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Drugs is not a country

Politicians love soundbites, and a classic, especially in America, is that they are fighting a "War on Drugs". Sounds tough and decisive, doesn't it, but there's a problem - "Drugs" is not a country. You can't send a stiff note to the ambassador for Drugs, or break off diplomatic relations; you can't threaten to invade it with your latest high tech weaponry and depose its evil government unless it mends its ways. You can't even nuke it back to the stone age.

What you end up doing is putting a lot of your own people in jail with ever-more draconian sentences, which achieves precisely nothing, except for making a few politicians look tough, and providing a state-sponsored finishing-school for criminals. They are usually the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, getting high largely to distract themselves from the poverty and squalor of their lives. Some of them have turned to other crimes to finance a drug habit, and jailing these does get them off the streets for a while, but it's bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon. Occasionally the authorities do catch a drugs wholesaler, who they lock up and throw away the key with great ceremony, but there is invariably another one in his place before they have finished reading out the indictment.

The War on Drugs cannot be won by fighting. It's not a criminal issue, but a social one. Solve the poverty that makes people want to take refuge from their lives, and you solve the bulk of the drugs problem. But that's difficult and expensive, not to mention too slow to show dramatic results in a political term, so most politicians content themselves with sounding tough instead.

You would think that America in particular, which loves studying its own short history, would realise that treating drugs as a criminal issue is the wrong answer, because they have been here before. In the 1920s, Prohibition made alcohol illegal in America. It was done with the best of intentions, but it was a disaster. It did make it harder for people to drink, but it also opened up an enormous market for smugglers, gangsters and petty criminals. Most people like a drink now and again, so suddenly millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens were doing business with criminals.

The crime figures exploded. All that money pouring into the underworld led directly to gangs doing battle with machine guns on city streets to protect (or acquire) a share of this golden bounty. Strong spirits surged in popularity, because they were easier to smuggle than wine or beer. Health problems spiralled too, as people went blind or became paralysed or brain-damaged from drinking "hooch" which had been adulterated with methylated spirits or other toxic chemicals, or just manufactured badly. Perhaps worst of all, it led to a widespread contempt for authority so out of touch with its citizens, which to some extent persists to this day. (You don't think so? Look how many Americans regard their government, and especially the Federal government, with suspicion and mistrust). Hypocrisy was rampant. A million gallons of whisky a year was drunk as "medical" prescriptions. Millions of bottles of non-alcoholic beverages were sold with detailed instructions on what you must not do, because it would turn the beverage alcoholic. Many of the legislators themselves, including President Harding who had actually voted for Prohibition when he was a senator, kept right on drinking.

This couldn't go on, and in 1933 Prohibition was repealed, to general celebration. A lot of criminals went out of business. (Ironically some of them started selling drugs instead, as legal alcohol made illegal alcohol unprofitable, and the huge criminal underclass created by the illicit alcohol business cast around for other ways to make a quick buck.)

If you really want to solve the drugs problem, the only way to do it is to swallow hard and make recreational drugs legal. Sell them through licensed vendors, like alcohol, and spend the billions you will raise in tax revenues on helping the poor and the vulnerable. Treat drug addiction as a social and medical issue, in the same way that alcohol addiction is now treated. Millions of petty criminals will suddenly be law-abiding citizens, and thus less suspicious of police and authority in general. Thousands of major criminals will be out of a job. Whole countries will suddenly become a lot more civilised, as the billions of dollars created by drug production suddenly add to their legitimate economies instead of destabilising them. And you can spend the billions currently spent on largely futile attempts to disrupt the drugs supply chain on something more useful.

Unfortunately, it's not going to happen any time soon. Any politician brave enough to suggest such a thing gets swamped by a tide of media hysteria, a good deal of it from rather cynical people who often like to dabble in drugs themselves. Much easier for a journalist to say "Shock! Horror! Scandal!" than write seriously about the issues, and sadly it sells more newspapers too. Much safer for a politician to mouth soundbites about being "tough on drugs" and "tough on crime", and leave the real problem to fester.


Copyright © Jon Storm 2005