The politics and policies of drug prohibition are a failure primarily because they are not effective in actually prohibiting people from obtaining and using drugs, and also because the evidence supporting those policies are weak.
Here are a few rebuttals to the main arguments used in favor of prohibition.
Argument 1: The fact that drugs are illegal keeps many people from trying them, and out of harm’s way. Legalization now would contribute to many more people using drugs.
In the UK, as in many countries, the real clampdown on drugs started in the late 1960s, yet government statistics show that the number of heroin or cocaine addicts seen by the health service has grown ever since – from around 1000 people per year then, to 100,000 today. It is a pattern that has been repeated the world over.
Argument 2: If current policies are not successful at prohibition, stricter policies should be enacted.
A second approach to the question is to look at whether fewer people use drugs in countries with stricter drug laws. In 2008, the World Health Organization looked at 17 countries and found no such correlation. The US, despite its punitive drug policies, has one of the highest levels of drug use in the world (PLoS Medicine, vol 5, p e141).
Argument 3: A halfway approach, which would decriminalize possession of drugs, is doomed to fail since the lack of effective punishment will encourage more people to try drugs.
While dealing remains illegal in Portugal, personal use of all drugs has been decriminalised. The result? Drug use has stayed roughly constant, but ill health and deaths from drug taking have fallen. “Judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalisation framework has been a resounding success,” states a recent report by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington DC.
The Law Of Unintended Consequences comes into play as a result of prohibitionist policies. Black market items are generally very profitable, and young people may get sucked in with dreams of fast cash. Ironically, prohibition is often sold as being “for the children”.
Most drug trafficking happens through large criminal enterprises, which are also involved in murder, corruption, and kidnapping. Nearly 4,000 people have been killed this year (so far) in Mexico’s drug wars.
So what’s the alternative? There are several models for the legal provision of recreational drugs. They include prescription by doctors, consumption at licensed premises or even sale on a similar basis to alcohol and tobacco, with health warnings and age limits. If this prospect appals you, consider the fact that in the US today, many teenagers say they find it easier to buy cannabis than beer.
Accusations of evidence suppression happen everywhere, from Big Tobacco to Big Pharma, and it is rightly shocking when lives are at stake. Why are citizens willing to elect and re-elect politicians who enact policies running contrary to evidence sometimes composed by Big Government itself? Aren’t lives at stake here too?
In 1944, Mayor LaGuardia commissioned a report which was titled “The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York”. The report was written up by the New York Academy of Medicine.
This study is viewed by many experts as the best study of any drug viewed in its social, medical, and legal context. The committee covered thousands of years of the history of marijuana and also made a detailed examination of conditions In New York City. Among its conclusions: “The practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.” And: “The use of marihuana does not lead to morphine or heroin or cocaine addiction, and no effort is made to create a market for those narcotics by stimulating the practice of marihuana smoking.” Finally: “The publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marihuana smoking in New York City is unfounded.”
A primer on the issues at play here and a must read is The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs, by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine.
The recommendations in this report included:
Stop emphasizing measures designed to keep drugs away from people. Stop increasing the damage done by drugs. Stop misclassifying drugs. Stop viewing the drug problem as primarily a national problem, to be solved on a national scale. Stop pursuing the goal of stamping out illicit drug use. Consumers Union recommends the immediate repeal of all federal laws governing the growing, processing, transportation, sale, possession, and use of marijuana. Consumers Union recommends that each of the fifty states similarly repeal its existing marijuana laws and pass new laws legalizing the cultivation, processing, and orderly marketing of marijuana-subject to appropriate regulations. Consumers Union recommends that state and federal taxes on marijuana be kept moderate, and that tax proceeds be devoted primarily to drug research, drug education, and other measures specifically designed to minimize the damage done by alcohol, nicotine, marijuana. heroin, and other drugs. Consumers Union recommends an immediate end to imprisonment as a punishment for marijuana possession and for furnishing marijuana to friends.* Consumers Union recommends, pending legalization of marijuana, that marijuana possession and sharing be immediately made civil violations rather than criminal acts. Consumers Union recommends that those now serving prison terms for possession of or sharing marijuana be set free, and that such marijuana offenses be expunged from all legal records.
There are many more major studies of drugs and drug policy like the above two available for free from the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy.
Unfortunately, the idea that banning drugs is the best way to protect vulnerable people – especially children – has acquired a strong emotional grip, one that politicians are happy to exploit. For many decades, laws and public policy have flown in the face of the evidence. Far from protecting us, this approach has made the world a much more dangerous place than it need be.