from across New Zealand’s political spectrum. Supporters of the legislation argued that outright criminalization is likely to drive these products to the underground market, which provides no age restrictions or other regulatory controls. What is more, attempts to ban one new substance after another have proven futile – each time one gets banned, another new, untested and oftentimes more dangerous drug fills the void to replace it. According to the New Zealand Ministry of Health, “Regulating psychoactive substances will help protect the health of, and minimize harm to, individuals who use these substances.”

#7.  ACLU Report Finds Overwhelming Racial Bias in Marijuana Arrests

In June, the ACLU released a groundbreaking report  "The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests", the first to examine nationwide state and county marijuana arrest data by race. The report documented racist marijuana enforcement and arrests in every single city and state in the country. The report generated an avalanche of media coverage in local, national and international media. The report was a catalyst for people all over the country to speak out against racist marijuana enforcement.

#8. The Incredible Impact Of Dr. Sanjay Gupta's Medical Marijuana Special

Dr. Sanjay Gupta aired a one hour CNN special on medical marijuana. The impact of his special and an op-ed that he wrote for CNN – where he apologized for his past opposition to medical marijuana – was incredible!

A major focus of the special was a young girl who needs medical marijuana to relieve her constant, debilitating seizures. Coincidently, there was legislation under consideration in New Jersey to expand its medical marijuana law so that minors can access it. The issue was sympathetically covered by Gupta, and within days, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was being asked about the legislation. Just a few days later Christie committed to signing it.

Another manifestation of Gupta's impact came when President Obama's press secretary was asked whether Gupta's change of heart has caused the president to re-examine his position on medical marijuana.

More people asked me about the Sanjay Gupta special than almost anything else I've worked on over the past decade and a half. It is clear that Dr. Gupta's work is changing hearts, minds and ultimately lives.

#9. World Leaders Speak Out: Stop 'War on Drugs'

World leaders are speaking out frequently and forcefully against the war on drugs. Last month, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso delivered a devastating critique for CNN.com. Back in 2011, Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker and Richard Branson joined former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) and other distinguished members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in saying the time had come to “break the taboo” on exploring alternatives to the failed war on drugs – and to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs,” especially marijuana. More recently, current presidents Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala, and José Mujica in Uruguay have joined these calls for reform. In May, the Organization of American States produced a report, commissioned by heads of state of the region, that included marijuana legalization as a likely policy alternative. The OAS report predicted a likely hemispheric move towards marijuana legalization in the coming years.

#10. Despite Progress, the Drug War Grinds On as Viciously as Ever

For all of the progress in 2013, the war on drugs is as vicious as ever. The worst drug war policies remain entrenched, as close to three-quarters of a million people are arrested for marijuana possession every year, and more than half a million people are still behind bars today for nothing more than a drug law violation. The bloodbath in Mexico has taken 70,000 lives in the last seven years. And overdose fatalities have doubled in the last decade.

We are at a paradoxical moment in our country. We are clearly moving in the right direction, toward a more rational drug policy based on science, compassion, health and human rights. But we need to step up our efforts, grow our numbers, and continue to win hearts and minds because the casualties from the war continue to mount every day. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org).

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