CHICAGO - People learn from experience, but the process can be very slow.
In 1973, New York enacted what were known as the Rockefeller drug laws, which imposed some of the harshest sentences in the country. Last week, Gov. George E. Pataki signed a bill retreating from that draconian approach. It only took 31 years, billions of dollars and thousands of lives that were wrecked because of youthful mistakes and very bad luck.
Under the Rockefeller laws, low-level drug possession could get you life in prison, even if it was your first offense. If you were lucky, you might get off with the minimum sentence - 15 years. Yet this approach made for a poor deterrent: According to federal data, illicit drug use is just as common in New York as it is in the rest of the country.
Thanks to these brutal penalties, New York prisons house 19,000 people convicted on drug charges, or one of every three inmates. The vast majority of them are small-time offenders with no history of violence.
The belated recognition of these failures exemplifies the history of the drug war. It has been a perennial failure, but to a large extent, we persist at it.
Americans have curiously mixed attitudes about drug crimes. We blithely elect people to high office who did things that, had they been caught, might have earned them prison time. But we see the stiff sentences given to those who were caught as fitting punishment.
In this realm, ideology has a way of overriding mere facts. We have learned, for example, that marijuana is a comparatively benign drug that has few risks and some apparent benefits. In 1999, a National Academy of Sciences panel said pot has "potential therapeutic value" for "pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation." The New England Journal of Medicine has endorsed medical marijuana.
Ten states have also approved the idea. Yet the Bush administration has spurned the idea. Not only has it actively fought state initiatives to let sick people get relief from cannabis, it has obstructed research to help patients.
Recently, the Drug Enforcement Administration rejected an application from a researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who wanted to conduct clinical trials to establish whether marijuana should be available by prescription. The project would have required the university to produce its own supply, which the DEA refuses to allow. If researchers want the stuff, it says, they'll have to get it from the only federally authorized source, a farm at the University of Mississippi.
But if you hope to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration to market a drug, as these researchers did, you have to be able to produce and test the substance you propose to sell. You also need to ensure high quality - which the government's product is not. A 2002 report from the Missoula Chronic Clinical Cannabis Use Study noted that some test subjects regarded it as "the worst marijuana they had ever sampled."
You can imagine that news breaks a lot of hearts at the DEA. The agency is plainly not interested in studies that might lead to a change of policy on pot. In rejecting the application, it said clinical trials to examine the safety and effectiveness of the drug are impossible because they "must utilize smoked marijuana, which cannot be the permitted delivery system for any potential marijuana medication due to the deleterious effects."
Talk about bizarre logic. Without allowing a study, the DEA knows that smoking pot is too bad to be good. But the drug warriors are wrong on the basic fact: Clinical trials are already being conducted in California, using devices called vaporizers that allow ingestion without smoking.
The result of the DEA decision, says the Marijuana Policy Project, is to "block the only proposed research project that could lead to marijuana's FDA approval."
In time, the steady accumulation of evidence about the value of medical marijuana may overcome such opposition - just as the experience under the Rockefeller laws forced a retreat. Someday, the folly of the entire drug war may bring it to an end. But don't hold your breath.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.