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Mr. President, fix our broken drug policy

By Joy Strickland, Special to CNN
updated 2:58 PM EST, Wed November 21, 2012
The federal government must adopt a policy of controlled legalization for all drugs, starting with marijuana, says Joy Strickland.
The federal government must adopt a policy of controlled legalization for all drugs, starting with marijuana, says Joy Strickland.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Joy Strickland: My son was killed by teenagers who were drug abusers
  • Strickland: Drug prohibition does not protect our children from drug violence
  • She says marijuana legalization in two states can be catalyst for federal reform
  • Strickland: Our drug policy should focus on public health rather than law enforcement

Editor's note: Joy Strickland, founder and CEO of Mothers Against Teen Violence, is an Op-Ed Project Public Voices Fellow at Texas Woman's University.

(CNN) -- Dear Mr. President:

Congratulations on your hard-fought and historic re-election. The American people have entrusted you with a second term in the Oval Office. As you consider your agenda for the next four years, it is my sincere hope that you will commit some portion of your brilliance and pragmatism to fixing our broken drug policy.

The issue became personal for me when my tall, handsome and gifted 19-year-old son was killed, with a friend, in a random crime by two teenagers who were drug abusers and low-level drug traffickers looking for someone to carjack on June 19, 1993.

Compassion demands that we do everything in our power to protect children from drugs, the ravages of drug dealers, and drug-related crimes. But drug prohibition has the opposite effect, exposing children to turf wars, gang violence, and access to drugs.

Joy Strickland
Joy Strickland

A recent Gallup poll indicates that a record 50% of Americans favor legalizing marijuana. But the federal government remains wedded to an outdated, 75-year-old policy that has no hope of ending the drug war.

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In the absence of thoughtful leadership on this issue from Washington, a growing number of states have moved to fill the void. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have approved cannabis for medical use.

But owners, operators and employees of marijuana dispensaries, caught in the conflict between state and federal drug laws, have come under pressure. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, dressed in full riot gear, have made good on threats to raid dispensaries, destroying personal property and livelihoods in the process. No American citizen should be put in this position.

Undaunted, states continue their forward march. In an unprecedented move on Election Day, Colorado and Washington state passed laws representing a brazen challenge to federal prohibition: Both legalized marijuana.

Currently, the penalty gap among states for marijuana possession is far from ideal. In one state, drug possession may be inconsequential, while in another, the consequences could follow you for the rest of your life. An inconsistency of this magnitude is not tenable.

The new laws in Colorado and Washington state could result in an escalation of the drug war, or they can be a catalyst for federal reform.

I'm hoping and praying for the latter.

Americans deserve a drug policy based on science, compassion and equity. Instead, we have a policy that ignores science, increases harm, and is rife with contradictions.

Despite efforts dating back to 1972, marijuana remains on Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act. Drugs in this category include cocaine, opium, heroin, and other highly addictive, deadly drugs.

Part of the justification for the Schedule 1 classification is the federal government's insistence that marijuana has no medical benefits. But the Department of Health and Human Services obtained U.S. Patent 6630507 for cannabis in 2003. In a stunning contradiction to the Schedule 1 classification, the patent abstract states:

"The cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and HIV dementia."

To paraphrase one observer, listing marijuana with Schedule 1 drugs is like including a rubber spatula in a "deadly weapons" category alongside semiautomatic rifles.

Among the privileged, problematic drug use is treated as a health issue. But poor, black, and brown people are far more likely to be arrested and criminalized than given access to treatment.

Americans are 5% of the world's population, and 25% of those incarcerated. Our incarceration rates are the highest in the history of the world, representing a shameful waste of human potential. And the drug war is the vehicle that has brought us to the destination of mass incarceration.

Meanwhile, drug trafficking is a problem of supply and demand. The first step toward drug policy reform should be to determine the effectiveness of current strategies in having a sustainable impact on the supply of or the demand for drugs. Ineffective strategies and programs must be discontinued. We can't afford to continue expensive policies that don't work.

Secondly, we must transform our drug policy from a law enforcement model to a public health approach. This means investing substantially in effective prevention, working with states to encourage harm reduction strategies and making treatment available on demand.

The federal government must adopt a policy of controlled legalization for all drugs, starting with marijuana. Federal legalization would protect our children from drugs in a way that law enforcement can't, eliminate the penalty gap from state to state for drug possession, and mark the beginning of the end to mass incarceration.

On behalf of my family and the millions who have been victimized by the drug war, I urge the president to give this critical issue the time and attention it deserves.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joy Strickland.

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