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Editorial: The right drug war, and the wrong one

The right drug war, as the appearance of a member of the ultra-violent Sinaloa Mexican drug cartel in U.S. District Court in Concord yesterday demonstrates, is essential and remains under way. Hard drugs, like the ton of cocaine the gang hoped to distribute, destroy lives and fuel crime and corruption. Meanwhile, the wrong drug war, the half-century-long prosecution of people who possess small amounts of marijuana, is winding down, thanks to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who is attempting to bring sanity to drug laws that put far too many people behind bars. Both of Holder’s efforts deserve support.

Because meetings between representatives of the Sinaloa gang and FBI agents posing as members of a European crime syndicate took place in Portsmouth and New Castle, four of the alleged gang members will be tried in Concord. The gang and its rivals are often at war with each other, and with Mexican authorities. The battles are brutal. Rivals are killed, kidnapped, tortured and decapitated. It is disconcerting, to say the least, that scenes from the inhumanly violent and insanely greedy world of international drug cartels will now be played out in a Concord courtroom.

The right drug war is also being fought in Manchester, where a raid on an auto repair shop recently led to the arrest of five people and the seizure of 100 grams of heroin, the biggest smack bust in that city’s history. One of the men arrested gave the police a Concord address. The heroin the group planned to sell creates the addicts who are responsible for thefts from homes and cars and other crimes. The right drug war also needs to be fought against the makers and sellers of the drug known as Molly, an amphetamine with hallucinogenic properties. That drug is blamed for the recent deaths of several dance club patrons, including a young woman from Londonderry and a UNH student from Rochester, N.Y. It is drugs like these, which can easily kill the unwary, and hard drugs like heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine, that deserve to be targets if a war on drugs is conducted.

Marijuana, not so much.

That’s not to say that marijuana lacks harmful effects, or that access to it shouldn’t be controlled. But societally, and some would say medically, marijuana is different. Polls suggest that more than 40 percent of Americans, including a few presidents, have experimented with it, and a majority of Americans, according to a Pew Research Center survey, believe it should be legalized.

Holder’s new policy recognizes the distinction between marijuana and other illegal drugs. The Justice Department recently announced that it would not seek to preempt the decision by the states of Washington and Colorado to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, as long as appropriate controls are put in place. Instead, it will treat the decision by voters in those states to make pot legal as an experiment. It is one New Hampshire, which recently legalized the medical use of marijuana, should follow closely.

When it comes to marijuana, the war on drugs has failed. It’s helped to fill prisons and jails at great cost with people who don’t need to be there. Eight million Americans were arrested for marijuana possession between 2001 and 2010. That did nothing to curb use of the drug or diminish its appeal, but it interrupted lives, made criminals of people needlessly, led to the disproportionate arrest of minorities and cost taxpayers a fortune. Holder is right to call for an end to tough mandatory sentences for minor drug offenders. Authorities will instead concentrate more of their efforts on cases on combatting drug cartels and other major dealers. That is a drug war worth fighting.

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