Cronkite on the Drug War


After Walter Cronkite died last week, I don't think anyone here mentioned that late in life (starting around 1995) he publicly condemned the war on drugs, working on TV projects that highlighted its human costs and helping the Drug Policy Alliance raise money. DPA's Ethan Nadelmann exaggerates a bit when he says Cronkite "got it early"; drug prohibition is nearly a century old, and Cronkite contemporaries or near-contemporaries such as Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley questioned it decades before he did. Yet Cronkite deserves credit for putting his considerable prestige on the line by taking what remains an unpopular position. Here is how he put it a few years ago on The Huffington Post:

I covered the Vietnam War. I remember the lies that were told, the lives that were lost—and the shock when, twenty years after the war ended, former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara admitted he knew it was a mistake all along.

Today, our nation is fighting two wars: one abroad and one at home. While the war in Iraq is in the headlines, the other war is still being fought on our own streets. Its casualties are the wasted lives of our own citizens.

I am speaking of the war on drugs.

And I cannot help but wonder how many more lives, and how much more money, will be wasted before another Robert McNamara admits what is plain for all to see: the war on drugs is a failure….

What is the impact of this policy?

It surely hasn't made our streets safer. Instead, we have locked up literally millions of people…disproportionately people of color…who have caused little or no harm to others—wasting resources that could be used for counter-terrorism, reducing violent crime, or catching white-collar criminals.

With police wielding unprecedented powers to invade privacy, tap phones and conduct searches seemingly at random, our civil liberties are in a very precarious condition.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on this effortwith no one held accountable for its failure.

Amid the clichés of the drug war, our country has lost sight of the scientific facts. Amid the frantic rhetoric of our leaders, we've become blind to reality: The war on drugs, as it is currently fought, is too expensive, and too inhumane.

As that last sentence ("as it is currently fought…") suggests, Cronkite was no libertarian on this issue. But he described the truth of the situation as he saw it, which is more than you can say for the Obama administration.