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Break the taboo here in Minnesota

REUTERS/Anthony Bolante
After more than four decades, it’s time to acknowledge that the war on drugs has failed.

Drugs. The great debate. Should we treat drugs as a health problem rather than a criminal problem? Should we change existing drug laws or not? The simple answer is yes.

Sir Richard Branson

When in 2011 I became a commissioner of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, I joined an esteemed group of global leaders, including seven former Heads of State, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, former European Commission Head Javier Solana, and the former Head of the U.S. Federal Reserve Paul Volcker. We all share one simple message: After more than four decades, it’s time to acknowledge that the war on drugs has failed. It’s a message that resonates with people around the world. So what is holding us back from taking the next step?

Last year, my son, Sam, collaborated with a wonderful group of filmmakers to produce an eye-opening documentary on this exact issue. Narrated by Oscar winner Morgan Freeman, “Breaking the Taboo” includes interviews with President Clinton and Fernando Cardoso, the former President of Brazil — who currently chairs the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The film makes a powerful and compelling case why existing drug laws here in the United States and around the world must be changed. For instance, Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimated in 2008 that regulating and taxing drugs would inject over $76 billion a year into the U.S. economy. Given the financial turbulence of recent years, just imagine what a difference that could have made.

This weekend in St. Paul, Mayor Chris Coleman and I will discuss why taking a more science- and fact-based perspective on drug policy is so important. Why? Because much of the debate has been distorted by exaggeration, misinformation and fear-mongering. The truth is that a policy reversal makes not only economic sense; it also would be a much more humane response than the current approach, which has cost way too much in lives and dollars. The United Nations estimates that in the past 30 years, more than $320 billion have been spent on the war on drugs. And the FBI says that in 2009, there were roughly 1.6 million arrests in the U.S. for drug possession alone, over half of those related to marijuana, which still isn’t legal — even for medicinal purposes — here in Minnesota.

Here’s why it should be. If one of my businesses keeps losing money, then the business is broken. Well, these current drug laws are broken, and they need to be fixed. While Minnesota has one of the lowest inmate populations in the country, the Drug Policy Alliance reports there are fifty drug courts in this state alone. We need to find a pathway to the decriminalization of drugs and drug users. Drug addiction shouldn’t be treated as a crime, but as a public health issue. In doing so, we can cut the enormous costs on law enforcement and incarceration, while also generating billions of dollars by in greater tax revenues. Once again, the polls here in the United States often show majority support for decriminalization. It’s time that public policy responds to this trend.

Four years ago, a bill legalizing marijuana for medical use here in Minnesota was passed, and then vetoed by then Gov. Tim Pawlenty. It was clearly a missed opportunity but there are new bills currently in the State Legislature including H.F. 1818 introduced by Rep. Carly Melin. Let’s hope they make it. 

What many people don’t realize is how the war on drugs has been fueling other public health crises. In 2012, new reports by the Global Commission on Drug Policy on Hepatitis C and HIV showed how repressive policies are failing to reduce transmission rates among drug users. Let’s face it, our current polices not only keep millions criminalized and locked up in overcrowded prisons, they actually kill people every day. Mayor Coleman and I will be joined in our panel discussion by Sarah Gordon of the Minnesota Department of Health, who currently heads up Minnesota’s advocacy for all things related to testing and harm reduction based services for Minnesotans.

The good news is that the silence about the harms of repressive drug policies has been broken — they are ineffective, violate basic human rights, generate violence, and expose individuals and communities to unnecessary risks. Now is the time to reform. Now is time the time to break the taboo. Please join me and others in doing so.

Sir Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin, and a commissioner on the Global Commission for Drug Policy. “Breaking the Taboo” will be shown at St. Paul’s Landmark Center on Sunday, July 28 at 2 p.m. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion led by Sir Richard Branson and Mayor Chris Coleman.


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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Lance Groth on 07/26/2013 - 05:23 pm.

    Indeed, and then some

    Thank you for speaking the truth. I’ve been impressed with Sir Richard’s activities on various causes over the years, and this one is no exception. He’s a man who definitely has his head screwed on straight.

    The reasons cited above for changing course are all valid, and there are many more. It seems almost incredible to me that, with the example of the miserable failure of Prohibition, we still fail to learn the lessons of history and insist on repeatedly banging our heads against the same wall. Just as Prohibition created and fed the Mob, so too has the “war on drugs” created and fed the cartels. When California put legalization of marijuana to a vote, what was the source of much of the money that bought ads and commercials opposing legalization? The cartels, because legalization cuts them off at the knees. This would clearly concern them, but why should we agree with them?

    The revenue gain to government from decriminalization/legalization comes not just from taxes and fees, but from avoidance of the billions currently spent on enforcement; a double dip to benefit the public coffers and the economy.

    If farmers could grow hemp, it would be a tremendous boon to them economically, and to the environment as well. Hemp is a weed that will grow almost anywhere, it doesn’t need application of noxious chemicals, and has many commercial uses.

    The medical benefits of marijuana are clear, and it is simply immoral to deny them to patients who would benefit from them.

    As for hard drugs, Germany provides what seems to be a rational model. There, heroin addicts, for example, are not criminalized, but put under medical supervision, in which they are given maintenance doses that allow them to continue functioning as productive citizens and family members, while physicians work with them with the goal of getting them off drugs entirely. How much more rational and compassionate an approach, versus throwing them into prison and turning them into hardened criminals.

    The list goes on and on, but Sir Richard’s basic point is undeniably true: the approach we’ve followed for many decades, the so-called “war on drugs”, is not only a failure, but is in fact counterproductive. We work against our own interests. How can a rational people do anything other than look for alternatives? I would commend to anyone interested in this topic the work of Judge Jim Gray, a republican who was formerly a staff Judge Advocate and criminal defense attorney in the U.S. Navy’s JAG Corps, a federal prosecutor, and a judge on the Orange County Superior Court. His message, after decades of dealing with drug enforcement on the inside, is that drug policy has failed and must be abandoned in favor of a rational approach.

    Governor Dayton has stated that he will not consider legalization of marijuana, even for medical purposes, unless law enforcement endorses it. That is a case of the tail wagging the dog. Law enforcement exists to enforce law, not to create it. The governor is there to set policy and direct its implementation, the legislature is there to create law, and deferring to law enforcement is a case of abdication of authority. Law enforcement has a vested interest in that they receive billions of dollars to fight the war on the drugs. Naturally, they do not wish to lose those resources. But that is not a reason to continue a failed policy. I hope that the Governor will take the time to study the issue, and make his own decision.

  2. Submitted by Bob Wilfahrt on 07/27/2013 - 07:02 am.

    Limited need in health care

    While I do not oppose legalization of marijuana, I question the veracity of those claims that its medical uses are clear and plentiful. Like all chemicals, marijuana use has risks and benefits, and I worry that its medical benefits have been overstated as a rhetorical strategy meant to ease its passage toward legal recreational use.

    Safe, effective, and inexpensive anti-emetic and anxiolytic medications already exist; marijuana would not be regularly chosen by most any physician in treatment of those symptoms because of its dose variability and neurocognitive effects. It’d be a niche drug for all but those who seek an excuse for a medical card.

    And those who describe medical problems to their physician in hopes of a medical marijuana prescription would, by an honest physician, then require evaluation, adding costs and complexity to an already-struggling medical community.

    If it shall be legalized, let’s not make recreational marijuana users pass through the eye of the needle that is the doctor’s office.

  3. Submitted by Chelle Blakely on 07/27/2013 - 11:08 am.

    Forget “medical,” legalize it or not.

    I totally agree we have lost the war on drugs – on all fronts! I am not opposed to legalization and regulation of marijuana. It could be sold in liquor stores. That said, I adamantly oppose the ridiculous sham of medical marijuana.

    If, indeed, marijuana is legalized for prescription use, I should be able to get it at Walgreen and Target in a pill format with exact chemical dosages. Then I may be able to think it is for medicinal use.

    But I abhor the game of seeing “Dr. Reefer” (yes, he advertises on billboards in Colorado Springs!) for my aches and pains, anxiety, or ADHD, so I can go next door to a sleazy dispensary to pick out my ice cream, brownies, doobie, or lollipops. That is not medical treatment.

    We should be seriously reevaluating the war on drugs. We need to look at our legal system, sentencing guidelines, and offer evidence based treatment more often than incarceration. We need to look at new options like suboxone instead of letting children die from heroin overdoses in Hudson WI and Northfield MN. The real issues are much larger than legalizing marijuana.

    Legalize pot, or not. Just don’t buy into the hypocrisy of, wink-wink, “medical” marijuana.

    • Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 07/27/2013 - 04:11 pm.

      Really, no palliative qualities from marijuana. A little education might serve you well. That you might not be able to go to Walgreens for your care is not the issue in this debate.
      Have you ever had the pleasure of chemo? I’m guessing not. Marijuana does not cure the cancer, but it sure gives people an appetite, is that hypocrisy.
      How about the person with Parkinsons who shakes all day, but gets some relief from eating a brownie, and can have a couple hours without the tremors – hypocrisy right.

      Because you chose to not acknowledge the benefits does not mean they are not real. Sure, some will game the system, but this is not a zero sum game.

    • Submitted by Paul O'Day on 07/28/2013 - 05:21 pm.

      “Just don’t buy into the hypocrisy of, wink-wink, “medical” marijuana.”

      I have epilepsy. I prefer to use low THC high CBD marijuana that doesn’t get me high instead of dangerous pharmacuticals. Where is the hypocrisy in my medical use of marijuana?

      I’m sure many people with cancer, AIDS, MS, ALS, and other serious problems would also be shocked to learn that the medicine that helps them so much is a farce.

    • Submitted by Mike Hessler on 07/29/2013 - 07:58 am.

      my 2 cents

      There is more than ample anecdotal evidence that cannabis plants in all their varieties produce complex molecules that are very helpful to people with chronic illnesses. That you can’t today go to Walgreens and get your prescription is because too many people are still standing on the wrong side of a Galileo vs the Church argument and preventing serious research. In the 1600s, the Jesuits noticed people taking powdered bark to prevent leg cramps and shaking. Shaking and trembling were symptoms of malaria. So they tried the powder for malaria and it worked. They didn’t put people in prison for powdering bark, they learned from them. Later we learned alkaloid extraction and isolated quinine. Then we learned how to synthesize it. Then we learned to replace it. But until the 1940s, it was quinine extract from tree bark that saved millions of lives and allowed for development of previously uninhabitable regions (like the Gulf coast of the US).

      Fear of a chronically intoxicated society (which won’t happen) is stopping serious medicinal research. I’m living in a legalized area now and believe me the Cheech and Chong factor wears out pretty quickly. Very few people here want to wear Bob Marley shirts and lounge around in dreadlocks. People don’t sit around coffee shops grinning endlessly at one another. There are many people starting businesses and expanding businesses. People are moving here because it’s not such a draconian place to live. I have yet to see a sleazy dispensary. In short, the world isn’t burning down.

      Legalization alone doesn’t (and shouldn’t) bring acceptance by the medical community and honestly the medical community shouldn’t be caught in the crossfire of an emerging industry. But the medical and law enforcement communities have worked very hard to enact synergistic laws to ensure only the medical community is allowed to determine who gets what kind of relief from what kind of pain and in what form it will take. And if you don’t like it the law enforcement community is here to grind you into conformance. That’s the dynamic. And legalization is a huge threat to that dynamic. The fact is someone in chronic pain should have the right to determine for themselves what form of pain relief they need. And when that happens guess what, the world still won’t burn down.

    • Submitted by Chelle Blakely on 07/30/2013 - 08:24 am.


      I guess I wasn’t clear. (And, yes I have had chemo.) I am not arguing that marijuana can’t make you feel better. So can a glass of wine, but we don’t sell it in pseudo-medical dispensaries. What I have seen in California, Montana, and Colorado is recreational marijuana use legitimized by calling it medical. That is the hypocrisy that bothers me. Just go all the way and legalize it, regulate it, and then sell the lollipops and ice cream in liquor stores where it belongs.

  4. Submitted by David Frenkel on 07/27/2013 - 12:19 pm.

    easy to say hard to do

    Legalizing recreational drugs would not be easy. Would the US government be buying drugs from gang cartels around the world? It is a difficult problem without easy answers other than the war on drugs has failed.

  5. Submitted by Oliver Steinberg on 07/27/2013 - 11:29 pm.

    those who cannot remember the past . . .

    To put the gangs out of business, take the business out of the gangs. The only reason those cartels exist is precisely because of the drug prohibition laws. There is a clear parallel with the experiment of alcohol prohibition, in the USA, which was repealed 80 years ago, after having been established by Constitutional amendment in 1920.

    And truly, if any drug deserves to be suppressed, alcohol is definitely it! Destructive to its users, dangerous to the public at large, corrosive to families and neighborhoods . . . But, as it turned out, alcohol prohibition caused far more problems, far more damage, and failed to curb the vice it sought to cure.

    So what happened when alcohol prohibition was repealed? According to U.S. Census figures, crimes committed with firearms (murders and assaults) declined for the next ten years in a row, so that by 1943 the rate of such violent crimes was close to half of what it had been in the last year of Prohibition. The bootleggers were out of business. Their turf wars and shoot-outs became, as the saying goes, “history.”

    What else happened when alcohol prohibition was repealed? Harry Anslinger, ambitious head of the Narcotics Bureau, in cahoots with the Hearst press [the Fox News equivalent of that era] concocted the demonizing “reefer madness” campaign which succeeded by 1937 in persuading Congress to outlaw cannabis, under the rubric of “marihuana.”

    If you complain about street violence and other crime engendered by “drugs,” you have only yourself to blame. It isn’t drugs that inspire that mayhem, it is prohibition. As long as you want to keep cannabis illegal, or other stuff that people prefer to alcohol, you are asking for exactly what you are getting—a commercial business regulated by gunshots not by licenses and ordinances.

    I resent the self-righteousness of some prohibitionists and the stupidity of others. We are all paying the price for their inflexible allegiance to the taboos of reefer madness. It costs us in lost revenue, in increased expenses for police and courts and prison and probation, in widespread disrespect for all laws, in its preference for empowering criminal gangs and cartels at the expense of public safety, in its ever-increasing resort to the tools of high-tech totalitarianism—that erodes civil liberty for every American.

    In the 2012 election, cannabis reform ballot measures were voted on in five states–east, west, north, and south. The voters chose legalization in two states and medical cannabis in one. In all five states, the cannabis reform laws outpolled either Obama or Romney, and in the only actual swing state of the five (Colorado) the legalization measure got more votes than both Obama and Romney did.

    Since 1996, voters in ten states have favored medicinal cannabis use and it has been defeated in only two. In the ONLY POLLS THAT COUNT, cannabis reform was more popular than Clinton in California, than Bush in Montana, than Obama in Michigan. Medical marijuana was more popular than the last three presidents in their own political strongholds.

    For those who don’t think there is valid therapeutic benefit from using cannabis, don’t use it yourself. But don’t force other people–people with cancer, with multiple sclerosis, with intractable pain, with HIV/Aids, with seizures or convulsive disorders, with paralysis, with a wide range of other serious disorders–don’t force them to break the law in order to get the relief which this natural herb brings them. It’s an herb with far lower toxicity than many of the pharmaceutical substances which doctors are obliged to prescribe even when cannabis works for those patients.

    Where would the supply for legalized cannabis come from? People could grow their own–it is simple. Those who can’t do that shouldn’t have far to go to obtain the herb. Back in World War II, the anti-marijuana law was held in abeyance for Minnesota farmers who were asked to grow hemp for the war effort. Over 30,000 acres were planted here and eleven hemp mills were operated. So commercial farmers could raise potent cannabis for medical use and for personal enjoyment, and also the low-potency strains for industrial products such as paper, cloth, rope, foodstuffs (from hempseed), solvents, lubricants, etc. etc.

    Response to K. Kuschel: No one says “street dealing is a victimless crime.” We do say, drug use in and of itself is not a crime; with any drug there ought to be a distinction between use and abuse as we recognize with alcohol and refuse to recognize with demonized drugs. You have street dealing now for the exact same reason you had bootleggers during Prohibition–the “magic of the marketplace.” Supply and demand. An unregulated, outlawed marketplace is pure capitalism in practice. It’s like the Wild West, the cattlemen versus the sheepmen, and bandits in all directions. To me, it’s foolish, but to politicians it must be paradise, since they all applaud it.

    Years ago, it was a given that in a free society, the government shouldn’t dictate to adults what we may eat or drink or smoke, as long as we don’t injure others. But there are several forces undermining that principle: The Puritan-inspired disapproval of other peoples’ pleasures; the power-hunger of narcotics bureaucrats and their institutional allies in law enforcement; the rise of for-profit prison systems; the jealousy of liquor and pharmaceutical lobbies; the historical roots of anti-drug laws in racial prejudices and stereotyping.

    The “war on drugs” is really a war on people, and it is a failure . . . but that need not be the final word. Education, not coercion, will bring us (as a society) to our senses. You can teach children to “say no to drugs,” but you can’t teach them to dodge bullets.

    All “recreational” drugs now illegal have been legal at some time in the past, and all currently legal drugs have been outlawed, if not here then somewhere in civilized communities. Morphine and cocaine were legal until about a hundred years ago (where do you think the name Coca-Cola comes from?) Much of the abuse and addiction was driven by the sale of patent medicines packed with alcohol, opiates, cocaine, chloral hydrate, and so forth. Bad as it was, people weren’t being shot for buying it, or for being in the vicinity.

    Those who resist reforming our laws now, who resist ending the folly and scam of the “drug war,” they are the ones who have chosen to subsidize and enrich the criminals and cartels, to turn our cities into free-fire zones, and to permit the establishment of an American Gulag of mass incarceration and perpetual criminalization of their fellow Americans.

  6. Submitted by Tom Bartel on 07/28/2013 - 08:19 am.

    Won’t happen

    The War on Drugs will never end as long as the idiotic policy of private prisons continues in this country. As long as it is big business to imprison people rather than treat them, the companies have a huge incentive to continue to purchase Congress so reform will never happen.

    • Submitted by Oliver Steinberg on 07/28/2013 - 05:34 pm.

      true, but don’t use that as an excuse for inaction

      There is truth in what you say. Powerful economic and political interests support the institutionalization of drug prohibition—private prisons and public prisons; the liquor lobby; the police unions; pharmaceutical companies; religious theocrats; not to mention the spin-off industries of drug-testing, drug addiction treatment, manufacturers of spying technologies, private security guards and anti-burglar systems makers, etc. etc.

      But the fact that that formidable opposition exists is no excuse for inaction. As Tom Paine wrote, “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.” Or recall that Jimmy Cliff song–“The harder they come, the harder they fall.” Set your face to the task, and realize that the more fundamental the social injustice one is fighting, the more difficult it is to defeat. It took forty years of agitation and a bloody civil war to bring an end to slavery.

      Now we are faced with its modern equivalent, as George Orwell described in his essay, “Looking back on the Spanish War,” referring to the forced-labor camps set up under totalitarian regimes all across Europe and North Africa seventy years ago. Those who undertake now to overthrow the prison-industrial complex are the modern counterparts of the abolitionists, who protested the evils of chattel slavery despite all the powerful establishment and the web of laws which upheld it. Like William Lloyd Garrison, we must be in earnest, we must not equivocate, and we must not retreat a single inch.

      Whether we live to see the task accomplished does not matter. Those are our brothers and sisters in cages, behind high walls, looking out from behind razor-sharp wire fences. We are not free to turn away from them.

  7. Submitted by rolf westgard on 07/28/2013 - 04:56 pm.

    Lots of

    good comments here. Thank you Minnpost readers.

  8. Submitted by Stu von Wald on 07/28/2013 - 11:04 pm.

    I concur with Rolf

    Very good discussion about an issue that is not going to go away. I have worked in the “system” that spends millions of dollars annually to incarcerate drug users while financial gamers on Wall Street (in cahoots with Congress) continue to avoid jail time. Let the madness stop, and soon!

  9. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/29/2013 - 12:30 pm.


    Legalize it, tax it, regulate it, and take away the drug trade. We’ll not only generate revenue by from the additional taxes, but we’ll also spend less money, thereby saving the tax payers a bundle. It will mean fewer and smaller prisoners that have to be housed and fed, fewer guards for them, fewer police needed, and less money spent on equipment like helicopters with infrared tracking.

    The drug war has been such a colossal waste of resources that could be better spent building up society instead of tearing it down. Hopefully Governor Dayton will rethink his position on the subject and follow the path of reason and logic rather than money and donations.

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