Addicted to hate: why drug prohibition isn’t working

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After the publication of yet another academic report criticising the use of harsh penal sentences as deterrents it is finally time to admit that drug prohibition isn’t working.

Ever since the early 20th century when the cotton lobby in the United States pressured congress to outlaw hemp – due to their fear of it replacing cotton – and Richard Nixon’s declaration of the ‘War on Drugs’ the Western world has largely been in thrall to a futile and harmful campaign against drug users.

The fact that there are philosophical arguments against drug usage attacks those who are merely exercising their prerogative to do with their body what they wish. Heavy-handed tactics just simply do not work. Taking a ‘hardline’ or ‘zero tolerance’ policy on drugs may go down well with the Daily Mail, and other media outlets that like to suggest that anyone who uses drugs is morally deviant and must be put in jail, but the simple fact of the matter is that such harsh punitive policy measures simply do not work. One of the few countries to ever operate a truly no tolerance drug policy, Iran – who used to execute addicts – even freely admits that such policy measures are ineffective. Nobody would want us to be like Iran.

Taking a ‘hardline’ or ‘zero tolerance’ policy on drugs may go down well with the Daily Mail, but the simple fact of the matter is that such harsh punitive policy measures simply do not work.

Regardless, do not take this humble scribe’s mere opinion on the matter — the vast majority of papers reviewing drug policy have come to the same conclusions. In June 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy stated unequivocally, “the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world…fundamental reforms in national and global drug policies are urgently needed.” This statement, although not precisely echoed, has been reinforced by a recent government report that stated that there is ‘no obvious’ link between harsh laws and levels of drug use. The report equally noted that in countries that have introduced more lenient systems in recent years, such as Portugal, there has been no notable rise in drug use and significant improvement in the health of drug users.

Despite this, there may be people who think that simply because one cannot prevent a problem by outlawing it, that does not mean it should be allowed. Well, for those who see drug addiction as a moral failing or the makings of a bad person, addiction has to be analysed as a spectrum in legal drug usage. Someone would not be prosecuted for having lung cancer from smoking, or liver disease from drinking. Both of these are maladies brought on by the use of drugs, albeit commercially acceptable ones. Addiction is a disease, and there is no ambiguity in the scientific evidence. Chemical dependency leads to the reformulation of brain pathways, physically compelling people to continue to take drugs. What kind of society punishes people for being ill? It is shameful that our society thinks of such people as morally delinquent and therefore deserving of sanction.

What kind of society punishes people for being ill? It is shameful that our society thinks of such people as morally delinquent and therefore deserving of sanction.

If you wish to prohibit harmful drugs, it is necessary to at least be consistent, indeed according to a study by – at the time – government drug Tsar David Nutt in 2010, if one looks at effects on society and the individual, alcohol is in fact the most harmful drug. With marijuana less than third as harmful, ecstasy less than a seventh and cocaine less than half as harmful. Perhaps we should therefore embrace consistency in our legislative process – and begin a process that sees an eventual prohibiton on alcohol. Not convinced? I wouldn’t be either – it’s been tried – and it didn’t exactly end well.

Joseph James

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