A top priority for President Obama has been trying to sort out the mess left by George Bush’s “war on terror” — as seen this morning in his commitment of an additional 17,000 US troops to Afghanistan. So far, there’s been less attention paid to the war’s older sibling, the “war on drugs”.

Obama has not even officially announced his choice to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy — the position commonly known as the drug czar — but media reports in the last few days say it will be Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske.

This seems to be good news for those hoping for a more rational approach to drugs policy. Seattle has been at the forefront of moves to wind back prohibition, pioneering needle exchange programs and approving a referendum that required the police department to make enforcement of the marijuana laws its lowest priority. According to the New York Times, “Kerlikowske is not necessarily regarded as having forcefully led those efforts, but he has not gotten in the way of them.”

Sanity on the drug front remains a rare commodity. The British government last week rejected, on the same day it was published, the advice of its own drug advisory council that ecstasy should be downgraded to a less serious category, instead of being grouped with heroin and cocaine.

In conclusions that will come as no surprise to those who have followed the ecstasy debate, the council said that its mental health effects are “relatively few in both the short and long term, with few people becoming dependent”, and that “those who take ecstasy are not commonly seen to become violent or engage in behaviour that leads to public order offences.” But the politicians show no interested in scientific evidence, or indeed any evidence at all.

The chair of the council, Professor David Nutt, made further enemies by pointing out that ecstasy is statistically responsible for fewer deaths than horse riding, and queried why society should take such different attitudes to risky behavior — remarks which, predictably enough, led MPs to call for his resignation.

Similar official outrage greeted the pictures of champion swimmer Michael Phelps apparently smoking a bong. Sanity prevailed to the extent of him not being charged with an offence — the local South Carolina sheriff admitted that in the absence of a confession there was no real evidence — but he was suspended for three months by the US swimming authority.

Whether politicians who keep beating the war drum on drugs are responding to real community concern, or to small but vocal pressure groups, is another question. With any luck, Obama and his new drug czar will at least try the experiment of making policy on the basis of evidence rather than hysteria.

Peter Fray

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