The war on Drugs….that we’ve lost!

For the last few decades global governments have been fighting a global “war on drugs”. Started by Nixon in 1971, hundreds of billions have been since been spend globally on police, military and intelligence action against the drug lords and pushers. Tens of millions have been arrested and imprisoned, some states have taken extremely draconian measures, Singapore for example imposes the death penalty for just 15g of cannabis. American operations, such as Plan Colombia have involved mass spraying of herbicides over vast areas of rainforest with little thought to the health consequences.

And the end results of all of this? – drug use globally has actually increased! Profits for the drug lords are up and crime caused by drugs has also gone up! As this report by the Global Commission on Drugs policy makes clear (see a Beeb news article on it here) the war on drugs has failed. Between 1998 and 2008, opiate use has gone up by 35%, cannabis by 8.5% and cocaine (and its derivates) by 27%. And this is just a globally average figure, indeed it seems the more a government pushes against drugs, the worse it gets.

Countries like the US have seen drug use soar while the level of drug use has stabilised in other countries with more relaxed drug laws. It seems the harder governments try to enforce the argue laws the worse things get. Indeed economists would point out that there is good reason for this. By going to drastic levels to intercept drug shipments this reduces the amount of drugs on the street, which pushes up the price, which stimulates more people to go into the drugs business, which eventually leads to an increased supply, a glut and more drugs on the street at lower prices. Unless the government can intercept a vast proportion of all drug shipments (they currently catch about 10-30% but would need to intercept 75%+ to have any significant financial impact) then all they are doing is “stimulating” the illegal drugs trade through the principles of Market capitalism. It is of course ironic how so many of the right-wing supporters of tough drug policy, who are also fans of free-market theory, can ignore such a massive glaring contradiction.

And if all of this weren’t bad enough, we’ve also seen crimes related to drug use soar, see here and here, drug related deaths have gone up and the profits going into the coffers of the drug lords has soared. It is conservatively estimated that globally the illicit drugs trade makes 1% of global GDP at around $320 Billion!…if the illegal drug’s industry was a company it would vie with Exxon & Wal-mart for the title of world’s largest corporation. If it were a country, it would be the 30th largest economy in the world, on par with countries such as Iran, Thailand and Denmark. And in all probability, the real figures are much higher than this. Much of that money gets ploughed into various illegal enterprises from bribery and corruption of public officials, market trading and money laundering as well as other crimes such as prostitution, people trafficking, racketeering and even terrorism. Worst of all, nearly all of that drugs money is not only untaxed, but we (taxpayers) are having to pay tens of billions per year on drug enforcement. I mean seriously, we’d be as well off going down to the local drug lord and paying him a few million to reduce his imports of drugs, or at least not increase them by as much, or maybe even just buying his entire stock off of him, for all the good that it would do!

I’m reminded of that Press secretary for the Iraqi government, declaring that there are no Americans in Baghdad (while we could hear them fighting into the city behind him!) and that in fact the Americans were committing suicide at the gates of the city. That’s about what any announcement you hear from any current government as regards “progress” on the war on drugs amounts too. The progress is, that we’re not only loosing, we’ve arguably already lost.

I’m NOT a hippy!
I would just say before going any further that I’m not a hippy. The problem when you start critiquing the current drug enforcement regime is that everybody leaps to the conclusion that you’re some sort of dope smoking hippy who just wants the establishment and all the other squares to back off and leave you in peace to poof away on some stonkin BC bud while chillin to some groovy tunes.

I’ll admit to trying pot once (and I mean one puff) many years ago (if not decades now), but that’s it. I am not a user of drugs. Quite honestly, I’ve no idea what all the fuss is about. I don’t smoke and never have, and I’m not planning on taking it up. Alcohol (I am Irish) is my only vice (I’m drinking a glass of wine right now!). But I recognise that quite a large number of people do take drugs (see an example here for the UK) and clearly prohibition isn’t deterring them. My concern is squarely a prospective of minimising harm, as well as the cost to society, i.e. is it financially responsible for governments to continue throwing good money after bad enforcing drug laws that are clearly unenforceable? Are such laws actually doing more harm than good?

The lesson of history – just don’t call it prohibition!
One think you will note about the anti-drug puritans is the use of language from them. Calling it a “war on drugs” or “narcotics control” or words to that effect…I seem to remember there being a word in the English language to describe the banning of a substance under government control…what could that word be?…oh yes! prohibition!

Of course, this is the one word you will never hear any anti-drug puritans use, as prohibition has certain “negative connotations”. In the 1920’s several nations engaged in the prohibition of alcohol and other intoxicating liquors, most noticeably the United States from 1921 to 1932. The consequences of this? Crime levels went up, the cost to society of alcohol went up and while there is still some dispute as to whether alcohol use itself went up (the bootleggers didn’t exactly keep accurate records!) it is generally considered probable that consumption of hard liquors did increase dramatically. And of course, all of the money made by prohibition went straight into the pockets of criminals, notably the Italian mafia, who used it to found a massive criminal dynasty that persists to this day.

Interesting aside – Ironically, the Irish mafia was prior to 1920, the dominant criminal force in many American cities, but they failed to anticipate the financial consequences of prohibition, and act swiftly to capitalise on it (the head of one NY Irish mafia gang being imprisoned the night it came in after nearly killing a barman who refused to sell him a drink!). They were thus left constantly playing catch up with the Italians.

But either way, why is anyone surprised that we tried exactly the same thing again, with our current “war on drugs”, just on a much larger and grander scale….and subsequently failed on a much larger and grander scale! He who ignores the lessons of history is doomed to repeat them!

Drug classifications…..a serving suggestion from governments?
A telling example of the chaotic mess that is the current drug laws is the classification of drugs. This is supposed to give police a means of prioritising drugs relative to the harm that they actually do (see more info here from the Beeb). However, independent research by Dr Nutt (who probably would be taken more seriously if it wasn’t for his name!), paints a different picture. He originally worked for the UK government but got fired after he made the mistake of trying to bring sanity to the UK’s drug enforcement. He has published a list of 20 of most commonly available drugs, relative to the harm they cause to the individual and to society as a whole. As you can see by clicking the link this puts legal drugs such as Alcohol at the top (worst) and Class-A drugs such as Ecstasy and Mushrooms at the bottom. I would note that while Dr Nutt’s research is controversial (i.e. mainstream science doesn’t fully accept his conclusions) it has been subject to peer review and publication in a reputable source, see a graph from lancet here and the full report here while I have yet to see any similar peer review journal accept anything justifying the government’s position.

But what, you may ask, about all those teenagers who took Ectasy and died? Why I read about another one in the Sun the other day…and how many of the hundreds of teenagers who suffered alcohol poisoning per year or the tens of thousands of alcohol and tobacco related deaths do the tabloids report? None perhaps? Or how about the many people who die each year after taking legally acquired prescription drugs for medical reasons, most famously the untimely death in 2009 of the actress Brittany Murphy. Aside from celebrities, I’m betting not one other death as a consequence of legal pharmaceuticals ever makes tabloid headlines. I would also note that the bulk of Ecstasy related deaths are usually a consequence of either the combination of alcohol, lack of water, dehydration and the physical exhaustion of rave events, rather than the pills themselves. Blaming ecstasy and ecstasy alone for such deaths is to take liberties with the truth. There is also the issue of taking dodgy ecstasy pills which have not been made to any sort of quality control protocol and often have very different effects (i.e. some can be ridiculously strong but take ages for you to feel any “buzz” others are milder but you feel it straight away, obviously if you get the two extremes mixed up its easy to have an overdose).

Either way, its clear that the UK, and most other countries, drug classification policy is set by scary tabloid headlines (the children, the children, dear god will somebody please think of the children!) and polticans desire to seem like they’re doing something, rather than scientific facts. It’s the modern day equivalent of mob rule or a witch hunt. And of course the problem here is that the young’uns who are taking the drugs know it’s all a farce. They probably know more about the relative harm or an effect of drugs than any government scientist does. So seeing how the drug classifications are completely bonkers, they ignore the drug laws altogether, rendering government “drug classifications” as little more than a form of serving suggestion! (If you’ve tried E’s why not try something else from our Class-A range!)

Of course, the prohibition mob usual come in at this point and say, ya, but you see, drugs like ecstasy are made in backstreet labs that’s the problem, at least alcohol is made and sold in proper licensed establishments. Well perhaps that’s the solution! We part-decriminalise the softer drugs such as Ecstasy and LSD. While they would still technically be illegal, people would be allowed to consume them in designated and licensed establishments. The drugs themselves would be supplied by the existing pharmaceuticals industry (who believe me would jump at the chance of taking a bite out of that $300 Billion pie!) subject to strict government control. At these licensed clubs strict rules on consumption could be enforced (e.g limits on alcohol use, or indeed even a total ban on it, a requirement that say before taking an E you had to drink a proscribed amount of water in front of the bar man, age limits and checks, etc.).

The critics would say, oh! it would never work! The ravers would never put up with such rules and the clubs won’t enforce them. Won’t they? The security at many clubs or music festivals these days is quite intensive, I mean some of them put you through metal detectors and finger print clubbers. I know many people who have to take their passports to clubs if they want to be sure of getting in. So I would suggest that many users of such drugs would, up to a point, put up with some measures if it means getting Mr John Q law off they’re backs. The club owners will of course bend over backwards to comply, as the amount of money you could make selling drugs legally is considerable (practically a license to print money!).

In short, such a policy as I’ve outlined above would drastically cut the health problems associated with certain softer drugs, as compared to the current, unregulated free for all being done in back alleys. This would inevitably reduce deaths, save lives and limit (or maybe even eliminate) the harm caused by such drugs to society. Yes, our current policy with some drugs is probably endangering lives, not saving them! More importantly, the profits would go to legitimate businesses that would also pay the state tax on their profits….as compared to us paying cops to chase down criminals who pocket the cash and divert it into other criminal enterprises.

The slippery slope
Of course, the criticism you then hear at this point from the puritans is, ah! yes but you see it’s a slippery slope. The kids start off on ecstasy, then they do hash, and next thing you know their smoking crack while injecting heroin! My response to that is, where’s your evidence? Can someone point me in the direction of one peer reviewed journal paper that proves this “slippery slope” is anything other than the figment of certain conservative politician’s imaginations? Again, its case of policy set by tabloid headlines and not scientific facts.

And even if we were to take this “slippery slope” argument seriously, what’s the first rung on the drugs ladder? Alcohol and tobacco! So surely if this “slippery slope” is so real and so dangerous, and I mean dangerous enough that we’re prepared to maintain the current status quo of banning softer drugs like ecstasy, while ignoring the fact I’ve outlined above that this policy is probably endangering lives rather than saving them. If this slippery slope is so bad, then clearly we need to kick away the first two steps on the ladder – i.e. a total ban on cigarettes and alcohol….but of course that would be silly! As I pointed out earlier we tried that and it didn’t work!…..and what makes anyone think it might miraculously work for other narcotics?

Full legalisation?
Some critics of drug laws would move for full legalisation. This would have the advantage of bringing all drug use, as I outlined above, back inside a legal framework. It would ensure the drugs themselves came from licensed producers, and was consumed in as safe a manner as possible, with any profits going into legal enterprises which would ultimately be taxed. In the case of the USA, which currently spends about $47 Billion a year fighting drugs, Uncle Sam could be looking at taking in that amount each year as its cut from such legal drugs use. That money could then be used to more effectively deal with the problems of drug use.

More importantly we’d be depriving the criminals of a huge source of funding. This would limit the amount of money they had available to spend on other criminal activities areas and restore the momentum to the law enforcement agencies. Also many drug related crimes (i.e. burglaries by addicts) would be reduced.

Of course the critics say that by legalising all drugs, even nasty ones like Heroin, Crack, meth and Cocaine (which Dr Nutt rated 1st, 2nd 3rd and 5th respectively in terms of harm to the user, the lancet report here lists heroin and cocaine as easily the worst from a dependence and harm point of view) would be disastrous. We have enough problems with alcohol abuse already, if you allowed people to openly and legally smoke crack cocaine the results would be chaos. And they may have a point here; we simply don’t know what the consequences of such a policy would be, largely because there is a vacuum of reliable data. It could be bad, or it could be no worse than what we see at present.

But there is a issue of deep rooted social problems to consider here. The one question I never hear asked about “binge drinking” by politicians is why people do it? Clearly if some people’s lives are so stressful or problematic that they feel the need to anesthetise themselves every weekend with a vast quantity of alcohol this is indicative of some serious underlining social problems within western society (reminds me, I need another glass of wine!). The danger is that if harder drugs became available, then many people would resort to using them instead, again in dangerously large quantities, indeed some already do (Jasus! that wine went fast! hic!). But, this is a social problem, not a drug problem. Drugs, or alcohol, are merely a symptom of a more deep rooted issue, not the end cause. We could discuss the causes of this till the cows come home, high unemployment and disenfranchising of some elements of society, pressures to succeed at work, etc. Another day’s post! but clearly a social issue. But its a lot easier for a politician to make a speech bashing binge drinkers or E using ravers than it is to actually try and solve big social issues, not helped when its often their policy’s that have caused these problems in the first place!

Treatment not punishment?
But jokes aside, its possible that full legalisation of harder drugs would be going too far too quickly. One alternative, as pioneered by several European countries such as Portugal, is to treat use of drugs such as heroin as a “illness” not a crime. Addicts can acquire and take the drugs in proscribed quantities within the confines of special treatment centres. This again reduces the harm caused, and gets the addicts out of the pocket of the drug pushers, as well as tackling street crime associated with drug addiction. It also makes rehabilitation and eventual breaking of the addiction cycle easier to achieve. Again, I struggle to see how the current status quo can be considered a better alternative.

The drug laws don’t work! They just make it worse!
The bottom line is, our current drug laws are doing more harm than good. Whether you’re an anti-drugs puritan or a dope smoking hippy, you have to conclude that the current status quo in the “war on drugs” is unacceptable, we’re loosing and the longer this goes on the deeper a hole we’ll dig ourselves into. What we need is a sensible holistic drugs policies, based on scientific facts not what the tabloid hacks say. And the core of that policy would be reducing the harm caused by said drugs as well as getting the profits from it out of the hands of criminals. If ultimately that does mean some form of legalisation, then its better than the current alternative, for there is little point in continuing to call it a “war” on drugs, as the word “war” implies that both sides have some chance of winning…and we haven’t a hope!