AP Impact report on failed drug war ignites national debate, raises hope for new strategy

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — A Texas city councilman waging a lonely fight against U.S. drug policy sent an excited e-mail to his constituents Friday: "We're on the brink of significant change."

Across the nation, people who long ago declared the war on drugs a failure were encouraged by an Associated Press review that shows $1 trillion spent over 40 years has done little to stop the flow of illegal drugs or related violence, and by the U.S. drug czar's admission to the AP that the war has not been successful.

"One of the most damning and comprehensive articles on the failure of the drug war was published throughout the world yesterday," said El Paso City Councilman Beto O'Rourke, who has had a front-row seat to the failure across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's most violent, drug-plagued city.

"The AP article ... uses clear metrics (expressed in dollars spent, lives lost, availability and use of drugs, etc.) to describe what a catastrophe our War on Drugs has been so far."

The AP report played across Texas newspaper front pages on Friday, ran high on Internet news sites and ignited the blogosphere, where the left-leaning, independent news service AlterNet declared: "The Associated Press takes the entire U.S. drug war strategy and rakes it over the coals. It's about damn time!"

The article drew more than 3,000 comments on Yahoo News, many from people saying legalizing drugs is the best way to solve the problem.

Some officials took issue with that idea, and said the drug war must continue.

"I don't dispute the numbers. I think that the drug war is a bigger challenge than anyone thought when they initially started it," said El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza. But he added: "We should continue to stop the flow of drugs into our country, stop the use of drugs in our country through law enforcement and through treatment."

Using Freedom of Information Act requests, archival records, federal budgets and dozens of interviews with leaders and analysts, the AP tracked where federal drug money went, and found that the United States repeatedly increased budgets for programs that did little to stop the flow of drugs.

"In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske told the AP, admitting that the Obama administration's proposed 2011 budget did not match its new strategy announced Tuesday to treat drug addiction as a public health rather than a law enforcement issue.

The proposed $15.1 billion budget mirrors that of past administrations, with two-thirds devoted to interdiction and law enforcement.

"Nothing happens overnight," Kerlikowske said.

His comments played widely in cyberspace, where the blog Gawker, citing the AP story, declared: "War on Drugs Is a Failure, Says Guy in Charge of It."

"The AP's investigation detailed some of the immense costs of this war on drugs and showed that it isn't having any effect on the real drug abuse problem," said Norm Stamper, a retired Seattle police chief who now serves as a spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "Imagine the impact we could have if we actually invested all this wasted money into effective treatment and prevention programs, instead of just talking about it like these Obama officials are."

O'Rourke has repeatedly called for the legalization of marijuana as part of an overall effort to help stem the drug cartel violence in Mexico.

He sent an e-mail blast to constituents Friday saying that the combination of growing local outrage at the drug-fueled brutality in Juarez, small alterations in the Obama administration's new drug strategy and the AP story give him hope.

"Drug demand and drug prohibition in the U.S. are a big part of why Juarez is the deadliest city in the world," he said. "We need to own up to that and help fix it."


Associated Press Writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report from El Paso.