You Can't Keep a Banned Drug Down

  You Can't Keep a Banned Drug Down

Posted by FoM on September 16, 2000 at 06:57:22 PT
By Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen 
Source: Ottawa Citizen 

Most Canadians, I am sure, strongly support the criminal prohibition of drugs such as cocaine and heroin. I am equally sure those Canadians share one assumption about drugs that, more than anything else, is the reason they want drugs banned. It is the idea that criminal prohibition keeps the rate of drug use and addiction down. Prohibition may not stop all drug use, people think, but if it were lifted, drugs would be much cheaper. Users wouldn't fear arrest. Inevitably, drug use and addiction would soar and society would suffer. 
That's certainly the view of most government officials. Drug legalization is "an inane policy," according to Robert Weiner, chief press spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "It's chaos and anarchy. It creates hugely greater demand for drugs to have legalization. It's a no-brainer that if there's a legal barrier against it, people don't want to get in trouble." Brockville police chief Barry King chairs a committee established by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to advise the federal government on drug policy. The police chiefs, he says, "are opposed to the legalization of any illicit drugs in Canada." If any drug were legalized, he says, its use would greatly increase. Chief King is wrong. So are Mr. Weiner and most Canadians. There is no credible evidence that the criminal prohibition of drugs keeps drug use and abuse down. In fact, although it may seem counter-intuitive, experience from all over the world shows that drug use rises and falls with surprisingly little regard for the legal status of drugs. Drug prohibition has not kept drug use down. Removing prohibition is unlikely, in itself, to cause drug use to rise. This suggestion might seem jarring. We have faith in the power of criminal law to shape behaviour. But consider this statement by UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan in his introduction to the United Nation's 1997 World Drug Report: "Although the consumption of drugs has been a fact of life for centuries, addiction has mushroomed over the last five decades." Mr. Annan might have added that rates of drug use, not just addiction, have exploded over the last five decades. He might also have mentioned that drug prohibition became fully entrenched in international law and aggressively enforced about five decades ago. The unsettling truth is that the most frightening jumps in drug use the world has seen have happened after the introduction -- or escalation -- of drug prohibition. In the United States, the country that invented prohibition, Richard Nixon coined the phrase "War on Drugs" in 1968. He backed up this rhetoric with major new spending on prohibition that launched the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973. And drug use? It exploded like never before in American history. Between 1974 and 1982, cocaine use quadrupled. That growth peaked at the beginning of the 1980s and there has been a gradual decline in the use of many drugs -- but not all -- since then. But 30 years later, drug-use rates are still vastly higher than before Nixon declared war. That pattern can be seen all over the world. In Canada, marijuana was banned in 1923. At the time, the weed was so little used in this country that anyone could have smoked a joint on the steps of most police stations. Despite anti-marijuana hysteria and an unforgiving attitude among law enforcers in those years, there were only 25 marijuana convictions up to 1946. In 1962, when an even tougher marijuana law was passed, the drug was still little known. But immediately after the law passed -- in the same year, in fact -- marijuana use began to grow exponentially. Now, almost one in four Canadians has inhaled. China's struggle with opium addiction in the 19th century is often held up as a contrary example, a country where drug abuse soared during a period of legal availability. In fact, during much of the period in which China wrestled with opium, the Chinese government forbade the importation, sale or use of opium; dealers were executed and at least a few users had their top lip cut off to prevent further smoking. But more importantly, throughout this era China suffered social, political and economic disintegration. These are fertile conditions for drug abuse. India, the source-country of much of the opium that entered China, is illustrative. India was the world's biggest producer of opium in the 19th century, yet a British Royal Commission investigating opium addiction in India reported in 1896 that "the use of opium in India resembles that of liquor in the West, rather than that of an undesirable substance." Moreover, at the same time that China endured its problems with opium, drugs of all kinds, not just opium, were freely available in Canada, the United States, Britain and most other countries. In fact, drugs were absurdly available right up until they were banned early in the 20th century. They could be had over the counter, or in the mail. They were advertised with outlandish claims of health benefits. They were added to medicines, quasi-medicinal syrups and cordials, and beverages such as Coca-Cola -- often without the presence of the drug being mentioned on the label. Children were commonly given what are now considered dangerous street drugs. One popular cough syrup promised it would "suit the palate of the most exacting adult or the most capricious child" thanks to its special ingredient: heroin. Obviously, the potential for abuse was enormous. Yet Western countries did not suffer epidemics of addiction. Many individuals became dependent users, to be sure. But historians agree that their numbers did not steadily rise. (And those who were addicted were generally able to continue their lives as they had lived them, unlike the walking dead in modern drug ghettoes, such as Vancouver's Downtown Eastside). States with higher rates of drug incarceration experience higher rates of drug use. Crude opium imports to the U.S., which grew throughout much of the second half of the 19th century, dropped almost by half over a 15-year period beginning in the mid-1890s. Opium was legal throughout that period, but growing awareness of the health risks it posed convinced people to avoid it. Right up until drugs were banned in the early part of the 20th century, the overwhelming majority of people simply chose not to use drugs, or they took drugs in modest quantities that neither damaged their health nor led them to addiction. In 1905, a U.S. Congressional committee studied cocaine and opiate (opium, morphine and heroin) use and concluded there were some 200,000 dependant users in the United States. That's about 0.25 per cent of the population of the day. Other researchers put the number somewhat higher. David Musto, professor of History at Yale University, says there were "perhaps 250,000" addicts in the U.S. -- or 0.3 per cent of the population. How do those numbers compare to the U.S. today, after 84 years of fiercely enforced prohibition? In 1998, according to the U.S. government, there were 4,323,000 "hardcore" users (meaning they use these drugs at least weekly) of cocaine and heroin. That's about 1.6 per cent of the population -- around six times the proportion at the beginning of the century. The U.S. government considers about five million Americans to be hardcore users of any illegal drug. That's almost 1.8 per cent of the population. The numbers from early in the 20th century are little more than educated guesswork. There are also serious problems with the modern figures -- for one, they omit drug users among the two million prisoners in the U.S. and therefore seriously understate the reality; they also leave out the undoubtedly large number of people abusing prescription drugs such as Valium. But taking these figures as broad indicators, they paint a startling picture: In the 20th century, when American drug policy went from extreme laissez-faire to extreme prohibition, the proportion of the population that abuses drugs dramatically increased. Today, American states vary substantially in how readily they punish drug crimes with imprisonment. Some states are quite liberal; others have given life sentences for mere possession. If punishment is an effective deterrent, there should be more drug use in states with lighter punishments, less in states that punish drugs brutally. But a study released this year by the Justice Policy Institute, an American think tank, found a statistical correlation linking more severe drug punishments with more drug use. "States with higher rates of drug incarceration experience higher, not lower, rates of drug use," the report concluded. The other American experiment in prohibition wasn't much more positive. In the decade before alcohol was banned in 1920, consumption dropped steadily. That drop continued for two years after Prohibition became law. Then consumption started to rise rapidly and would almost certainly have surpassed the pre-Prohibition level if alcohol hadn't been legalized in 1933. This happened despite the fact that Prohibition pushed up the price of beer by 700 per cent and that of spirits by 270 per cent. Higher prices didn't make Americans give up the bottle, they only took more money from their pockets. So there's little evidence that prohibition keeps drug use down. But what if we look at that question from the opposite direction? Once criminal prohibition is in place, would easing or lifting it cause greater drug use? Again, international experience says no. The Australian state of South Australia decriminalized marijuana in 1987, and although there was some rise in marijuana use subsequently, it was no greater than that in two neighbouring states that didn't change their laws. The same thing happened in 11 American states that decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s. There were rises in use, but they were the same as in neighbouring states that didn't change their laws. (And when several of these states re-criminalized marijuana, this did not reduce consumption.) In fact, American states with the most severe anti-marijuana laws experienced the sharpest rises in marijuana use. Then there is the justly famous case of Holland. Marijuana possession was made de facto legal in 1976 and "coffee shops" selling marijuana under tightly regulated circumstances were permitted in 1980. When these policies were introduced, there was no increase in use. There were, however, increases in use after 1984, but equal or greater increases occurred in the U.S., Britain and many other countries that stuck with criminal prohibition. The Dutch rate of marijuana use continues to be one of the lowest in the western world. Holland also made the possession of small amounts of other drugs, including heroin and cocaine, de facto legal. Yet Dutch consumption of these drugs, far from exploding when the criminal law was pulled back, stayed fairly stable. Methodologically rigorous surveys of international drug usage rates haven't been done, but most Western countries do have good domestic research whose outlines provide grounds for broad comparisons. These comparisons show the Dutch use of illegal drugs is far lower than in the U.S. The Dutch rate of heroin addiction is a fraction of that in the U.S., and is lower than in most European countries. The Dutch rate of drug-related deaths is the lowest in Europe, leading to a uniquely Dutch problem: finding housing for senior-citizen addicts. Not surprisingly, many European countries are now moving toward the decriminalization or de facto legalization of mere possession of drugs. Some states and cities in Germany chose this policy in the early 1990s. Italy and Spain have formally adopted this approach. Critics in each case insisted drug use would soar, and in each case it didn't happen. Impressed by these results, Portugal voted in July to follow suit. Obviously these facts do not mean that liberalized drug laws "cause" lower rates of drug use. Culture, not law and government policy, is the crucial factor in pushing use up or down. But the data show that removing the criminal ban on drugs will not in itself cause drug use and addiction to soar. It's not hard to understand why: People can think for themselves. They can make rational choices and, since most people are not self-destructive, they usually do. That's something prohibition's supporters too often ignore. Eugene Oscapella, an Ottawa lawyer and a director of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, notes that "we can all go out right now and get ourselves totally blotto on any number of legal drugs but the vast majority of us don't do that. We have our own internal control mechanisms. So the fact that a drug is going to be decriminalized or regulated in a way that is different than now and the price may fall doesn't mean there's going to be an explosion in use. Not by any means." The very fact that a great majority of Canadians want drugs to be criminally prohibited is a good indication that they personally don't want to use them. Would these people suddenly want to shoot heroin or snort cocaine if the legal status of these drugs changed? I've put that question to many people who passionately disagree with legalization but I've never met anyone who answered yes. So who is it that will start using drugs if they're no longer banned by criminal law? It's not you, of course. And it's not me. It's those other people -- the masses who have to be protected from their own mindless impulses. "It all depends on what you believe of society," says Mr. Oscapella. "Are we just a bunch of uncontrolled people who need the criminal law to go ahead and dictate our behaviours?" For prohibition to make sense, that bleak view of humanity is exactly what you have to believe. The evidence, happily, does not support that belief. It's clear that our fellow men and women are capable of making intelligent decisions about their own lives. Perhaps we might put a little more trust in them, and a lot less in criminal law. Note: Evidence shows no link between the law and rate of drug use.You can read the entire series at: Dan Gardner is a member of the Citizen's Editorial Board. E-mail: dgardner thecitizen. Published: September 16, 2000 Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)Copyright: 2000 The Ottawa CitizenContact: letters Address: 1101 Baxter Rd.,Ottawa, Ontario, K2C 3M4Fax: 613-596-8522Website: Articles In Series:Europe Leading The Way To Smarter Drug Laws Police To A War That Can't Be Won Drugs, Indecent Profits The Drug War is Eroding Our Civil Liberties Our Drug Laws Harm Us More Than They Help? on Drug Smuggling Destructive and Senseless Launched The 30 Years' War as Election Issue Borders Don't Stop Illegal Drugs Trade Rots Away Mexican Society Long As There Is Demand, There Will Be Supply The War On Drugs Has Failed 

Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help


Comment #1 posted by EdC on September 17, 2000 at 08:57:08 PT

You can't keep a banned drug down

[ Post Comment ]

  Post Comment

Name:       Optional Password: 
Comment:   [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]

Link URL: 
Link Title: