(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
WASHINGTON, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Between 1971, when Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs, and 2008, the latest year for which official figures are available, American law enforcement officials made more than 40 million drug arrests. That number roughly equals the population of California, or of the 33 biggest U.S. cities.
Forty million arrests speak volumes about America's longest war, which was meant to throttle drug production at home and abroad, cut supplies across the borders, and keep people from using drugs. The marathon effort has boosted the prison industry but failed so obviously to meet its objectives that there is a growing chorus of calls for the legalization of illicit drugs.
In the United States, that brings together odd bedfellows. Libertarians in the tea party movement, for example, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization of former police officers, narcotics agents, judges and prosecutors who favor legalizing all drugs, not only marijuana, the world's most widely-used illicit drug.
In Mexico, President Felipe Calderon has proposed a debate on the legalization of drugs - an implicit admission that the war he launched against his country's drug cartels in 2006 cannot be won by force alone. (The death toll has just risen above 28,000 and keeps climbing). Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, followed up by declaring that since prohibition strategies had failed, Mexico should consider legalizing "the production, sale and distribution of drugs."
It's difficult to see how that could work without parallel moves in the United States, the main market for Mexican drugs, and it's equally difficult to imagine Congress or state legislatures signing off on the regulated sale of cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine.
But there is growing acceptance that marijuana should be treated differently. Support for less rigid policies spans the political spectrum and has come from unexpected quarters. Sarah Palin, the darling of the American right, recently stepped into the debate on marijuana by describing its use as a "minimal problem" which should not be a priority for law enforcement.
That's a view widely shared. Last year, a blue-ribbon panel chaired by three former Latin American presidents (Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil) published a report that rated the drug war a failure and urged governments to look into "decriminalizing" the possession of marijuana for personal use.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END?
"Taking all this together, there is reason to believe that we are at the beginning of the end of the drug war as we know it," says Aaron Houston, a veteran Washington lobbyist for marijuana policy reform.
Far-fetched? Perhaps. But how many people in the late 1920s, at the height of the government's fight against the likes of Al Capone, would have foreseen that alcohol prohibition would end in just a few years? Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933 and is now considered a failed experiment in social engineering.
Alcohol and marijuana prohibition have much in common: both in effect handed production, sales and distribution of a commodity in high demand to criminal organizations, both filled the prisons (America's population behind bars is now the world's largest), both diverted the resources of law enforcement, and both created millions of scoff-laws.
According to government estimates, up to 100 million Americans have tried marijuana at least once and the list of prominent citizens who admit having smoked it at one point or another is impressive. It includes President Barack Obama, his predecessor, George W. Bush, Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Senator John Kerry, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Vice President Al Gore. Not to forget Bill (I didn't inhale) Clinton.
The argument for making marijuana legal is straightforward: it is thought to account for around 60 percent of the profits of international drug cartels, estimated at up to $60 billion annually. Take almost two thirds of that business away and the cartels' power to corrupt and confront the state, as they do in Mexico, will decline sharply.
How close (or far) the United States is to an end to marijuana prohibition will become clear on November 2, when voters in California decide on a ballot initiative known as Proposition 19. Its official title, the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010, reflects what marijuana reform advocates around the country have long campaigned for - treat it like alcohol and tobacco.
The act would allow Californians over 21 to own, cultivate or transport up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. This is distinct from marijuana for medical purposes, which is already legal in California and 13 other states, as well as the District of Columbia.
Public opinion polls on the proposition so far give no clear picture. A yes vote would be virtually certain to hasten changes elsewhere -- California is not only America's most populous state, it also has a long track record for setting trends. (You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters) (Editing by Kieran Murray)
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