The War on Drugs is a failure.  Finding those with even tepid praise for the War on Drugs is increasingly difficult. Case in point is Mr. Gil Kerlikowske, a former Chief of Police of Seattle, WA and current Drug Czar.  Kerlikowske, interviewed on taking the Drug Czar position in 2009, in a nice case of understatement, noted that “not too many people think the drug war is a success.”

In my experience, Kerlikowske is dead on. In fact, finding enthusiastic supporters for the War on Drugs is akin to looking for pornographers in church. They may be there but they keep a very low profile. This begs the question of why there is not more progress on drug policy reform.

The answer is a bit complicated.  Inertia is clearly a factor.  We’ve been at war with drugs for over 40 years and for the majority of the population, the drug problem is something that effects other people. They are open to a new strategy but have developed a tolerance, if not a comfort, with the War on Drugs.

Second is the difficulty most of us have with change. While the War on Drugs may be viewed as ineffective, expensive and unfair, advocates for a new direction have yet to articulate clearly the alternatives to the War on Drugs.  Change is coming slowly, but a logical plan for a new way has yet to catch on with the general public.

While inertia and the natural resistance to change account for some of the lack of movement, there is a bigger obstacle at play.  That barrier, bluntly put, is political cowardice. Every politician wants to look tough.  It’s the American way. Try to find a speech in which a politician is not pledging to get tougher with terrorists, sex offenders, criminals, identity theft,  corporate cheats, illegal immigrants or  drug dealers.  Just fill in the blank. Thus, the accusation that puts the fear of unemployment in them is to be labeled as “soft” on almost anything.

For forty years we’ve been framing the discussion on drug policy in war terminology. Those who were squeamish or skeptical about the War were “soft on drugs.” Little energy was spent debating the outcomes of the drug war. Those who supported it were tough Americans like Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, military leaders and police. Those who dared to question it were long-haired hippie-type characters who lazed around smoking dope and eating Cheetos.  Soft, indeed.

But now, terms of the drug discussion are changing. Cops, judges, prosecutors and other tough people are asking hard questions. Why do we continue with a policy that is clearly ineffective? In a free country, why do we lock people up for personal choices? Where addiction is the problem, why do we jail people when treatment makes more sense and costs less? And why do we criminalize behavior indulged in by so many of our citizens, including presidents, senators and Supreme Court Justices?

When I was in high school, I read John F. Kennedy’s inspiring book, Profiles in Courage. The book described the courageous actions of elected officials, action that often cost those individuals their electoral position.  If some author were to write a similar book today, I’m afraid it would be a slim volume.

It will not be cowering politicians who lead this change. It will be ordinary citizens who have woken up to the hypocrisy, to the waste of tax dollars and to the ruined lives that are the legacy of the War on Drugs.

Ask your elected leaders the hard questions, and maybe we can find some political leaders tough enough to challenge the insanity of the status quo.