Face the Facts -- and End the War on Drugs

The unofficial slogan of the prohibitionists for decades has been: The facts will only undermine the war, so invent some that show how successful we are, fast. Look at the United States.
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Theproponents of the ‘war on drugs’ are well-intentioned people who believe theyare saving people from the nightmare of drug addiction and making the worldsafer. But this self-image has turned into a faith – and like all faiths, it canonly be maintained by cultivating a deliberate blindness to the evidence. The recentfuror about the British government’s decision to fire its chief scientificadvisor on drugs, Professor David Nutt, missed the point. Yes, it is shockingthat he was ditched for pointing out the mathematical truth that taking ecstasyis less dangerous than horse-riding and smoking cannabis is less harmful thandrinking alcohol. But this is how the war on drugs has to be fought. The unofficialslogan of the prohibitionists for decades has been: The facts will onlyundermine the war, so invent some that show how successful we are, fast.

Lookat the United States,the country that pioneered the drug war, and still uses its military anddiplomatic might to demand the rest of the world cracks down. In 1998, theOffice of National Drug Policy (ONDP) was ordered by Congress to stop fundingany scientific research that might give the impression that we should redirectfunding from anti-trafficking busts into medical treatment of addicts, or thatthere is any argument to legalize, regulate or medicalize drug use. It’s Nuttcubed: only tell us what we want to hear. So, to give a small example, the ONDPspent $14 billion on anti-cannabis ads aimed at teenagers, and $43 million to findout if the ads worked. They discovered that kids who saw the ads were morelikely afterwards to get stoned, so the evidence was suppressed, and the adcampaign marched on.

Whatwould happen if we started to build our drugs policy around the facts, ratherthan our desire for a fuzzy feeling inside? Professor Nutt only took tiny babysteps in this direction before he was booted out. He argued that we should rankdrugs by the harm they do, rather than by the size of the panicked headlinesthey trigger. Now the row is fading, it is possible to see how conservative hewas. A must-read new report out this week – ‘After The War on Drugs: Blueprintfor Regulation’ – follows the facts as far as they will take us. It shows thatthe rational solution is to take the drug market back from the unregulatedanarchy of criminal gangs, and transfer it to pharmacists, off-licenses, anddoctors who operate in the legal economy. To see why this is necessary, we haveto look at some of the facts our politicians refuse to see.

FactOne: The drug war hands one of our biggest industries to armed criminal gangs,who unleash terrible violence across the country. When alcohol wasprohibited in the USin the 1920s, it didn’t vanish. No: armed gangsters like Al Capone stepped inand sold it – and they shot anybody who got in their way. Yet today, Wine Rackdoes not shoot up Thresher’s. Oddbin’s does not threaten to kill anybody whosees its staff selling wine. Why? Because it wasn’t the booze that caused theviolence; it was the prohibition. Once alcohol was reclaimed for legalbusinesses, the dealer-on-dealer violence swiftly stopped.

Wherethere is a huge profit to be made in a black market – it’s 3000 percent ondrugs today – people will fight and kill to control it. Arrest a dealer, andyou simply trigger a new war for his patch, with the rest of us caught in thecrossfire. The Nobel-prize winning economist Milton Friedman calculated thatthere are 10,000 murders in the USalone every year caused this way. Legalize, and you bankrupt most organizedcrime overnight. With their profits in free-fall, the gangsters don’t suddenlybecome cuddly – but the huge financial incentives to remain a gangster witherfast. It’s the drug war that keeps them in business, and legalization thatshuts them down. As Friedman said, “Prohibition is the drug dealer’s bestfriend.”

FactTwo: Under prohibition, drug use becomes more hardcore. Before alcoholprohibition, most Americans drank beer and wine. After prohibition wasintroduced, super-strong moonshine became the most popular drink, as boozerapidly became 150 percent stronger. Why? The writer Richard Cowan called it“the iron law of prohibition”: whenever you criminalize a substance, it getsstronger. Because they are smuggling and stashing a substance, the dealers condensetheir product to give the biggest possible kick while taking up the smallestpossible space. It’s at work today: it’s why dealers invented crack in the1980s. The researchers Matthew Robinson and Renee Scherlen found: “Theincreased deadly nature of drugs under prohibition led to 15,000 more deaths in2000 [in the USalone] than [if] prohibition had not made drugs more dangerous.”

FactThree: The drug war doesn’t reduce drug use – but the alternatives can. Somepeople believe these two dark side-effects are a price worth paying ifprohibition stops a significant number of people from picking up their firstbong or needle. It was an understandable enough argument – until the evidence camein from countries that have experimented with ending the drug war. On July 1 2001, Portugaldecriminalized the possession of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Youcan have and use as much as you like for your own needs, and if you are caught,the police might refer you to a rehab programme, but you will never get a criminalrecord. (Supplying and selling remains illegal.) The prohibitionists predicteda catastrophic rise in addiction, and even I – an instinctive legalizer – wasnervous.

Nowwe know: overall drug use actually fell a little. As a major study by Glenn Greenwaldfor the Cato Institute found, among teenagers the fall was fastest: 13-year-olds are 4 percent less likely to use drugs, and 16-year-olds are 6 percentless likely. As the iron law of prohibition predicts, the use of hard drugs hasfallen fastest: heroin use has crashed by nearly 50 percent among the young,who were not yet addicted. The Portuguese have switched the billions that usedto be spent chasing and jailing addicts to providing them with prescriptionsand rehab. The number of people in drug treatment is now up by 147 percent. Almostnobody in Portugalwants to go back. Indeed, many citizens want to take the next step: legalizesupply too, and break the back of the gangs.

Portugalis no fluke. It turns out that wherever the drug laws are relaxed, drug usestays the same, or – where spending is switched to treatment – falls. Between1972 and 1978, eleven US states decriminalized marijuana possession. TheNational Research Council found that the number of dope-smokers stayed the same.In Switzerland,a decade ago the government started providing legal centres where people couldsafely inject heroin – for free. Burglary rates fell by 60 percent, and streethomelessness ended. A study by the Lancet – one of the most respected medicaljournals in the world – found that the rate of people becoming new heroinaddicts fell by 82 percent. Why? Heroin addicts didn’t need to recruit newaddicts to sell to in order to feed their habit. The pyramid scheme of heroinaddiction was broken.

Sothe drug war doesn’t achieve its goal of reducing addiction. All it doesachieve is horrific gang violence – and in some cases the cartels gut wholecountries like Mexicoand Afghanistan.It does unwittingly press people into using harder and more dangerous drugs.And it does waste tens of billions of dollars that could really reduce drug addiction,by spending it on treatment for addicts.

Theprohibitionists are therefore left a contradiction between their message andthe facts. They can either change their message, or try to suppress the facts.Last week, the British government made its choice. But how long will this betenable for them or the wider world? The prohibitionists are – from the best intentions and the highestmotives – unleashing a catastrophe. Human beings have been finding ways to getstoned or high since we lived in caves. In our attempt to end this naturalimpulse, we have created a problem worse than drug use itself.

Thereis another way. Imagine a country with no drug dealers killing to protect theirpatch or terrorizing whole estates. Imagine a country where burglary fell by 60percent. Imagine an Americawhere we spent all these billions treating addicts as ill people who need our help,not hunting them down as criminals who need punishment. We can be that country.We just have to come down from chasing the dragon of a drug-free world – andstart looking soberly at the facts.

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here. You can email him at johann -at- johannhari.com

To read an archive of his articles about drugs, click here.

Johann is also a contributing writer for Slate magazine. To read his latest article for them - about the loon Ayn Rand - click here.

You can follow Johann on Twitter at www.twitter.com/johannhari101

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