Time to Rethink the War on Drugs

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”

George Santayana

I recently watched PROHIBITION a documentary film series that tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed. Prohibition was intended to improve, even to ennoble, the lives of all Americans, to protect individuals, families, and society at large from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse. But prohibition paradoxically caused millions of Americans to rethink their definition of morality. Thugs became celebrities, responsible authority was rendered impotent. Social mores in place for a century were obliterated. Especially among the young, and most especially among young women, liquor consumption rocketed, propelling the rest of the culture with it.

Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country.

The story of Prohibition’s rise and fall is a compelling saga that goes far beyond the tales of gangsters like Al Capone, rum runners, flappers, and speakeasies, to reveal a complicated and divided nation in the throes of momentous transformation. The film raises vital questions that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago – about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities, the proper role of government. While watching the documentary I could not help think how society never learns. Prohibition of alcohol should have taught us that prohibition of addictive substances is not an effective measure and does more harm than good. This brings me today’s situation regarding  illicit drugs.

A recent editorial in the globe and mail  got me thinking about the similarities between prohibition of illicit drugs and alcohol. The general view among experts is that the global war on drugs is based on false assumptions and antiquated laws that do not reflect contemporary research about drug use, production and markets. It is time to cast aside dogma, and transform global drug strategy with policies based on evidence, not ideology. Ideology tends to steer governments but with the disaster that drugs cause to countries in South America and beyond, we certainly need to rethink the “war on drugs”.

At the recent Summit of the Americas, Latin America’s leaders pressed US and Canadian leaders to study alternatives to the failed war on drugs; even Mr. Harper, acknowledged the current approach isn’t working.

A ground breaking report of a blue-ribbon Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include George Shultz, a former U.S. secretary of state, Paul Volcker, the former chairman of The Federal Reserve Board, several former Latin American presidents, and the entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, a director of the Drug Policy Alliance states  that “drugs are freely available right now to all the drug users and addicts. They get them by giving money to the criminal underworld.”

According to the editorial, there are 250 million illicit drugs users in the world today, of which 10 per cent are dependent on drugs. Consumption of opiates has increased by 34 per cent, and cocaine use has gone up by 27 per cent, from 1998 to 2008. Eradication of coca crops in one country merely displaces cultivation, and drug cartels continue to make billions of dollars and are more powerful than ever.

Increased arrests and law enforcement pressures on drug markets are associated with a spike – not a decrease – in violent crimes and homicides. Decriminalization policies and treatment of addicts, as opposed to incarceration, have led to a decrease in drug use and associated petty crime in countries such as Switzerland, Portugal and the Netherlands. Opioid substitution with drugs such as methadone reduces mortality, HIV and hepatitis infections and heroin use, studies have found. In contrast, there are higher levels of use in countries with a “zero-tolerance” approach to illicit drugs; the rate of cannabis use in the U.S. is 14 per cent, versus 5 per cent in the Netherlands, where licensed coffee shops sell small amounts of marijuana. Yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the false assumption that users are deterred by punishment is still invoked with great conviction by many in the industrial world.

The knowledge that prohibition is not achieving its objective must be considered when developing drug policies. Scientists now understand much more about drug uses. A 2007 study measuring the actual harm caused by different drugs found that alcohol was the third most harmful substance, following heroin and cocaine. Cannabis is 10th on the list, behind tobacco. And yet tobacco and alcohol are legal, while cannabis is not. Illicit drug use accounts for 250,000 deaths a year, compared with alcohol, which kills 2.3 million people.

Many political leaders and public figures acknowledge privately that repressive strategies have only made the drug problem worse. As the documentary on prohibition demonstrates it took 14 years for America’s leaders to repeal Prohibition on alcohol. After 50 years of the failed drug war, it is certainly time rethink our policies.

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