Time for an armistice in the war on drugs
(VANCOUVER ISLAND) The “War on Drugs” was declared by Richard Nixon in 1971 although, like Nixon’s other favourite war, Vietnam, it had actually been going on for a number of years prior to the administration’s owning up to it. Anybody who was around during the Sixties can attest that recreational drug use was both rampant and a top priority for law enforcement years before Nixon named drug abuse “public enemy number one”, in an address to Congress on June 17. Although Nixon proposed that Congress address issues of “prevention of new addicts, and the rehabilitation of those who are addicted”, it was the phrase “War on Drugs” (and the attendant empowerment of the law enforcement community to lock and load and target the youth of the era) that really resonated. The groups Nixon hated, and especially the youth of his time were the real targets of his ginned-up, phony crusade; drugs were Nixon’s equivalent of Bush’s weapons of mass destruction – a chimera conjured up to justify a bullshit war.
Since that war has been raging for close to half a century now with no victories scored, and it having cost Americans billions upon billions of dollars to prosecute and hundreds of billions more to try, convict, and incarcerate drug users with no discernable effect on drug use, it is clearly time to re-evaluate the whole business.
It’s worth noting that weed has been around since prehistoric times and has been used as a sedative, as an herb, for pain management, and for recreational purposes for most of human history; it wasn’t until the 20th Century that it became illegal. Cocaine, opium, and heroin were easily obtainable until the 20th Century as well. The Bayer company sold diamorphine over the counter and by mail order under its trade name, “Heroin”, well into the 1920s. During the previous century, the use of laudanum was widespread as a tonic, and as a tranquiliser and sleep aid. Laudanum, of course, is a tincture of opium containing all of the opiate alkaloids including morphine and codeine. Queen Victoria used to take a serious draught every night before bed. Opium smoking had been declared illegal in the 1870s in a number of US jurisdictions, but that had nothing to do with opium itself; the laws were aimed at the Chines population, as there was some concern that white women were being seduced by the evil Chinese in their opium dens. Let us not forget either that at the beginning of the 60’s, LSD was perfectly legal; Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters on the West Coast and Timothy Leary on the East both started their infatuations with acid while it was not yet against the law.
Much of the war on drugs is a descendant of the generational warfare that characterised the 60’s. The younger generation was vocally in favour of exploring the frontiers of consciousness and the older generation was so offended and so afraid of what was happening to their society that they zeroed in on drugs as the most visible and easy to demonise target of opportunity. Kids whose grandmothers had baked cookies with weed or had a sip of their daily “tonic” were being thrown in jail for lengthy sentences for taking a toke or two. Since then, the effort, the money, and the human resources squandered on something that doesn’t work and most certainly causes far more damage than the non-problem of people’s access to psychotropics ever did has clearly demonstrated a need simply to stop. That’s right; just say no to the pointless and expensive waste of our society’s resources.
It’s time we simply legalise – not decriminalise – all psychoactive chemicals (coke, heroin, MDA, MDMA, etc.) and natural (mushrooms, weed, peyote, morning glories etc.) products. Make it so that if I decide I’d like to indulge in a few bumps of coke this weekend, I could just drop by my pharmacy and buy a couple of grams of high quality, unadulterated blow. If I’m going clubbing, maybe pick up a couple of hits of Ecstasy. Or heroin. Or LSD. Of course everybody starts freaking out and raising the spectre of casual users overdosing and littering the streets with their drug-soaked corpses. Why do we think that’s likely? Like any other drugs dispensed by a pharmacist, these would come with usage and dosage instructions and a consultation with the pharmacist if there is anything unclear about how to use the drug.
Oh, but look at all the new drug addicts we’d have…how terrible that would be! Well, there are a number of problems with that objection. Ask anyone who strongly believes in prohibition backed up by legal sanctions whether he or she would be likely to start using addictive psychotropic drugs if they were suddenly made legal. Few will admit that the legal status of the drug is not the criterion upon which their abstinence is predicated. Oh, I’d never start using. It’s other people who would. How patronising is that? And in any case, if someone were to decide to experiment simply because it now is legal, what of it? Only a tiny percentage of even regular users of psychotropics actually become addicted. They can be and generally are used responsibly. It is the illegality of the drugs that creates the problems. From the spread of disease to poisoning by adulterated street drugs, it is the fact that drugs cannot be legally purchased for even responsible recreational use.
Let’s take heroin, the most demonised drug of all. Side effects directly attributed to the use of diamorphine are simply OIC (opioid induced constipation) and potential physical dependency. That’s it. And a weekend user simply cannot become addicted to heroin. It would take daily use for weeks before dependency became an issue. One almost has to set out to become a junkie. And as long as one can continue to pay for one’s heroin, even addiction isn’t necessarily a big problem; there are now some very effective treatments for OIC.
The harm that results from drug use is virtually completely the result of the illegality of the drugs as opposed to the drugs themselves. Overdoses are usually the result of unpredictable quality and potency of street drugs. Drug interactions cause some deaths; a problem that could be addressed simply by the warnings and explanations given by pharmacists at the point of sale. Look at any real problem associated with drug use and then ask whether the problem would exist if the drug was legal and readily available.
And of course the notion of abandoning our prejudices and preconceptions regarding drugs has been shown to work in countries that have adopted harm reduction measures such as creating safe injection sites and medical supervision of drug use. Heroin addiction has gone down significantly in Portugal after instituting progressive measures like that. Ditto for Switzerland. Denmark is going down that road too, with very gratifying results. Closer to home, look how successful the part-measure of legalising cannabis has been in those jurisdictions that took that tentative step. Drug related thefts and violence practically eliminated and enormous revenue streams created for citizens and the government.
If we were to take the necessary steps to create a more compassionate and enlightened drug policy, the savings in financial as well as human terms would be immediate. If we were then to take the next logical step and pardon and release all non-violent drug offenders, we would take a massive step to emptying our overcrowded prisons; perhaps the United States could move down from the top of the list of countries with the most prisoners. For absolutely certain, we could benefit from the recovery of the tens of billions of dollars currently allocated to fighting an absurd and useless war on drugs.
Surely we don’t need another fifty years to open our minds to the reality that a radical change of direction is necessary. It’s time for that paradigm shift and every day that we delay just results in more and more broken lives.