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A Peaceful End to the War on Drugs?

The international war on drugs isn’t stopping drug use or trafficking—but it is ruining lives. Drug policy expert Sanho Tree on what we can do differently.
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Coca Mama

Rebecca Leisher: The coca plant is considered sacred and is used medicinally in a lot of indigenous communities. What roles do cultural differences play in why we vilify some of these mind-altering substances more than others?

If some people have a problem with alcohol, should we aerially spray Napa County and destroy the grape crops?

Sanho Tree: The coca bush actually has a lot of historical and beneficial uses. It is a source of medicine, of sustenance; it helps fight altitude sickness; it fights hunger, thirst; it has protein, iron, calcium—in the high Andes people may not have access to those kinds of minerals and vitamins. It’s called “coca mama” by many indigenous peoples—it’s a gift from the gods. 

And in its natural state it's just about impossible to abuse. It’s only when it's refined into cocaine that it becomes more problematic. Indigenous people should not have to pay the price for our abuse. It’s like saying, if you could extract methamphetamine out of coffee beans, would we then tolerate the banning of coffee because some people had a problem with methamphetamines? Similarly if some people have a problem with alcohol, should we aerially spray Sonoma and Napa County and destroy the grape crops? 

Rebecca Leisher: You wrote in a recent op-ed, “There are many alternatives in the spectrum between prohibition and total free-market legalization.” What might some of those look like?

In what other forms of public health do we use police, prosecutors and prisons as the primary means of making people healthy again?

Sanho Tree: The majority of people who try these drugs are not problematic users, but we make policies based on the extremes, rather than the average. And we have laws already to hold people accountable for their conduct. If you operate a vehicle, if you endanger other people—we already have laws in place for that. Not all use is abuse, not all abuse is addiction. There are some drugs that you don't want people to play around with—there aren’t many happy endings on meth. But on opiates and certainly on cannabis, there's a lot of non-problematic use. And when some of those are problematic it's to the individual, not to society. 

In what other forms of public health do we use police, prosecutors and prisons as the primary means of making people healthy again? It’s kind of like treating clinical depression with a baseball bat: “Smile or I’m going to beat you again.” You can't coerce someone into being healthy. We want doctors and therapists in the lead on this, not police and prosecutors and prisons. They’re not trained to make people better.

DARE … For Something Different

Rebecca Leisher: So what are the alternatives, or where should we be putting our resources in trying to address the root causes of the drug problem?

Sanho Tree: The root causes on both the supply and demand side are rooted in problems of poverty, despair, and alienation. Poverty is the one that's easiest to identify, but despair and alienation cut across class lines. Not only do we have to build a healthy society—we have to build a society that's meaningful. 

Ultimately the best way to keep people off drugs is to give them a reason to look forward to tomorrow.

Our spending on the drug war is upside down. The majority of the money goes to supply side policies, with eradication, incarceration, and law enforcement eating up two thirds of the drug control budget. And less than a third goes to prevention, treatment, and education. Ultimately the best way to keep people off drugs is to give them a reason to look forward to tomorrow. If you believe that tomorrow is not going to be a better day, then we get all kinds of problems in society—not just drugs. And for a lot of people, they do believe that their best days are behind them, and so that's when you get the manifestations of not just drugs but all kinds of antisocial behaviors.

A lot of the social democracies in Europe are able to have very liberal drug laws and much lower rates of drug use. It’s not a question of who has tougher drug laws that determine this but they have in many ways set out to build a healthy society. If you go to the Netherlands and do a drug policy tour, they will take you to the school system and show you how their education system works. They will take you to the public housing system, the health system, and only then will they take you to the coffee shops to talk about drugs themselves. It’s really about building a healthy individual. And they've done something remarkable—they’ve managed to make marijuana boring. It’s not forbidden fruit; people can take it or leave it if they're over 18, and most people choose to leave it. They have lower rates of marijuana use than the United States. Those are the kinds of lessons we need to learn.

just the factsJust The Facts: It's A Locking-People-Up Problem
The American problem with mass incarceration is less about crime than it is about how—and who—we lock up.

One of the positive things we can do in the United States is have honest educational systems instead of the D.A.R.E. program. We educate kids about drugs in ridiculous ways. We begin with a series of lies: “Kids, drugs are bad, they make you feel bad, don't take them.” No, they make you feel good—that’s why people take them! There are bad consequences—both in terms of the legal system and physiologically and psychologically— but you can't begin by a series of lies. It just creates more cynicism. That's when it gets really dangerous because then you can't teach kids about the really important things, about real, relative dangers—like methamphetamines, like heroin—things that are truly addictive and damaging. You can't equate that with marijuana.

Generationally, we're at a crossroads. It’s harder and harder to find a presidential candidate or a member of Congress that can claim to have been drug-free all their lives. This is important because it brings out a question we should pose to politicians: would a good, stiff prison sentence for drug use have made your life better? And if not, then why is it so good for all these other people, particularly poor people and people of color

Rebecca Leisher: On an individual level, what can people do to work toward changing these policies?

Sanho Tree: History is made by those who show up. People have a lot more power at the local level than they realize. How do you take limited resources and leverage them to produce the maximum effect? You can build effective, more powerful coalitions by understanding how power works and what politicians listen to. It’s not just a matter of emailing politicians or your member of congress. The amount of time it takes for you to express your opinion carries more weight if it's something that takes more effort or time.

People in the U.S. can talk to their representatives and actually implement international policies that help farmers in particular, not through these FTAs which help elites. There is lots of positive-type aid that could be used to address some of these problems, while we're going after simple-minded solutions.

As an historian I’ll tell you the only thing that I’m certain of is change—and sometimes it's even for the better. So that's what gives me hope.

Rebecca LeisherRebecca Leisher interviewed Sanho Tree for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Rebecca is a former online editorial intern at YES!


  • Ending the Mexican Drug War: An Activist's Advice
    Fighting rampant corruption with citizen action—in Mexico and the U.S.—is the key to peace.
  • War Is Not Peace
    For decades, School of the Americas Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois has argued that embracing militarism will never bring us the security we seek. But he thinks he knows what will.
  • Beyond Prisons, the Summer 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.
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