Since the late 19th century, governments have waged war, in a literal sense, against the use of and trade in narcotics and psychotropic substances. But prohibition has not only failed, it has caused great harm. This is why growing numbers of experts are speaking out against the war on drugs.
Governments have long tried to combat what they perceive as undesirable activities by prohibiting them. Whether it involved smoking, drinking, gambling, drugs, prostitution, or wildlife products, all that such laws have ever achieved was to create criminal underworlds engaged in corrupt battle against monstrous police states. The public has never benefited from attempts at prohibitions.
On the contrary: every attempt to criminalise these activities has had harmful consequences to public health, economic development, human rights, crime, and the environment.
The so-called “oldest profession” thrives, despite thousands of years of prohibition by both church and state. The only impact of laws against prostitution has been to subject the industry to the “protection” of organised crime, and to increase the personal risk for both buyer and seller. Neither party can use the law to defend themselves against abuse by the other, or by a third party such as a pimp. It has turned millions of ordinary people engaged in a perfectly natural transaction – which occurs among bonobos and chimpanzees too – into criminals, without protecting either public health or public morals. In fact, prohibition caused net harm.
Between 1920 and 1933, the US prohibited the sale and consumption of alcohol. The temperance movement, which agitated against alcohol, held that there were a host of public benefits from prohibition, ranging from better public health to improved economic productivity. However, not only did prohibition fail to put an end to drinking, but it also dangerously reduced the quality of liquor on the market. Hospitals were inundated with cases of methanol poisoning, which led to blindness and death. Worse, the US government itself poisoned alcohols intended for industrial use, killing an estimated 10,000 people. The first medical examiner of New York, Charles Norris, renowned as the pioneer of forensic toxicology, steadfastly denounced prohibition and the federal alcohol poisoning programme. And if there was any doubt, the supposed economic benefits of temperance did not prevent the Great Depression, by the time prohibition was repealed in 1933.
The global war on drugs, endorsed by the United Nations, is 55 years old. Early anti-narcotics laws emerged in the 19th century to control the trade in opium, and later expanded to a long list of other chemical substances that people used or abused, as medicine or for recreation. But despite the goal of the UN to create a drug-free world by 2008, the use of illicit drugs has continued to grow.
“Far from creating a ‘drug-free world’, the war on drugs has fuelled the development of the world’s largest illegal commodities market,” states an economic briefing by Count the Cost, an NGO established in 2011 on the 50th anniversary of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that created the international legal framework for the war on drugs. “The prohibitionist global drug control system has effectively abdicated control of a growing and lucrative trade to violent criminal profiteers – at a cost in enforcement terms estimated to be at least $100-billion a year.”
The recent US election featured nine ballot initiatives to legalise marijuana, five of which were for recreational use and four for medicinal use. Eight of them passed: only Arizona voted against recreational marijuana use. Notably, the huge state of California voted in favour of recreational use, signifying a turning point in the battle to decriminalise pot at a federal level.
But the issue of drug legalisation extends far beyond mere weed, which is probably even less harmful – physically, psychologically and socially – than alcohol. The big business of drugs lies in hard drugs such as cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and meth.
Instinctively, even people who favour marijuana legalisation balk at decriminalising hard drug use. Even fewer would go so far as to permit the sale of hard drugs. Which sounds fair, if you disapprove of hard drug use. The problem is that history isn’t on their side.
Particularly in the US, this war has filled the prisons with non-violent offenders, although that country’s National Institute on Drug Abuse ranks illicit drugs far below both alcohol and tobacco, in terms of costs related to crime, lost productivity and healthcare.
According to the Count the Cost project, other unintended costs of the war on drugs are that it undermines international development and security, fuels conflict, threatens public health, spreads deadly diseases such as HIV/Aids and hepatitis, undermines human rights, promotes stigma and discrimination, creates crime and enriches criminals, causes deforestation and pollution, and wastes billions on ineffective law enforcement.
Another NGO, Health Poverty Action, has published a report arguing that the war on drugs not only has failed, but actively harms the world’s poorest people.
Last week, a lead editorial in the prominent British Medical Journal called for the campaign against drug abuse to be turned over to doctors, instead of being run by police. The editors wrote: “This year a thorough review of the international evidence concluded that governments should decriminalise minor drug offences, strengthen health and social sector approaches, move cautiously towards regulated drug markets where possible, and scientifically evaluate the outcomes to build pragmatic and rational policy.”
The article cites Portugal as a case in point. Sixteen years ago, it decriminalised the possession for personal use of drugs, from marijuana to heroin and cocaine. Instead of arrests and criminal prosecution, drug users are called before “dissuasion panels” and presented with treatment options. First-time cases are usually suspended. As a result of this policy, drug use has fallen and more users feel confident to seek help.
Portugal’s new drug policy is a cautious and limited move, but evidence shows that it is a step in the right direction. It’s a first step that other countries ought to take, and it shouldn’t be the last step.
Given the dramatic costs of the war on drugs, and its universal failure in all respects, the only people with the motive to continue it are law enforcement agencies that need the budgets and powers, politicians who want to be seen to be tough on “crime”, and criminal cartels who profit from the black market in drugs. If it were up to the public and their healthcare practitioners, society would end the war on drugs and make peace. Only when the drug trade is no longer criminal can drug use be treated as the public health problem it really is.
If saving thousands of drug addicts and restricting the flow of money to criminal enterprises isn’t enough reason to reconsider our outdated prohibition policies, just imagine the amazing economic opportunities for South Africa if marijuana could become a cash crop on a par with sugar and maize.
As the late Peter Tosh sang in 1979, “Legalise it, don’t critise it! Legalise it, that’s the best thing you can do.” DM
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