Sunday, April 8, 2012

Food for thought in the War On Drugs

Earlier this year I wrote about Portugal's experience with decriminalizing drug use, and invited readers to comment on the public safety and security implications of following that nation's example. An interesting discussion ensued in the comments to that article.

I've continued to research the topic, trying to learn more about what's been tried in other countries, and what's worked, and what hasn't. As part of this process, I came across an article at The Vine, an Australian Web site. It was titled 'The war on drugs has failed! Long live the war on drugs!' Here's a brief excerpt.

So ingrained is the idea of drug-taking as being necessarily bad that the political cost of talking about drugs in a realistic, sensible manner is beyond what any major party is willing to risk in a modern representative democracy. Everyone probably recognises that this is a policy dead-end, but no-one actually wants to take responsibility for turning it around. The prospect of a smack addict on every corner is a potent image to browbeat an opponent with in an election year.

. . .

In a society not so riven by drug abuse ... there always remains the worry that decriminalisation will result in soaring rates of drug use and addiction. This is a perennial concern, and there's no easy answer to it either, however it strikes me that most people don't choose to become addicts due to the appeal of the lifestyle it represents. There's usually a complex matrix of personal and social reasons that drag them towards it, very few of which are aided and abetted by the availability of drugs per se ... Moreover, there's probably more to be gained by bringing addicts within the system, rather than pushing them out, the inevitable end point of a system based around police intervention and the incarceration of drug users. Of all the treatment options we have to try and ease the dependency of addicts, increasing their social isolation and rendering them bitterly judged outsiders is probably pretty far down the effectiveness scale.

But, more than anything, the war on drugs is a failure because it misapprehends the reality of the situation: drugs exist and there will never be a regime of control so comprehensive, so sophisticated, that it will be able to eliminate them entirely. Even if there was, the Orwellian necessities of such a regime would make it something I don't think any right-minded person would wish upon their society.

There's more at the link.

The Australian article cited (among other sources) the work of The Global Commission on Drug Policy, an organization that includes leading businessmen, politicians, doctors and other leaders among its members. In June 2011 the Commission released a report (link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format) which stated baldly that the war on drugs has failed miserably. Here's an extract from the executive summary of the report.

The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.

Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers. Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use. Government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction.

Our principles and recommendations can be summarized as follows:

  • End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. Challenge rather than reinforce common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence.
  • Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens. ...
  • Offer health and treatment services to those in need. ... Abolish abusive practices carried out in the name of treatment – such as forced detention, forced labor, and physical or psychological abuse – that contravene human rights standards and norms or that remove the right to self-determination.
. . .

  • Begin the transformation of the global drug prohibition regime. Replace drug policies and strategies driven by ideology and political convenience with fiscally responsible policies and strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights – and adopt appropriate criteria for their evaluation. Review the scheduling of drugs that has resulted in obvious anomalies like the flawed categorization of cannabis, coca leaf and MDMA. Ensure that the international conventions are interpreted and/or revised to accommodate robust experimentation with harm reduction, decriminalization and legal regulatory policies.

Break the taboo on debate and reform. The time for action is now.

Again, more at the link.

LinkI have to admit, the facts and figures provided by the Global Commission make it very clear that the so-called War On Drugs is a miserable failure. Here, for example, are the figures it provides for the ten-year period from 1998 to 2008.

It doesn't specify what the units of measurement are (pounds, or kilograms, or doses, or whatever), but the picture remains depressingly clear: despite spending tens of billions of dollars every year around the globe, we're losing the War On Drugs hand over fist.

So . . . what next? How can we challenge the entrenched stakeholders in the War On Drugs, including law enforcement departments that make billions of dollars out of confiscation of money, equipment, etc. belonging to drug dealers and heavy users? How do we reintroduce sanity to the debate (bearing in mind Einstein's famous definition of insanity, which seems to describe the War On Drugs to perfection)?

Anyone got any ideas? If so, please let us know in Comments. Let's keep the discussion going.



C. S. P. Schofield said...

Step one toward making the War On Drugs less popular with Law Enforcement would seem to be to drastically reduce the immunity enjoyed by police who engage in Gangbusters-style raids on the wrong homes and shoot the wrong people. The injustice of this is so smelly that it would seem that the hurdles to overcome the inertia of the status quo would be less than many other approaches.

Jess said...

Society doesn't want to shun those that use dangerous drugs, whether regulated, or illegal, so unless abusers are harshly punished, the only other approach is through education, but not the glittery pamphlets and silly slogans. Let people see the rotten teeth, open sores that reek of decay and unsanitary conditions many drug abusers live in. Let them tour the prisons that many abusers spend substantial parts of their lives in due to turning to crime to pay for their need.

More than anything else, concentrate on the fact that many drug abusers have emotional, or mental issues that can be helped with medication and/or therapy. We, for some reason, find people overwhelmed by life to be avoided, which only causes more problems.

perlhaqr said...

Hilarious. Peter asks for input on how to end the War on (some) Drugs and Jess comes back with suggestions on ramping it up.

Jess, the reason people don't shun drug users is because the people you're referring to--the truly downtrodden hardcore addicts--are a minute percentage of the total number of people who use or have used proscribed substances, and thus, almost everyone already knows that the Emperor has no clothes on.

You can put up all the propaganda billboards you want showing abcesses, rotten teeth, and run down drug houses, but these days, a majority of people are more likely to think of someone they know, or themselves, when they think of "someone who uses or has used drugs".

Johnny D. said...

I am definitely in the "Make it all legal" crowd. We would be much better served, in my opinion, by helping addicts. Incarceration seems only to be effective at making them better criminals.

Besides, in this broken, bankrupt country, how much longer can we actually afford to incarcerate all these people?

Nah, I say we legalize it, tax it and regulate it - just like our most popular drug - alcohol.

trailbee said...

I have heard all the laughter and cynical answers to this war, and yes, there seems to be no sane solution. BUT cannabis is a gateway drug, sometimes/often leading to other uses. Most people who are really addicted, cannot hold down a job, and motivation to seek help is almost non-existent. If socialists want to take over this country, legalizing drugs is probably the best way. We are well on our way. Find another way to handle this problem. Or is everyone who wants legalization so under the influence that they can't think straight?

Will Brown said...

Some generalised thoughts:

There is already in place in most countries a recognised standard of drug purity and potency for the medicinal prescription of these things, so expanding those manufacturing standards seems a reasonably straight forward process to achieving a safe and predictable product for public sale and consumption.

De-criminalizing drug sale and personal usage ought to be accompanied by a simultaneous revocation of criminal conviction for that activity only. Those imprisoned for other crimes - whether or not they might have been committed in support of drug usage - still have those sentence(s) to complete.

The laws regarding smuggling will (and ought to) remain in place. The legal justifications that apply to cars and TV's equally apply to stimulants and other self-medicants, perhaps moreso at the outset of a decriminalisation process.

Police malfeasance (imunity from prosecution for their performing their duty unlawfully), property seizure and its associated unique concept that property has an independent standing from it's possessor (The Law Agency vs $X and the like instead of the possessor of the money or other thing - car, house, boat, whatever) must be removed from the legal statutes, particularly since those activities came about in large part due to the War on Drugs itself.

Publicly funded education and treatment programs instead of criminal investigation and incarceration should be agressively pursued too so that individual failure to moderate usage (or actual addiction) doesn't create an analogous situation to the DUI experience in the US during the decades following repeal of alcohol prohibition. We know from recent historical experience that this is a predictable and largely preventable occurance.

I'm certain there will be other and likely better thoughts offered, but these are worth consideration I think.

Jess said...

I don't see where you find a suggestion to ramp up the war on drugs and I won't argue with you about it.

As far as I'm concerned, I have little compassion for users or dealers. I've seen the damage, the violence and the corruption. In my idea of a perfect world, the solution to the drug problem would be quick and final.

As far as legalizing another addictive substance: It's asinine and the only benefit would be increased tax revenue and another layer of bureaucracy.

Mad Jack said...

The complete failure of Prohibition and the Volstead Act should have taught the U.S. government something, namely that the people of the United States do not like being told what to do. Naturally the government in its entirety was too stupid to learn.

The war on drugs was lost before it started, but drug use makes a convenient scapegoat for politicians so that the great unwashed won't look too closely at the rest of the country - like how the NAFTA gave us the shaft, that taxes are too high and the military should be reduced by 90%. Public education isn't working well, nor is publicly (government) funded health care and police brutality is at an all time high.

There's big bucks in the drug war. End it, and a lot of people will lose their jobs right along with the wealth they confiscate every year. Now, given that these are the people with the badges and guns, I really don't think they'll give up easily.

Legalize everything on schedule one. License manufacture and distribution, and put an import tariff on everything. Decide what sales might be, estimate the tax revenue and wave that number under the collective noses of a bunch of do-gooders. See what happens.

Remember that all these substances were legal at one time, and somehow or other the world didn't end. I'd legalize everything on schedule one for recreational use and call it a job well done.

Mad Jack said...

My preference is that the drug war be ended quietly - but I don't think it can be ended. The soldiers, generals and politicos won't give up.

perlhaqr said...

In my idea of a perfect world, the solution to the drug problem would be quick and final.

So you'd execute anyone who makes different choices than you'd have them make. What a fascinating perspective on the world you have.

tpmoney said...

As far as I'm concerned, I have little compassion for users or dealers. I've seen the damage, the violence and the corruption.

I can only assume you have never had an alcoholic drink in your life. That you've never smoked a cigarette or cigar. That you've never drank a soda, or coffee. Hopefully you have never eaten any chocolate or other form of food which (and for the purpose of) alters your mood. And hopefully you've never found yourself prescribed a controlled substance. If you have, you would be a drug user, and under your perfect world, put to death.

As I said the last time this discussion came up, these sorts of emotional screeds, while very impressive don't actually help things. Even a 5th grader can see that they (and more benign programs such as DARE) are full of much more sound a fury than truth. And I say this as a person who will never pick up a cigarette, in part because I watched my grandmother die of lung cancer, so I perfectly understand the emotions.

The fact of the matter is, it's already a crime to do all the horrible things we associate with drug use. Neglecting your kids? A crime. Driving or operating heavy machinery under the influence? A crime. Stealing? A crime. Public disturbances? A crime. Killing someone? A crime. So what has the drug war bought us? We've criminalized an entire class of people who are no more dangerous to you and I than the guy who has a beer when he gets home from work. We've turned our police forces from an extension of the community, with the job to serve and protect (rule 7: into para-military organizations that often view themselves as "outside" or "above" the populace they serve. Oh, and we've introduced a number of wonderful elements into society such as organized drug smuggling (oddly enough you don't hear about the billion dollar illicit booze smuggling rings), no knock warrants, money as a defendant separate from the owner, a number of privacy invading laws all in the name of stopping drugs, oh and thousands upon millions of americans who despite the government's best efforts can have just about any drug they desire practically delivered to their door.

Anonymous said...

Step number one. Legalize marijuana. It is ludicrous that in our society you can go to a bar and drink whisky until your broke and can't stand up but if you sit in your living room and smoke marijuana you're a criminal.

Step number two. Realize that our society has damaged itself by taking the lethality out of stupidity. At one time in America stupidity was almost always lethal. If you stuck a needle in your arm to get high with too much dope in it you died. Now an ambulance with paramedics comes running on the tax payers dime to inject the fatally stupid with Narcan so they can be revived and go on to commit another hundred burglaries before it happens again. Take the profit out of it. You want to be a junkie? Here you go it's free. The garbage trucks run on Wednesdays and Thursdays. When you die, and you will, have your friends sit you on the curb for collection. This would provide a strong illustration for those so inclined to make that choice.

Anonymous said...

I am not sure I am pro-legalization, but I would say that I am in favor of a serious look at what we are doing and what we could be doing. I would definitely like to see property seizure rules and no-knock warrants removed.

Another thought is that we should get rid of the federal laws against at least some illegal drugs and leave it to the 50 states to legalize or not. You would see pretty quick what works and what does not as some states legalize while others don't.


perlhaqr said...

Drugs are more available than ever, and we torture grandmothers and threaten to take children away from families for the "crime" of buying cold medicine.