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Drug war: Just be thankful it’s almost over

In the summer of 1971, former President Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs, declaring drug abuse “public enemy No. 1.” Nearly four decades later, the war wages on in communities across the United States and guzzles up nearly $200 billion annually. Despite Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and attempts to combat drug producers outside the U.S., the results have been futile. But the strategies used by law enforcement may soon change with President Barack Obama’s nomination of Gil Kerlikowske as drug czar.

As Seattle’s chief of police, Kerlikowske will bring a new mindset to the job, signaling a dramatic shift from Bush-era drug policies. While focus will remain on drug-producing countries and drug violence along the Mexican border, Kerlikowske has stated “the greatest contribution we can make toward [international] stability would be to reduce our demand for illicit drugs.” In other words, the federal government will shift its focus from drug producers to those suffering from addiction to reduce the American market for illegal drugs.

Kerlikowske has firsthand experience dealing with the consequences of drug abuse, not only in his career as a police officer, but also in his personal life – his adult stepson has been arrested on drug charges in the past. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the issue of narcotic trafficking and the damage it inflicts in communities across the country has been put on the back burner. This renewed focus on outreach and rehabilitation signals a change in the mentality of the federal government from punishment to treatment.

Despite the fact that Americans account for only 4 percent of the world population, we still consume two-thirds of the illegal drugs. Of the two million Americans imprisoned, an estimated half suffer from addiction, yet only one-fifth receive treatment. This is despite studies by the National Institute of Drug Abuse that show proper treatment reduces criminal activity by as much as 80 percent and is more cost effective.

Zero-tolerance policies that do nothing but inflict punishment through incarceration fail to realize the medical issues behind addiction. About a quarter of college students are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Yet laws concerning marijuana and other easily accessible drugs treat all perpetrators the same, and give no second chances.

Last month in Virginia, a high school junior who was about to be expelled from all Fairfax County schools for possessing marijuana committed suicide. Another girl, in the same county, was issued a two-week suspension for possessing a birth control pill on school grounds. This should leave us wondering, where’s the room for students to make mistakes? Even Obama has admitted to experimenting with drugs in his younger years.

Rigid laws that treat all drug offenders the same and fail to address issues of addiction do nothing but inflame an already serious problem. With Kerlikowske’s nomination, a change may finally occur in our almost 40-year battle with addiction. While debate will continue over such things as marijuana legalization, we should be thankful that we finally have a president who doesn’t see the world in black and white.

Justin Snow is a sophomore history major. He can be reached at snowdbk@gmail.com.

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