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March 7, 2012: News, Research and Events from the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy
Baker Institute Update: Should the U.S. legalize drugs?; Stem cell conference in Qatar
Should the United States legalize drugs?

For nearly a century, U.S. drug policy has been characterized by the punitive prohibition of illicit drugs, with "zero tolerance" for drug users, producers and traffickers. Public support for the war on drugs has dramatically decreased, but there is less agreement over what polices should replace it. To address these issues, the Baker Institute will host a conference titled "The War on Drugs Has Failed. Is Legalization the Answer?" on Friday, March 9.

Able and respected defenders of current policy, leading advocates for reform and academic researchers will discuss and examine key issues such as alternatives to prohibition, effects of the war on drugs on minority communities and international efforts to reduce the harms of drug abuse.

The conference follows a keynote address on March 8 by noted travel writer, public television producer and public radio host Rick Steves, who will describe how European drug policy, which treats drug abuse as a health issue rather than a crime, is more effective than U.S. policy. Both programs are open to the public, but separate RSVPs are required. The events will also be webcast live.

"My hope for this conference is that, by providing an arena for leading proponents of differing views to explore plausible alternatives to our failed system, the Baker Institute can help foster policies that, to quote Rick Steves, are neither 'tough on drugs or soft on drugs, but smart on drugs,'" said William Martin, the Harry and Hazel Chavanne Senior Fellow in Religion and Public Policy, who also leads the institute's Drug Policy Program.

The bipartisan war on drugs has cost hundreds of billions of dollars and contributed to a U.S. incarceration rate that is by far the highest in the world — yet the number of American citizens with substance abuse problems has remained remarkably stable over the last 30 years, and illicit drugs remain easy to obtain for those who want them, Martin added. 

"The question we need to keep asking is why we would not want to have the controlled distribution and sale of now-illicit drugs in the hands of responsible government authorities instead of what we now do — leave them in the hands of criminals who have no incentive whatever to distribute, sell or deal with them in any way in a responsible manner," he said in a short video about the conference.

Drug policy was also on the minds of guests at a recent Baker Institute event on "National Security Threats at Our Southwest Border" with U.S. Rep. Michael T. McCaul, R–Texas. McCaul's description of horrific drug-related violence in Mexico prompted an audience member to ask about the possibility of decriminalizing drugs. It is "a discussion we should have as a nation," McCaul said. "I'm not saying I'm for it, I'm just saying we ought to examine it. How would it work, exactly?"

Most drug-related violence in Mexico is linked to cartels fighting to control lucrative drug routes into and out of the country, McCaul added. Baker Institute drug policy fellow Gary J. Hale made a similar point in a recent white paper, arguing that cartel violence in Mexico is not a specific threat to U.S. security. "Once the drugs are in the United States, there is little to fight over; a drug delivered (inside the United States) is a drug sold. End of story," he wrote.

Hale's assessment that "Mexico is a friend, not an enemy," brings "much needed balance and perspective to the challenges facing Mexico and its impact on the U.S.," wrote Antonio Garza, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, in a Feb. 28, 2012, op-ed. "Here's hoping our elected leaders not only take time to hear it, but act accordingly."

Hale, a 30-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration, will participate in Friday's drug policy conference, joining speakers that include Harris County district attorney Patricia R. Lykos; Harris County criminal court judge Michael McSpadden; Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance; and Russ Belville, outreach coordinator of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
  • Click here for more information and to RSVP for "Travel as a Political Act, with a European Take on America's War on Marijuana," a keynote address by Rick Steves, on Thursday, March 8, at 7:00 pm.
  • Click here for more information and to RSVP for "The War on Drugs Has Failed. Is Legalization the Answer?" on Friday, March 9, at 8:30 am.
  • Watch a two-minute video of Baker Institute fellow William Martin discussing the need to examine alternatives to current U.S. drug policy.

Qatar stem cell conference a "great success"

Eminent international and regional scientists, ethicists and policymakers convened in Doha, Qatar, from Feb. 27 to March 1 for the "Qatar International Conference on Stem Cell Science and Policy 2012." 

Participants, including Baker Institute science and technology policy fellow Kirstin Matthews, discussed the latest discoveries and promises of stem cell research and the applications for the development of new therapeutic approaches for a variety of diseases. They also examined the ethical and policy challenges associated with regulating this emerging field.

"The conference was a great success," said Matthews. "From a policy perspective, I was amazed by the progress that Qataris have made in a few short years. They have engaged the local community and religious leaders in issues related to stem cell research, and made real progress in developing stem cell policies. I was also very gratified that the scientists who attended the conference were very interested and engaged in stem cell policy and ethics questions, and linked them to their own research in the United States and abroad."

Baker Institute founding director Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian told the conference that the theories and practice of stem cell policy are essential for international dialogue. "Stem cell research is in line with Islamic practices, and the fatwa issued by the Muslim scholars to allow the use of embryonic cells for research and therapy is a breakthrough in the field and a great opportunity in stem cell research," he was quoted as saying by the Qatar Tribune.

A dozen Rice University students also had an opportunity to attend as part of the institute's Public Diplomacy & Global Policymaking Program. The students were accompanied by Matthews and Christene Kimmel, Baker Institute director of development. Kimmel and Matthews are co-teaching a Rice course this semester on the culture and history of Qatar.

The stem cell conference was organized jointly by the Baker Institute's International Stem Cell Policy Program (part of the Science and Technology Policy Program) and the Qatar Foundation Research Division.


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The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy is a nonpartisan public policy think tank located on the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas. The institute's distinguished fellows and scholars research and collaborate with experts from academia, government, the media, business and private organizations on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy.
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