The Many Problems with Prohibition
“I just think that the illegality of drugs does more harm than good,” I said.
“So, what, you think they should all be legalised?”
“Yeah,” I said, “Probably.” This exchange was met with the kind of open-mouthed, furrowed-brow incredulity that you might expect had I offered crack cocaine to his newborn child. He drew on his cigarette, took a swig of his ninth or tenth beer of the evening and said:
“But drugs are dangerous.”
It is not my aim to convince anyone that drugs are safe. In fact, I feel it necessary to state that I neither condone nor condemn the use of any specific compounds. Each drug, illegal and otherwise, comes with its own unique set of risks and to discuss the ethics around their consumption would be time consuming and irrelevant given the scope of this article. Rather, I wish to discuss the counterproductiveness of criminalisation as a response to drug abuse. The conversation above — a near verbatim reconstruction — serves to highlight the false trichotomy with which we view different types of drugs. Pharmaceuticals, legal and illegal recreational drugs all seem to be clearly subcategorised in society’s mind. In reality, they are essentially the same thing: substances which modify bodily function.
Ignoring for a moment the ostensible arbitrariness with which illegality has been doled out, it is important to determine whether or not criminalisation has been successful. In other words, does prohibition mean that fewer people are taking drugs? In this regard The Economist claims that “citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer.”
The argument I hear most frequently in opposition to legalisation is that drug use will become widespread. Instinctively, this may seem like a reasonable assumption but anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. In 2001 Portugal decriminalised (note: decriminalisation and legalisation are two entirely different kettles of fish) the possession of small quantities of illicit substances, replacing criminal convictions with medical and psychiatric help. Scientific American states that, as a result, street deaths caused by drug overdoses have fallen by some 27.5% annually. Moreover, the rate of HIV contraction from shared needles has plummeted. Time adds that “the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.” It ought to be clear to any compassionate and reasonable human being that treating addicts as individuals in need of help is considerably more effective — not to mention humane — than treating them as criminals in need of punishment.
Beyond its fundamental failure as a means of controlling drug use, prohibition has resulted in an array of ancillary drawbacks, the most prominent of which is the indirect funding of organised crime. Through the illegalisation of drugs, a black market with an estimated value of over $300 billion has been created and filled with hyperviolent, bloodthirsty drug cartels. (In researching this article I have seen some deeply harrowing images; I shan’t link them here for obvious reasons but a quick Google search for ‘drug war’ will send you in the right direction if you’re that way inclined.) Also, the varying addictiveness of drugs means that their demand is generally inelastic. In other words, changes in their pricing have little impact on their consumption. As such, any governmental effort to reduce the supply achieves little more than increasing traffickers’ profits; attacking drug dealers makes them stronger.
Furthermore, these policies aren’t cheap. It costs the tax payer a great deal to investigate and enforce such laws and even more to incarcerate those whose crime is an illegal alteration of their own mental state. People who make the choice to engage in drug use under prohibition face the additional risks associated with unregulated doses of potentially untested chemicals. If individuals are going to take drugs regardless of their illegality — as has been demonstrated above — then it would surely make more sense for them to be purchasable in nonlethal, quality assured doses with an understanding of the associated dangers. Consider tobacco consumption over the past half-century: fewer people smoke because we have an increased awareness of the risks. Support and rehabilitation is freely available and smokers are not treated like criminals. It is a clear example of the value of openness and education over prohibition.
This being the case, why are governments still adamant that illegalisation is the best course of action? I find it hard to believe they are ignorant of the facts; politicians are highly educated individuals, despite appearances. One possibility is the fear of admitting that they were wrong to a nation who have been sold the ‘drugs are bad and therefore illegal’ line for as long as they can remember. Noam Chomsky offers a more disturbing possibility:
They have known all along that it won’t work, they have good evidence from their own research studies showing that if you want to deal with substance abuse, criminalization is the worst method…If it isn’t about reducing substance abuse, what is it about? It is reasonably clear, both from current actions and the historical record, that substances tend to be criminalized when they are associated with the so-called dangerous classes, that the criminalization of certain substances is a technique of social control. The economic policies of the last 20 years are a rich man’s version of structural adjustment.
One of the research studies to which Chomsky refers is an extensive 1994 RAND report regarding the control of cocaine. While the report is specifically aimed at cocaine, it does claim that the results are applicable to the control of various other drugs. I will not rehash the entire report here, but I certainly recommend a read through. In closing, it states that “given the high cost of supply control programs, this report concludes that treatment of heavy users may be a more cost-effective way of dealing with drug interventions.”
If you remain unconvinced, consider a more libertarian argument: governments should have no power over what an individual chooses to do to their own body so long as it does not directly threaten the rights of another individual. If we continue down this Demolition Man-esque path of illegalising that which is potentially ‘bad’ for us we’ll have to say goodbye to fast food and alcohol and unprotected sex and sitting on our arses all day and horse riding and television and gambling and working too hard and staying up too late and eating too much and eating too little and skydiving and listening to loud music and buying things we can’t afford and sitting in the sun too long and sitting indoors too much and dancing all night and slouching and playing video games too much and ballet dancing and overmedicating and undermedicating and skateboarding and climbing trees and so on and so forth.
Mind altering substances have been a part of civilisation for thousands of years while prohibition is a relatively new concept — one saturated with economic and sociological problems. It didn’t work in 1920s America and it isn’t working now. That said, the simultaneous legalisation of all drugs would be incredibly reckless. It is a delicate matter which needs to be handled with great care. We must ensure that policies of education and rehabilitation are firmly in place before any action is taken to rectify these futile, blinkered, bloody and senseless policies.