The prohibition of drugs has been an abject failure with a devastating human cost

James Bloodworth

130707024 300x200 The prohibition of drugs has been an abject failure with a devastating human cost Forty years ago, on 28 January 1972, President Richard Nixon signed his “war on drugs” into law. Drugs were “public enemy number one,” said Nixon, and action was necessary because addiction to narcotics had “assumed the dimensions of a national emergency”.

Four decades on, and the global clampdown on drugs continues unabated. From London to Bogota to Kabul, the same disastrous policies are being repeated with the same destructive consequences. As a Global Commission on Drug Policy report released in June 2010 argued, the global war on drugs has resulted in “devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”.

In the years since President Nixon’s declaration, the US government has spent trillions of dollars attempting to destroy the illegal drugs trade – both at home and abroad. The U.S. federal government spent over $15 billion dollars in 2010 on the war on drugs, at a rate of around $500 per second. The human consequences are even more troubling. Around 90 per cent of all cocaine consumed in the US comes via Mexico – a place where, since 2006, over 47,000 people have been killed in President Philip Calderon’s violent battle with the drug cartels.

In Britain, the consequences of prohibition can be seen on the pallid faces of addicts desperately trying to make eye contact with shoppers on some of London’s busiest streets. Brushing them aside as they ask for change is straightforward enough, but you won’t get rid of them that easily. Nick Davies, in his 2008 book Flat Earth News, cites a confidential Downing Street report leaked to the press in 2005, which claimed black market drug users were responsible for 85 per cent of shoplifting, between 70 and 80 per cent of burglaries and 54 per cent of robberies. Inflated street prices mean a junkie must perpetually steal to fund his or her habit. In one of the many unintended consequences of prohibition, whenever the forces of law bring in a drugs haul the likelihood is they are inadvertently creating a shortage on the streets that will inflate prices further – along with local crime levels.

Many of Britain’s 300,000 heroin users suffer severe health problems, such as septicaemia, hepatitis, ruptured veins and the risk of overdosing. Rarely mentioned, however, is the fact that almost all of the harmful effects of heroin are caused not by the drug itself, but by toxic contaminants added by unregulated and unscrupulous street sellers. The respected Merck Health Journal is clear about the effect prohibition has on drug content and quality:

“Long-term effects of the opioids themselves are minimal; even decades of methadone use appear to be well tolerated physiologically, although some long-term opioid users experience chronic constipation, excessive sweating, peripheral edema, drowsiness, and decreased libido. However, many long-term users who inject opioids have adverse effects from contaminants (e.g., talc) and adulterants (e.g., non-prescription stimulant drugs); cardiac, pulmonary, and hepatic damage from infections such as HIV infection and hepatitis B or C, which are spread by needle sharing and non-sterile injection techniques.”

For their part, politicians have shown a willingness to cave into tabloid hysteria rather than tackle the drugs problem in a rational way. In 2009, Professor David Nutt was sacked as chief drugs advisor by Home Secretary Alan Johnson after making the less-than radical suggestion that drugs should be classified according to the actual evidence of the harm they cause. In the US, the discourse around prohibition is equally mired in unreason, with attitudes unlikely to change unless there is a spread of the violence that plagues Mexico across the border into the US itself.

Opponents of legalisation are fond of evoking the possibility of increased drug use as a consequence of the legal availability of hard drugs. The likelihood of this happening, however, must be set against a backdrop of worsening drug conflict in the developing world and the unregulated and potentially lethal substances being peddled on British streets. Add to this the fact that so-called “hard-line” policies have had a negligible effect on the number of drug users worldwide in the first place. A 2006 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) put the total number of drug users in the world at 200 million, equivalent to about 5 per cent of the global population aged 15-64. Looking at the rates of hard drug use over time, the report said that “in…North America [and] Western Europe, abuse levels remained constant for opiates [and] in Europe cocaine use continues to expand.”

Most opponents of prohibition would refrain from claiming that legalisation would provide a definitive solution to the problem of drug abuse. What we would argue, however, is that decriminalisation (at a minimum) is, unlike prohibition, not mired in political fantasy. Those of us who believe prohibition to have failed live in the real world – a place there will always be, and always have been, people who experiment with drugs. The alternative, if you can call it that, is to settle for the status quo with its colossal human cost for another 40 years.

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  • timberanddamp

    If there is the political will, and the removal of corrupt officals, the war against drugs can be won, if it was attacked at source worldwide, this would filter down the line of supply, there is no will because everyone is making too much money.

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