There's Nothing Funny About Wanting to Halt the Drug War

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An attendee holds out several marijuana buds at the High Times U.S. Cannabis Cup in Seattle on September 8, 2013. Jason Redmond/Files/Reuters

On March 17, President Barack Obama seemed to make light of the push for drug reform (again), arguing that young Americans should put it at the bottom of their priority list in favor of issues like climate change and war:

I understand this is important to you, but, you know, you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace. Maybe, way at the bottom, you should be thinking about marijuana.

As a member of that millennial generation, I'd like to ask: Why?

Setting aside the strange suggestion that environmental and peace activism are somehow mutually exclusive with opposing the drug war, I would suggest that Americans have much more influence over drug policy than we have over the global climate or the U.S. government's penchant for war-making.

Despite the president's insinuations, the fight to end the drug war isn't just a crusade by young stoners to get high without worry of arrest. Prohibition doesn't work. It didn't work in the 1920s when alcohol prohibition turned entire American cities over to organized crime, and it doesn't work in 2015.

The War on Drugs is a key reason why America's incarceration rate is off the charts, why more than 60,000 Mexicans have been killed in drug violence over the past decade, why violent gangs control entire swaths of urban America from inside the U.S. prison system, why there are more than a million drug arrests clogging up our courts every year, why our cherished protection from unreasonable searches and seizures has been eroded and twisted to nearly nothing, and why paramilitary police raids have gone up 1,500 percent in the last generation, leaving dead bodies and maimed children in their wake.

To his credit, Obama has made some positive policy decisions to lessen the burden of the drug war. His decision to "de-prioritize" marijuana busts in jurisdictions that have voted to legalize marijuana is commendable. But that is merely one small tile in a vast mosaic of ruinous government prohibition efforts.

There are thousands of nonviolent drug offenders in federal custody that Obama could free with the stroke of a pen today. There are hundreds of state and local law enforcement agencies receiving military weaponry from the Obama administration, while the administration's own task force acknowledges there is very little accountability, training or respect for civil liberties built into the weaponry distribution system. There are thousands of immigrants seeking refuge in America from the violence spawned by our drug war.

I don't see what's so funny or unimportant about any of this.

Adam Bates is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute's Project on Criminal Justice. This article first appeared on the Cato Institute website.