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Oct 13, 2007

Think Again: Drugs (Ethan Nadelmann)

September/October 2007

Prohibition has failed-again. Instead of treating the demand for
illegal drugs as a market, and addicts as patients, policymakers the
world over have boosted the profits of drug lords and fostered
narcostates that would frighten Al Capone. Finally, a smarter drug
control regime that values reality over rhetoric is rising to replace
the "war" on drugs.

"The Global War on Drugs Can Be Won"
No, it can't. A "drug-free world," which the United Nations describes
as a realistic goal, is no more attainable than an "alcohol-free
world"-and no one has talked about that with a straight face since
the repeal of Prohibition in the United States in 1933. Yet futile
rhetoric about winning a "war on drugs" persists, despite mountains
of evidence documenting its moral and ideological bankruptcy. When
the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on drugs convened in 1998,
it committed to "eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit
cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy
by the year 2008" and to "achieving significant and measurable
results in the field of demand reduction." But today, global
production and consumption of those drugs are roughly the same as
they were a decade ago; meanwhile, many producers have become more
efficient, and cocaine and heroin have become purer and cheaper.
It's always dangerous when rhetoric drives policy-and especially so
when "war on drugs" rhetoric leads the public to accept collateral
casualties that would never be permissible in civilian law
enforcement, much less public health. Politicians still talk of
eliminating drugs from the Earth as though their use is a plague on
humanity. But drug control is not like disease control, for the
simple reason that there's no popular demand for smallpox or polio.
Cannabis and opium have been grown throughout much of the world for
millennia. The same is true for coca in Latin America.

Methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs can be produced anywhere.
Demand for particular illicit drugs waxes and wanes, depending not
just on availability but also fads, fashion, culture, and competition
from alternative means of stimulation and distraction. The relative
harshness of drug laws and the intensity of enforcement matter
surprisingly little, except in totalitarian states. After all, rates
of illegal drug use in the United States are the same as, or higher
than, Europe, despite America's much more punitive policies.

"We Can Reduce the Demand for Drugs"
Good luck. Reducing the demand for illegal drugs seems to make sense.
But the desire to alter one's state of consciousness, and to use
psychoactive drugs to do so, is nearly universal-and mostly not a
problem. There's virtually never been a drug-free society, and more
drugs are discovered and devised every year. Demand-reduction efforts
that rely on honest education and positive alternatives to drug use
are helpful, but not when they devolve into unrealistic, "zero
tolerance" policies.

As with sex, abstinence from drugs is the best way to avoid trouble,
but one always needs a fallback strategy for those who can't or won't
refrain. "Zero tolerance" policies deter some people, but they also
dramatically increase the harms and costs for those who don't resist.
Drugs become more potent, drug use becomes more hazardous, and people
who use drugs are marginalized in ways that serve no one.
The better approach is not demand reduction but "harm reduction."
Reducing drug use is fine, but it's not nearly as important as
reducing the death, disease, crime, and suffering associated with
both drug misuse and failed prohibitionist policies. With respect to
legal drugs, such as alcohol and cigarettes, harm reduction means
promoting responsible drinking and designated drivers, or persuading
people to switch to nicotine patches, chewing gums, and smokeless
tobacco. With respect to illegal drugs, it means reducing the
transmission of infectious disease through syringe-exchange programs,
reducing overdose fatalities by making antidotes readily available,
and allowing people addicted to heroin and other illegal opiates to
obtain methadone from doctors and even pharmaceutical heroin from
clinics. Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland
have already embraced this last option. There's no longer any
question that these strategies decrease drug-related harms without
increasing drug use. What blocks expansion of such programs is not
cost; they typically save taxpayers' money that would otherwise go to
criminal justice and healthcare. No, the roadblocks are
abstinence-only ideologues and a cruel indifference to the lives and
well-being of people who use drugs.

"Reducing the Supply of Drugs Is the Answer"
Not if history is any guide. Reducing supply makes as much sense as
reducing demand; after all, if no one were planting cannabis, coca,
and opium, there wouldn't be any heroin, cocaine, or marijuana to
sell or consume. But the carrot and stick of crop eradication and
substitution have been tried and failed, with rare exceptions, for
half a century. These methods may succeed in targeted locales, but
they usually simply shift production from one region to another:
Opium production moves from Pakistan to Afghanistan; coca from Peru
to Colombia; and cannabis from Mexico to the United States, while
overall global production remains relatively constant or even

The carrot, in the form of economic development and assistance in
switching to legal crops, is typically both late and inadequate. The
stick, often in the form of forced eradication, including aerial
spraying, wipes out illegal and legal crops alike and can be
hazardous to both people and local environments. The best thing to be
said for emphasizing supply reduction is that it provides a rationale
for wealthier nations to spend a little money on economic development
in poorer countries. But, for the most part, crop eradication and
substitution wreak havoc among impoverished farmers without
diminishing overall global supply.

The global markets in cannabis, coca, and opium products operate
essentially the same way that other global commodity markets do: If
one source is compromised due to bad weather, rising production
costs, or political difficulties, another emerges. If international
drug control circles wanted to think strategically, the key question
would no longer be how to reduce global supply, but rather: Where
does illicit production cause the fewest problems (and the greatest
benefits)? Think of it as a global vice control challenge. No one
expects to eradicate vice, but it must be effectively zoned and
regulated-even if it's illegal.

"U.S. Drug Policy Is the World's Drug Policy"
Sad, but true. Looking to the United States as a role model for drug
control is like looking to apartheid-era South Africa for how to deal
with race. The United States ranks first in the world in per capita
incarceration--with less than 5 percent of the world's population,
but almost 25 percent of the world's prisoners. The number of people
locked up for U.S. drug-law violations has increased from roughly
50,000 in 1980 to almost 500,000 today; that's more than the number
of people Western Europe locks up for everything. Even more deadly is
U.S. resistance to syringe-exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS both
at home and abroad. Who knows how many people might not have
contracted HIV if the United States had implemented at home, and
supported abroad, the sorts of syringe-exchange and other
harm-reduction programs that have kept HIV/AIDS rates so low in
Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Perhaps millions.
And yet, despite this dismal record, the United States has succeeded
in constructing an international drug prohibition regime modeled
after its own highly punitive and moralistic approach. It has
dominated the drug control agencies of the United Nations and other
international organizations, and its federal drug enforcement agency
was the first national police organization to go global. Rarely has
one nation so successfully promoted its own failed policies to the
rest of the world.

But now, for the first time, U.S. hegemony in drug control is being
challenged. The European Union is demanding rigorous assessment of
drug control strategies. Exhausted by decades of service to the
U.S.-led war on drugs, Latin Americans are far less inclined to
collaborate closely with U.S. drug enforcement efforts. Finally
waking up to the deadly threat of HIV/AIDS, China, Indonesia,
Vietnam, and even Malaysia and Iran are increasingly accepting of
syringe-exchange and other harm-reduction programs. In 2005, the
ayatollah in charge of Iran's Ministry of Justice issued a fatwa
declaring methadone maintenance and syringe-exchange programs
compatible with sharia (Islamic) law. One only wishes his American
counterpart were comparably enlightened.

"Afghan Opium Production Must Be Curbed"
Be careful what you wish for. It's easy to believe that eliminating
record-high opium production in Afghanistan-which today accounts for
roughly 90 percent of global supply, up from 50 percent 10 years
ago-would solve everything from heroin abuse in Europe and Asia to
the resurgence of the Taliban.

But assume for a moment that the United States, NATO, and Hamid
Karzai's government were somehow able to cut opium production in
Afghanistan. Who would benefit? Only the Taliban, warlords, and other
black-market entrepreneurs whose stockpiles of opium would skyrocket
in value. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan peasants would flock to
cities, ill-prepared to find work. And many Afghans would return to
their farms the following year to plant another illegal harvest,
utilizing guerrilla farming methods to escape intensified eradication
efforts. Except now, they'd soon be competing with poor farmers
elsewhere in Central Asia, Latin America, or even Africa. This is,
after all, a global commodities market.

And outside Afghanistan? Higher heroin prices typically translate
into higher crime rates by addicts. They also invite cheaper but more
dangerous means of consumption, such as switching from smoking to
injecting heroin, which results in higher HIV and hepatitis C rates.
All things considered, wiping out opium in Afghanistan would yield
far fewer benefits than is commonly assumed.

So what's the solution? Some recommend buying up all the opium in
Afghanistan, which would cost a lot less than is now being spent
trying to eradicate it. But, given that farmers somewhere will
produce opium so long as the demand for heroin persists, maybe the
world is better off, all things considered, with 90 percent of it
coming from just one country. And if that heresy becomes the new
gospel, it opens up all sorts of possibilities for pursuing a new
policy in Afghanistan that reconciles the interests of the United
States, NATO, and millions of Afghan citizens.

"Legalization Is the Best Approach"
It might be. Global drug prohibition is clearly a costly disaster.
The United Nations has estimated the value of the global market in
illicit drugs at $400 billion, or 6 percent of global trade. The
extraordinary profits available to those willing to assume the risks
enrich criminals, terrorists, violent political insurgents, and
corrupt politicians and governments. Many cities, states, and even
countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia are reminiscent
of Chicago under Al Capone-times 50. By bringing the market for drugs
out into the open, legalization would radically change all that for
the better.

More importantly, legalization would strip addiction down to what it
really is: a health issue. Most people who use drugs are like the
responsible alcohol consumer, causing no harm to themselves or anyone
else. They would no longer be the state's business. But legalization
would also benefit those who struggle with drugs by reducing the
risks of overdose and disease associated with unregulated products,
eliminating the need to obtain drugs from dangerous criminal markets,
and allowing addiction problems to be treated as medical rather than
criminal problems.

No one knows how much governments spend collectively on failing drug
war policies, but it's probably at least $100 billion a year, with
federal, state, and local governments in the United States accounting
for almost half the total. Add to that the tens of billions of
dollars to be gained annually in tax revenues from the sale of
legalized drugs. Now imagine if just a third of that total were
committed to reducing drug-related disease and addiction. Virtually
everyone, except those who profit or gain politically from the
current system, would benefit.

Some say legalization is immoral. That's nonsense, unless one
believes there is some principled basis for discriminating against
people based solely on what they put into their bodies, absent harm
to others. Others say legalization would open the floodgates to huge
increases in drug abuse. They forget that we already live in a world
in which psychoactive drugs of all sorts are readily available-and in
which people too poor to buy drugs resort to sniffing gasoline, glue,
and other industrial products, which can be more harmful than any
drug. No, the greatest downside to legalization may well be the fact
that the legal markets would fall into the hands of the powerful
alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical companies. Still, legalization
is a far more pragmatic option than living with the corruption,
violence, and organized crime of the current system.

"Legalization Will Never Happen"
Never say never. Wholesale legalization may be a long way off-but
partial legalization is not. If any drug stands a chance of being
legalized, it's cannabis. Hundreds of millions of people have used
it, the vast majority without suffering any harm or going on to use
"harder" drugs. In Switzerland, for example, cannabis legalization
was twice approved by one chamber of its parliament, but narrowly
rejected by the other.

Elsewhere in Europe, support for the criminalization of cannabis is
waning. In the United States, where roughly 40 percent of the
country's 1.8 million annual drug arrests are for cannabis
possession, typically of tiny amounts, 40 percent of Americans say
that the drug should be taxed, controlled, and regulated like
alcohol. Encouraged by Bolivian President Evo Morales, support is
also growing in Latin America and Europe for removing coca from
international antidrug conventions, given the absence of any credible
health reason for keeping it there. Traditional growers would benefit
economically, and there's some possibility that such products might
compete favorably with more problematic substances, including alcohol.
The global war on drugs persists in part because so many people fail
to distinguish between the harms of drug abuse and the harms of
prohibition. Legalization forces that distinction to the forefront.
The opium problem in Afghanistan is primarily a prohibition problem,
not a drug problem. The same is true of the narcoviolence and
corruption that has afflicted Latin America and the Caribbean for
almost three decades-and that now threatens Africa. Governments can
arrest and kill drug lord after drug lord, but the ultimate solution
is a structural one, not a prosecutorial one. Few people doubt any
longer that the war on drugs is lost, but courage and vision are
needed to transcend the ignorance, fear, and vested interests that
sustain it.

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