Don't look now, but drug policy is becoming a sleeper issue in the 2016 race.
Hillary Clinton was first out of the gate with a reasonably good proposal on drug abuse. And now, Bernie Sanders has an even better proposal on marijuana regulation. These policies aren't actually competitors — on the contrary, they are complementary. But they are still relatively moderate compared to policies needed to reverse the vast failures of the war on drugs. If we really want sensible drug policy, we'll need to go much further than either Sanders or Clinton has proposed.
We'll need to legalize all drugs.
But hang on, that's not the only thing. For example, Clinton basically proposes revamping the treatment of drug addicts, particularly for opiates. She wants to tighten up prescription requirements for drug dispensers, make sure first responders have access to naloxone, and generally prioritize addiction treatment and therapy over prison.
Sanders, while also supporting a treatment-centered approach to drug abuse, came out with a much more specific proposal for marijuana this week: removing it from the Controlled Substances Act. The CSA is the overarching legal framework of American drug policy, and taking marijuana off it would make pot fairly similar to alcohol and tobacco in the eyes of the law. It wouldn't be legal at the federal level, but states would be empowered to go forward with full legalization and regulation without fear of interference.
Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C., have already legalized pot to one degree or another, but they are stuck in a sort of legal limbo. With marijuana still (ludicrously) placed in the CSA's most restrictive categorization, state-level legalization proceeds only because the federal government is willing to look the other way. These states' pot legalization initiatives could be reversed by the feds at any moment. That interferes with proper regulation — for example, many banks have refused to work with legal marijuana companies, forcing them into dealing with massive amounts of cash. Sanders would put these businesses on a much firmer footing, and set the stage for more states to join the others.
Both Democratic presidential candidates are proposing good stuff. And better still, either candidate's plan would be improved by the the inclusion of the other.
But Clinton and Sanders could still go a lot further. On the user side, the focus ought to be on preventing problematic or compulsive use of any drug (including tobacco and particularly alcohol), and helping addicts to quit. Jail and probation should only be used insofar as they can help addicts sober up.
On the distribution side, the top priority ought to be removing the vast profits of drug production from the hands of criminal gangs. The worst part of the drug war is not its effects on addicts, terrible though those are. It's the effects on producer nations, which have been radically destabilized by criminal gangs fighting each other over access to the lucrative U.S. market. America was the major architect of worldwide drug prohibition, but it's poor countries like Honduras and Afghanistan that suffer the sky-high murder rate and rampant corruption produced by prohibition.
What America needs is a legal route to just about every drug — but with much variation between drugs. Relatively harmless drugs like psychedelics, MDMA, or marijuana ought to be available to most people, though we might ban all advertising and add stringent regulations to prevent the formation of large corporate drug interests. More serious and dangerous drugs like heroin or meth (and arguably alcohol, depending on how badly we want to crack down on violent crime) would be subject to tighter control, perhaps requiring a prescription and/or use in a controlled setting. (Supervised injection facilities have shown some promising results in other countries.)
Legalization would likely increase drug use. But that could be combated with better treatment and therapy. After all, nicotine is generally agreed to be among the most addictive drugs in existence, but tobacco smoking has fallen by more than half since the 1950s. It turns out that public education and cessation campaigns work reasonably well when based on honest science and argument (as opposed to the preposterous hysteria of past anti-drug campaigns).
At any rate, this is just a napkin sketch of a genuine drug policy overhaul. But it's promising that Democrats (and even some Republicans) have begun to abandon their previous drug warrior stances in favor of empathy and sane policy. In a few years, we might be seeing real progress.