The War on Drugs Remains Literal

On March 13, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued a ruling that may provide a benefit for a small but not insignificant number of the people arrested for marijuana in the state. Brandi Jessica Russell had her 2011 conviction for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana overturned, and this precedent could be applied to other specific cases where the defendants had appeals in process when Colorado’s Amendment 64 passed in November 2012.

The victory will be small, since most people charged with drug possession plead out instead. But it’s progress. And in spite of some handwringing about the legal precedent set by retroactively applying a law by such dissenters as The Denver Post editorial board, this is a good thing. As Tom Angell, the founder of the Marijuana Majority, told me by email, "The voters of Colorado … declared the war on marijuana a failure on Election Day 2012. It’s very good news that their sensible action at the ballot box will not only prevent more people from being arrested under senseless prohibition laws but will provide help to those who have been caught in the grips of those laws in years past.”

But Angell and his organization’s optimism notwithstanding, the war on drugs is still raging. And we need to keep remembering it’s truly a war. This means half the people in our bulging prisons are both casualties of and prisoners of war. And while we keep progressing with recreational legal marijuana laws and the loosening up of attitudes towards drugs, we cannot forget about the people who are still being punished due to the most dangerous moral panic in U.S. history. Legal precedent be damned; letting every single nonviolent drug criminal out of prison today would be the right thing to do.

The moment the scorched policy of the war on drugs slows at all, it is tempting to pull a W. on the aircraft carrier and declare "mission accomplished." But in May 2009, the Obama administration’s drug tsar Gil Kerlikowske declared that they weren’t going to call it "the war on drugs" anymore. After all, said Kerlikowske, "people see a war as a war on them. We’re not at war with people in this country." The Obama administration has made some token shifts towards less draconian methods of fighting, such as drug courts – which have their own problems – but Kerlikowske was basically lying. War is a nasty, disturbingly accurate, word for what the government has done for 40-plus years (mostly with public approval or at least indifference). The Korean War wasn’t a "police action," and the door-busting, life-ruining parts of the war on drugs did not end after their general decided calling a spade a spade was bad PR.

That switch, and other meek rhetorical gestures, have been pure show on the part of the hypocritical Obama administration until they began to timidly improve last year with some unofficial sentencing reform guidelines. (As libertarian writer and magician Penn Jillette brilliantly put it in a May, 2012 rant, Obama, previously known for making quips about "stoners," should be in prison himself if his policies were equally applied). And the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington State in 2012 truly changed the game. Weed was legal, really legal, for the first time in 70 years. And so far, Attorney General Eric Holder – who is also backing more concrete sentencing reforms now! – has let those states be.

Everyone – particularly the heroic drug policy folks who made this possible – deserves to celebrate this victory. I’m 27, but I still remember a time when nobody – nobody – with any kind of shot at winning political office dared discuss ending the drug war. Not even medical marijuana was a safe enough subject on which to opine. You didn’t so much as come out against such things as they didn’t come up for debate at all. In the past five or so years, we have moved from that to this – this being mainstream politicians like Republican Governors Chris Christie (NJ) and Rick Perry (TX), and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid all declaring that drug laws need to be changed.

Marijuana reform is a popular issue for people, and the politicians are finally trying to catch up. It is incredible that it now safe enough an issue for non-libertarian, pro-big government politicians to endorse a truncated version of a drug war truce. But we can’t declare victory yet. This 40-year nightmare has ruined too many lives and busted too many civil liberties to count. The cause, like all of America’s ill-advised, brutal adventures do at first, sounded so nice – a drug-free society. The result was the largest prison population in the world, and less freedom for all of us.

This war has long been global as well as domestic. We have a Drug Enforcement Administration that acts like the Central Intelligence Agency in Latin America, and has colluded with the National Security Agency at home. The United States has browbeaten other nations into following its warped example on drug policy. In Mexico, powerful drug cartels have killed 60,000 people and US policy has made that worse. And why bother repealing Posse Comitatus’ restrictions on soldiers enforcing law at home, when you can just make police indistinguishable from an army?

There is very little about this campaign against drugs that is not a literal war, at least since Ronald Reagan made it so. And it needs to end now.

We need peace more than we need legal propriety. We need to end this war, free all the prisoners, and never again trust the architects of misery and social engineering – especially when they began to sell their next grand adventure.

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.