The Obama administration has begun, quietly and sensitively, to mark the 50th anniversary of when the United States sent its first “advisers” to Vietnam, and marched into a quagmire-war that would end in enemy victory and divide America.
America is, simultaneously, 42 years into another lost war. President Nixon, in 1970 declared the “War on Drugs”, and began to spend billions of dollars, build a vast bureaucracy, and arrest thousands of young people.
Our governments remain knee deep in the big muddy today. An estimated 100 million Americans have smoked marijuana, including two (and almost certainly three) drug-using recent presidents. Possession arrests clog the courts. Drug cartels are moving to control the business along the Interstate 5 corridor. Drug gangsters are killing each other in once-peaceful British Columbia.
In his new book “Cronkite,” author Douglas Brinkley writes of the legendary CBS News anchorman, a “company man” who served as America’s cheerleader for the space program and Cold War. But on an eye-opening trip to Vietnam in 1968, he concluded and reported that the U.S. war effort in Southeast Asia would at best achieve stalemate.
In 2006, at the age of 89, Cronkite likened the War on Drugs to the War in Vietnam as unwinnable and a drain on lives . . . but with those waging it unwilling to admit to error or vast waste. “Uncle Walter” wrote:
“I covered the Vietnam War. I remember the lies that were told, the lives that were lost — and the shock when, 27 years after the war ended, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admitted he knew it was a mistake all along.
“Today, our nation is fighting two wars: One abroad and one at home. While the war in Iraq is in the headlines, the other war is still being fought on our own streets. Its casualties are the wasted lives of our own citizens.
“I am speaking of the War on Drugs. “And I cannot help but wonder how many more lives, and how much more money, will be wasted before another Robert McNamara admits what is plain for all to see: The War on Drugs is a failure.”
Cronkite asked, in Brinkley’s words, “whether arresting 1.5 million Americans a year on drug charges (half of them marijuana arrests) made sense financially to taxpayers.”
The Pacific Northwest was a center of resistance to the Vietnam War. The region, on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, is now trying to talk sense to power on the failing drug war. Will power listen?
Voters in Seattle, in 2003, adopted an ordinance putting marijuana possession at the bottom of the Seattle Police Department’s enforcement priorities. The state of Washington will vote this November on an initiative to legalize, regulate and tax sales of small amount of cannabis.
Up north, ex-Vancouver mayors and B.C. attorneys general of all political stripes have united to send a message to Canada’s federal government:
Enforcement isn’t working. The current policy simply plays into gangs’ hands. Drugs have become stuff of barter, with B.C. Bud flowing out of the country, with cocaine and meth and heroin coming in.
Vancouver has even defended, against both our Drug Enforcement Administration and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, the city’s first-of-its-kind safe injection center. It offers clean needles to addicts, but also medical treatment and education and opportunities to beat addiction. It has cut down on street deaths.
A key question about Washington’s Initiative 502: Will the heavy-handed feds come in, threaten the state, deliver stern warnings about property compensation — and, generally, try to scare us out of doing what is sensible and years overdue?
Soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam were, in numbers disproportionate, poor and/or black and/or Hispanic. President Lyndon Johnson was the parent of Head Start, but architect of a war that was killing 500 young Americans a week when Cronkite went to Vietnam in 1968.
The similarities could be seen this week in New York, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for an end to criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of pot, and — surprisingly — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed him up.
Since 1990, with Gotham City cops using stop-and-frisk tactics, marijuana possession arrests in New York City have soared from 2,000 to 50,000 a year. More than 80 percent of those busted are African-American or Hispanic.
“This is an issue that disproportionately affects young people,” Cuomo said. “They wind up with a permanent stain on their record for something that would otherwise be a violation. The charge makes it difficult for them to get a job.”
The busts also make it difficult for law enforcement to do their jobs: Take the 6,000 arrests in Manhattan last year for smoking pot in the open.
As Manhattan District Attorney (and former Seattle lawyer) Cyrus Vance put it, “The human costs to each defendant changed with a misdemeanor are serious. And the drain on our resources in our office and the NYPD to process those 6,000 cases is significant.”
Enough! Basta, as they say in Italian. Decriminalization will not produce a society of druggies. A shift from enforcement to taxation, treatment and education can only bring better results, and allow our police agencies to concentrate on serious crime.
In his autobiography, and in a new biography by David Maraniss, Barack Obama is seen smoking pot at his elite Honolulu high school. He would see it as a dead end path and pull back, not because of enforcement but out of ambition and self-discipline.
Will this President, who ended one overseas war and is ending another, see fit — if reelected — to pull America out of the War on Drugs? What did the famous 2008 Obama poster say? “Hope.”