The Pros and Cons of Prohibition

  The Pros and Cons of Prohibition

Posted by FoM on September 17, 2000 at 10:14:21 PT
By Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen 
Source: Ottawa Citizen 

Humans have used psychoactive drugs in just about every society in every time in history. There has never been, and can never be, a "drug-free world." If drug use will always be with us, it follows that the harms drugs can cause will also remain. There is no "solution" to the drug problem. That might sound resigned, but it's not. We still can, and must, make important choices: Which drug-related harms will society cope with? Some are worse than others. Given the range of possible drug policies we could adopt, which policies will produce the fewest and least destructive harms? We can't choose solutions, but we can, and do, choose our problems. 
Beginning in the early 20th century, most countries chose the most extreme policy available: Some drugs were banned and their production, sale, or possession made a crime. The people who originally made this choice believed prohibition would create a drug-free Utopia. By that standard, drug prohibition has been a spectacular failure. But the justification for prohibition has evolved. Officials who seriously talk of "drug-free societies" are now rare. Instead, government leaders claim prohibition at least keeps down the rate of drug use and thus limits the damage of drugs. To withdraw the criminal prohibition of drugs, they say, would send the number of drug users and addicts soaring. Society would suffer horribly. As I argued yesterday, I don't believe that's true. There is no substantial evidence that prohibition keeps down drug use. But what if it were true? Wouldn't criminal prohibition then be the best drug policy? The answer is still no. In the broadest terms, there are two basic drug policies: The first is prohibition, in which the production, sale and possession of drugs are crimes. The second is legalization. Although many levels of legalization are possible, most supporters of legalization want a policy that regulates drugs at least to the degree that we regulate (but don't ban) other products that can be dangerous to health. Alcohol regulation is often cited as a model. What are the problems caused by these policies? Which is the least harmful? As my series Losing the War on Drugs has tried to show, the harms caused by prohibition are many and terrible. Third World countries, where illegal drugs are produced, have to struggle with drug lords and traffickers whose staggering wealth is used to corrupt institutions and pay for private armies to murder opponents. Central governments are weakened, fostering unrest. Billions of dollars that could go to development are wasted on futile fights with traffickers and producers. Eco-systems are ravaged by futile efforts to stamp out drug crops. Many people, often desperately poor, are lured by black-market wealth into a business where they risk prison or death. In this way, Colombia stands at the brink of civil collapse. Mexico and other countries on the traffickers' routes have also suffered economic distortions, violence and corruption. In drug-consuming countries such as Canada, police are frustrated by the impossible task of stopping the flow of drugs, so they ask for and get more powers, eroding everybody's civil liberties in the process. Some succumb to the unique opportunities for corruption presented by black-market drugs. Others turn, in frustration, to vigilante justice -- lying under oath, planting evidence and committing other heinous acts to win an unwinnable war. Prohibition leaves users buying untested, unlabelled drugs that are often tainted, fraudulent or even poisonous. It causes the purity of drugs to rise. It encourages users to favour the fastest-acting, most potent varieties of drugs and use them in the most cost-efficient way: injection. It stigmatizes addicts as criminals, pushing them to the margins of society where they can't get the help they need. All of this multiplies fatal overdoses and drug-related deaths, and spreads infections among users. Drug prohibition is a major contributor to the AIDS epidemic. Prohibition fuels petty property crime by forcing addicts to pay black-market prices for drugs. It turns what would otherwise be an ordinary business like the alcohol industry into one run by criminals who settle business disputes with bullets and bombs, turning streets into battlefields. Prohibition gives organized crime its largest source of revenue and power. Prohibition has cost governments worldwide hundreds of billions of dollars. The U.S. government's anti-drug budget is now more than $20 billion U.S. a year. Of that, almost $13 billion is devoted to fighting the production, distribution, sale and possession of drugs. That doesn't include drug-related state and municipal spending on police, prisons and courts that, by one estimate, has topped $16 billion. Canadian governments don't itemize drug-enforcement costs, but there are indications taxpayers are footing an enormous bill. The RCMP alone has 1,000 officers devoted full-time to prohibition. There are drug specialists in all police forces across the country. Add the time spent by regular officers, in the RCMP and all other police forces, dealing with illegal drugs in the course of their duties. And the specialists who fight organized crime, including the many officers who have spent years trying to cope with Quebec's biker war. The customs officers searching for drugs at borders -- and putting a drag on the economy as they slow cross-border traffic -- are also part of the bill. And the forensic accountants tracking money laundering. And the judges and court officials processing almost 70,000 drug charges each year. And the guards needed to watch over the nine per cent of Canadian prisoners behind bars for drug crimes. The loss of fundamental liberty is surely prohibition's greatest harm. These direct monetary costs are only half of what we pay. There is also all the good that could have been done if these vast resources had been available for other priorities. And lastly, there is the fundamental injustice of imprisoning people simply for choosing to take a substance not approved by the state, or for selling that substance to those who choose to buy it. If the right to control one's own life means anything, it must include the right to choose what to ingest. The loss of fundamental liberty is surely prohibition's greatest harm. This is a short summary of a much longer list. But it's enough to weigh against the harms of legalization. If legalization did not cause an increase in drug use -- and I do not think it would cause one -- the argument is over. But what if it did cause a significant increase in drug use? Would legalization inflict equal or worse harms and costs than prohibition? To answer, we must distinguish between use and abuse. Drug-law enforcers refer to all illegal drug use as "abuse," but this is inaccurate. Drug use that does not harm or impair one's health, work or relationships is generally considered mere "use." Consumption that hurts the user or others is "abuse." Most of us recognize the line between "use" and "abuse" of alcohol. Dr. Harold Kalant, professor emeritus in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto and researcher emeritus with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says that alcohol abusers make up between 10 to 15 per cent of the total number of drinkers. Between five and eight per cent of problem drinkers are addicted, he says, while the other alcohol abusers drink in ways that are harmful to themselves or others -- drinking and driving, for example, or binge drinking that interferes with work or family life. That means 85 or 90 per cent of alcohol users generally consume without significant harm. The same line between use and abuse exists with illegal drugs. Dr. Kalant estimates that the ratio of use to abuse of marijuana is roughly the same as for alcohol. But drugs like cocaine and heroin are more addictive than alcohol and so, Dr. Kalant says, instead of a 10 or 15 per cent abuse rate, "you're more likely talking of 30 per cent or more." (Only one drug causes addiction among a majority of its users: nicotine.) That's a rough estimate. Unlike alcohol, we don't have detailed pictures of illegal drug users and the effects of their use, for the obvious reason that users tend to avoid attention. But it appears the majority of users of illegal drugs do not abuse them, and their consumption of drugs, like consumption of alcohol, generally has no serious ramifications. "If you're a light, casual user," notes Dr. Kalant, "you probably don't have any significant health effects." There may be more involved in these numbers, cautions Dr. Kalant, than just the effects of illegal drugs. He says the very fact that some drugs have been made illegal gives them an anti-social image which may attract people inclined to seek novelty and danger. And "people like that," he says, "may be more at risk (of problem use) than others." Thus, the abuse rates we see with illegal drugs may be higher than they would be if the drugs were legal. None of this detracts from the real dangers of drug use. It's difficult for a drug user to know in advance, for example, if he is one of the minority of users who is susceptible to addiction. And some methods of drug-taking are dangerous in themselves; injection, for example, risks infection. And even casual, light use of some drugs may pose small risks of serious harms. Synthetic drugs like ecstacy, for example, haven't been well-studied, but there is evidence that even one dose has, on rare occasions, done grave harm. These risks alone are reason enough to avoid drug use. But the distinction between use and abuse puts things in perspective. In the unlikely event that legalization led to an increase in drug use, the majority of that increase would be casual use; health and social consequences would not be daunting. Those who see drugs as a moral issue may still consider an increase in casual use unacceptable. But for people concerned only with limiting the individual and social damage of drug use, such an increase should not cause great alarm. How many people are having a Saturday night toot of cocaine doesn't matter nearly so much as how many people are ending up in the morgue. Current drug policy cares far too much about the former, and not nearly enough about the latter. The American government, for one, celebrates the fact that casual cocaine use is down from its peak -- while staying remarkably silent about the fact that drug-related deaths are at a record high. Of course, a rise in casual drug use might also be accompanied by a smaller rise in addiction. That would obviously be a major concern, but that, too, must be put in context. As I tried to show in this series, most of the horrific harms that we now associate with addiction -- overdose deaths, crime, homelessness, infections, marginalization -- stem for the most part from the criminal prohibition of the drugs that the addict depends on, not from the drugs themselves. Eliminate prohibition and these harms will go as well. This is not to treat addiction lightly. Even with legal access to clean drugs and good health care, addiction is a serious burden on health and relationships. But addiction would not mean, as it so often does now, squalour, fear and early death. With the proper health care and social programs, individuals and society could cope. It would not be an overwhelming crisis. So let's compare the harms of two drug policies, prohibition and legalization. Prohibition inflicts a horrendous cost, in lives and suffering and wasted effort, all over the world. And legalization? Even under the false assumption that it would cause an increase in drug use, legalization would lead to an increase in casual use, perhaps accompanied by a rise in addiction; the former would inflict modest personal and social harms, while the harms of the latter would be more painful but still manageable. Which policy causes the least harm? For anyone who looks at the question intently and honestly, the answer is clear. A 1998 letter sent to the United Nations by hundreds of statesmen, Nobel laureates, and drug experts put the answer bluntly: "We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself." That's a conclusion that more and more public health experts, researchers, and even politicians are coming to as well. "The criminalization of drug use does not achieve the goals it aims for," said Dr. David Roy of the University of Montreal when he and others released a major report in 1999 looking at drug use and AIDS. "It causes harms equal to or worse than those it is supposed to prevent." In 1933, Americans came to exactly that conclusion about the attempt to ban alcohol. They remembered the real harms done by alcohol before it was banned in 1920. But they also saw that those harms weren't nearly as terrible as the damage done by Prohibition itself. Being able to contrast the two situations, Americans decided to legalize alcohol. We can't draw on personal memory as Americans did in 1933, but we can look carefully at the evidence. It's a difficult task. It may mean uprooting comfortable assumptions and old ways of thinking. But so many have needlessly suffered and died. More will follow. Surely we owe them at least the willingness to try. Note: Legalization isn't perfect, but it's better than a drug ban.You can read the entire series at: Dan Gardner is a member of the Citizen's Editorial Board. E-mail: dgardner thecitizen. Published: September 17, 2000Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)Copyright: 2000 The Ottawa CitizenContact: letters Address: 1101 Baxter Rd.,Ottawa, Ontario, K2C 3M4Fax: 613-596-8522Website: Articles In Series: You Can't Keep a Banned Drug Down 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 

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Comment #5 posted by kaptinemo on September 17, 2000 at 19:55:40 PT:

A letter to Mr. Gardner

I figured the least I could do was thank him. Might I suggest we all do the same?Dear Mr. Gardner, I would like to add my voice to the no-doubt thousands of voices in offering my admiration and respect for having tackled such a pricklish matter with such aplomb. Having followed your well-balanced articles courtesy of your paper's website (as well as on several websites devoted to the matter of drug law reform) I can easily say yours has been the best examination of this politically taboo subject in many years. And your timing couldn't have been better All too often, the public has heard nothing but the comments and observations of those who have the most to gain from the continuance of the present policies of prohibition. To question their 'authority' has been likened - by them - as being tanatamount to treason. All too often, their reactions to criticism can best be described as overkill. (Rather than accede to a rational debate of the subject, many of those involved in law enforcement try to strong-arm people into silence; it has not been unknown in my country to have a search warrant sworn out against someone solely for their having the temerity to write a Letter To The Editor about the negative consequences of the Drug War.) But this conduct is not limited to mere intimidation; it has taken darker manifestations. In a recent instance, those who have sought to stifle queries about the efficacy and the extremes of the Drug War have even gone so far as to 'legally murder' their critics. Such critics as Peter McWilliams; simply by using the law to legally deny him cannabis, which was the only means of checking the course of the disease which eventually killed him. And then claim that they were 'only following the law' (now where have we heard that one before?) in denying it to him. Such sophistries are the very foundations underpinning the present mutated form of the 84 year long American Drug War. A war that some of your Canadian law enforcement people, eager to reap the rewards of civil forfeiture, are clamboring to emulate. Your articles have offered a much needed counterpoint to the strident de facto propganda machine that the Drug Warriors have constructed - with public funds - over the last three decades. Many thanks to you for your bravery in the face of the official hostility you have probably felt...and will feel. God bless. (Der Kaptin)
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Comment #4 posted by FoM on September 17, 2000 at 16:16:14 PT

Hi Again Kapt!

You mean we are talking heads! Had to say that! LOL!The quality of the news and the depth of understanding by us and others has grown. We can't be led quietly to the slaughter now with the Internet. I watch CNN but only to see if a major event is happening. I don't expect to get anything but spoon fed news from TV. Nothing that could mean anything to the average citizen. I pay more attention to The Weather Channel. I can tell by the growth of C News that we are making a difference. When I look at the stats I pinch my cheek to make sure I'm not dreaming when I see the numbers. We are winning and we are part of making history. I really believe that too!Peace, FoM!
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Comment #3 posted by kaptinemo on September 17, 2000 at 15:28:27 PT:

Cooler? I hope so

Hi, FoM!Yes, I do hope it gets cooler. As in 'cooler and wiser' heads determining the course of drug policy on this continent. We've had enough of 'policy by hysteria'; as a republic, this country can't take more of that.You know, it never ceases to amaze me. We WON the Cold War; what was once the greatest threat to human liberty is now a bloody chapter in the history books. And yet... and yet... our government acts as if it had somehow been infected by the same madness the Soviets had. The same penchant for secrecy. The same disrespect for democratic process. The same smash-and-trash attitude towards civil liberties and personal property. The same sneeringly callous and thuggish dismissal of the murder of innocents (Vicki Weaver, the kids at Waco, Esequiel Hernandez, and now this 11 year old kid shot in the back during a drug raid) as though they had somehow *deserved* to die. It's not the same country I was willing to give my life to defend. Not at all. But I still think we can reverse this lemmings' march to despotism. And, irony of ironies, it will likely be people like us, the heads, who are responsible for the turnaround. Simply because, it seems, that we are the only ones that give a damn, anymore.
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Comment #2 posted by FoM on September 17, 2000 at 14:14:03 PT:

Really Good Reading

Hi Kaptinemo! Dan Gardner's articles have been excellent. I hope we will see the laws changed soon! It sure did get hotter this summer. Maybe this fall things will get cooler. I hope so!Peace, FoM!
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Comment #1 posted by kaptinemo on September 17, 2000 at 12:31:32 PT:

You've been reading history in the making, friends

When we look back on this time a few years hence, we may realize that Gardner's well-balanced treatise will prove to have been one of the major factors in the decline of the prohibitionist juggernaut. Because, for the first time, a *real* journalist, one who has done his homework, has spoken out. Without rancor, without prejudice, without the seeming obligatory and fawning sops to DrugWarriors we've seen other media types engage in, Gardner has done what few media people have dared to do. He told people the truth. And it couldn't have come at a better time.In a breathtaking 10 days, he has managed to drag forth from the shadows the very thing that the antis have tried for years to bury and keep buried. Namely, how we got into this mess, and what it has been doing to our societies as a result. So long as the public was fed trite platitudes instead of facts, the DrugWarriors could browbeat, hector, and intimidate (and sometimes, as with Peter McWilliams, imprison and KILL) those members of the public who spoke out against their 'splendid little war'. To allow anyone a clear, sharp look at the origins of this mess was to invite the inevitable criticisms that Gardner raises. But now the historical cat is out of the bag, and there's no putting it back again. Too many people will read these articles. Too many who hadn't cared one way or another, as they thought the subject didn't really affect them, will begin to change their minds.Which is what the antis fear the most.I don't believe it is melodramatic to say that we are in a race, here. A race between Freedom and Tyranny. The antis know that they are losing ground. They know that the tide which has kept them afloat for so long is going out, and they'll soon be beached. That's liable to make them desperate, which will make them even more dangerous than they are now. They will become ever more shrill in their demands for unConstitutional powers being granted to them to fight this strawman. More hard-working fathers, young shepherd kids, women and children will be shot in the back in drug raids. More pols will hem and haw and play political pocket-pool while sick people are carted off to jail or murdered outright for using a common weed for its analgesic properties. But not for much longer. The more intelligent of the antis can smell the change in the wind. They'll continue to tell the rank-and-file the usual bilge to maintain their 'morale', but they know their days are numbered. The only thing that can save them - just as some of the Quebecois gendarmerie and their pol allies are thinking - is martial law. That's where the tyranny comes in. That'll be the only way these knuckledraggers can maintain any control, now. And I don't believe there'll be many Canucks or Yanks who will sit still for that. Not over a weed. I believe that I can say now with some degree of surety that the question no longer is "Will cannabis be legalized?" but "*When* will it be?"Or perhaps I should put it another way: When do you want... to be free?
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