The war on drugs is in reality a war on people
Over the last century, drug use has been subject to harsh prohibition and criminalisation in Western societies. A global War on Drugs, with the USA in the forefront, has for a long timed pushed a moralistic discourse portraying drugs as dangerous and drug users as criminal undesirables to be shunned at all cost. Despite much resistance, it seems as if the tides are turning: drug use, especially in terms of cannabis, is being increasingly decriminalised, medicalised, and legally regulated. In this blog post, through ten different points of view, I’ll try to make the case that all drugs should be decriminalised , or better yet controlled through legal regulation .
 ‘Decriminalisation’ refers to “the removal of criminal penalties for personal drug possession, with production and supply remaining illegal” (Transform report, p. 4)
 ‘Legal regulation’ refers to “the controls that will be put in place on the production, supply and use of the drug once it has been legalised” (Transform report, p. 4)
#1 — The Policy Perspective
Prohibition and criminalisation of drug use is counterintuitive on every level—it implies punishing those who already struggle, and it drives drugs into the black market, where regulation is impossible, and where much worse crime including exploitation and human trafficking are commonplace. At the black market, everything becomes more dangerous. By keeping drugs illegal, the black drugs market is allowed to thrive.
This despicable truth has not been recognised by policy makers, however. Back in the 1960s, the UN called for a ‘global prohibition regime’ on drugs. It took them half a century to finally admit that this regime have had ‘unintended consequences’ in UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s World Drug Report (2008). And, finally, the 2015 version of the same report basically called for a global decriminalisation of all drugs!
The US has been a driver in the War on Drugs, with an ultra prohibitionist policy toward drug crime. The ‘War on Drugs’ itself was started as discourse by Nixon in the early 1970s, and propelled policy wise by Reagan a little later. To summarise this war on a few keywords, it has included racial profiling, extreme sanctioning of drug possession, and mass incarceration of low-level offenders. In fact, one of Nixon’s advisors has admitted that the War on Drugs was a project motivated by racial prejudice to begin with. 40 years and over a trillion dollars (!!) later, the US were left with a booming private prison industry, more poverty, more drugs (which are purer and cheaper than ever before), and more drug users.
Arguably, however, this war has taken a turn in the last few years, with Barack Obama’s 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, and the introduction of not only Harm Reduction strategies, but also decriminalisation, medicalisation, and legal regulation of cannabis. This has been a success, in so far as it hasn’t contributed to significantly more drug use or other related issues. In general, decriminalisation and legalisation of drugs elsewhere, like in Portugal, Colorado, and the Netherlands, have not led to more drug use, just like harsher criminalisation strategies usually don’t lead to less use.
#2 — The Socio-Cultural Perspective
The criminalisation of drug use and addiction has contributed to a permanent manifestation of the drug user as a moral inferior in public imagination. While dependent drug users first and foremost need some form of help or guidance, labelling them as immoral, undesirable criminals doesn’t do much good in bettering the situation. In fact, it could be argued that this incentivises further (and heavier) drug use as a means to cope with the inflicted stigmas. It must be understood that drug use (and especially dependence) is a symptomatic response to an underlying cause, which is often rooted in psychological issues. While most of us perhaps don’t wish to think badly of addicts, it’s difficult not to given the way drug abuse is portrayed through conventional discourse and popular media. In the US, this has taken form as systematic racism. Fuel is further added to the fire with front-page headlines spreading moral panics of teens dying after a puff of cannabis or one pill of ecstasy. While rarely accurate, these messages contributes to an ‘us/them’ framing of drug users as ‘folk devils’; as evil actors in society.
#3 — The Moral Perspective
Prohibition contributes to a worldview wherein drug use is immoral, bar none. This has become a default categorisation that isn’t being readily questioned. Arguably, the reason why drug use is understood as immoral is because it’s illegal in the first place! We live in a culture where getting piss-drunk every weekend is borderline universally accepted, and even celebrated, while all forms of illicit drug use is demonised. This is rather paradoxical.
#4 — The Structural Perspective
Criminally sanctioning drug users means to punish those who already are ‘losers’ in society. Given that personal drug use is, more or less, a ‘victimless crime’, this is absurd. Punishing people for dealing with struggles in the only way they know how makes very little sense. It certainly won’t help them out of their struggles. And when it comes to casual, non-dependent recreational drug use, enforcing criminal sanctions involves the risk of pushing users ‘further down’, toward a path of more dependent use.
This is structurally suboptimal because such policing is expensive. The state, then, essentially spends a lot of money and resources hunting down and punishing people who only (potentially) inflict pain or suffering on themselves; while losing money to the black market on the other end by allowing drug trade to exist outside of legal, regulated frameworks. To give a very simple example, confiscating an individual’s drugs is counterintuitive, because s/he will always find a way to acquire new drugs, despite potentially having to struggle more to do so. In this way, confiscating drugs leads to a larger net sum of drugs acquired from the black market. Simply put, drug confiscation fuels the drug trade.
#5 — The Pharmacology/Health Perspective
This is perhaps the least discussed and most radical argument for loosening drugs legislations, but the evidence is clear: drugs just aren’t as bad as people think. Yes, a lot of people die from drugs; either from overdose, from the effects of intoxication, from dependence development, or from adverse health effects. However, the main reason why illicit drugs harm people is because, well, they’re illicit. In fact, drugs become much more dangerous when confined to the black market.
First, because they aren’t regulated. People don’t know what they buy from shady dealers. Festival-goers, for instance, are often tricked into buying ‘bath salts’ (which can be incredibly dangerous) under the guise of e.g. MDMA.
Second, given the lack of quality control, street drugs have often undergone several altering processes. In most street drugs there’ll be lots of fillers, which can consist of virtually anything. This makes the drugs much more dangerous.
Third, it is impossible to know the potency or purity of an uncontrolled drug. This is particularly concerning when it comes to young clubbers and partygoers who might not have much experience with drug-taking. However, this highly unpredictable variance can lead to overdoses even among the most experienced users.
Fourth, prohibition affects the mode of administration or consumption of drugs. Heroin users, for instance, often use non-sterilised equipment and non-clean water, in addition to re-using or sharing needles. This is incredibly dangerous, and contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood borne diseases, which constitute one of the main heroin risk factors. The current HIV epidemic in Russia, where infected users aren’t even allowed enroll in treatment programmes, illustrates this. From a public health standpoint, Harm Reduction strategies are therefore crucial to a human drugs politics.
In the end, risks are always present and relative. To take an extreme example, we don’t ban peanuts even though people die from food allergies every year. While humans technically cannot overdose on cannabis, we can overdose (and die from) caffeine, and even water—not to mention alcohol, which can kill you in half an hour if you consume enough.
Moreover, to exemplify, heroin in itself isn’t very dangerous. Rather, it is the conditions under which heroin is administered and used, as explained above, that makes it so addictive and incredibly dangerous. In fact, heroin, like most other drugs, have medical properties, and can thus be used to improve health. If you’ve had a surgery with anaesthetics, you’ve been given heroin. People who undergo major surgeries are put on high doses of very potent heroin for extended periods of time in hospitals without becoming addicted or suffer ill consequences because of it. In the US, medicalisation procedures have found a wide range of new therapeutic uses for cannabis, e.g. as a low-risk, highly effective chronic pain reliever. Another example is ketamine, which is undergoing trials for depression treatment. This cannot be stressed enough: more often than not, it is the conditions under which drugs are used that makes them dangerous, not the pharmacological properties of the drugs themselves.
#6 — The Legal Perspective
Legally sanctioning drug use is incredibly resource demanding. Filling up prisons, funded by tax-payer money, with low-lever drug offenders just isn’t a very productive use of the criminal justice system (as demonstrated through the failure of the US War on Drugs). There should be bigger fish to fry.
Inspired by the Scandinavian justice system, which is arguably the best in the world, I believe that imprisonment should work to rehabilitate and re-build people, making them fit to re-enter society as complete citizens again. When prison is used for deterrence and punishment, criminal networks form, and inmates leave prison with renewed identities as criminals. Additionally, drugs tend to flourish within prisons.
It should be recognised that even the crime committed by drug users to fund their habits is necessitated by the illegality of drugs. If drugs were regulated as legal substances this criminal activity wouldn’t be necessary.
Criminalising drugs facilitates a black market which is incredibly difficult for any justice system to dealt with. In prohibitionist societies, we create problems and then try to fix them, rather than preventing them in the first place. It’s like trying to chase one’s own shadow: it doesn’t work.
#7 — The Market Perspective
Black market drug trade puts money into the hands of criminals. As demonstrated through recreational cannabis legalisation in e.g. Washington, Colorado, California, and in Uruguay, controlled legalisation of currently illicit drugs creates a market economy that can be regulated and managed. Evidence shows that this has not increased consumption rates. This would leave the drugs trade somewhat similar to the alcohol trade—however, as I personally support strict regulation of alcohol (as in Norway) through state monopolies and regulation of access, advertising, pricing etc., I believe the drugs market should follow a similar strategy. In other words, it would be crucial to legalise psychoactive substances under state (and not private) control.
#8 — The Normalisation Perspective
In Western societies, recreational drug use has arguably become more or less normalised. In other words, drug users do not any longer form distinct subcultures, but exist in unison with non-drug-users. There is less stigma attached to drug use, and people are more open about their encounters with drugs, as exemplified by e.g. Barack Obama and David Cameron both admitting to past drug use. Moreover, so-called ‘study drugs’ seem to become increasingly ingrained in the education landscape. While the extent of this normalisation varies depending on both geography and the substance in question, the role of knowledge production and consumption through the internet has led to more informed younger generations who might question the dominant discourse surrounding drugs more-so than in previous generations and decades. If this thesis holds true, we might be moving toward more liberal drugs policies by default through a generational paradigm shift as a new generation of politicians and policy-makers get in power.
#9 — The Liberty/Idealism Perspective
I’m a little hesitant to suggest this, but I will do it anyways: we need to be wary when considering to overrule individuals’ agency and personal choice in regards to what they put into their bodies. While I’m generally for state intervention, the question of personal freedom must be considered. In fact, for some people, even dependent drug use can be beneficial, insofar that it helps them deal with life. Because drug use is generally a symptom of a cause, or a means to an end, deciding that someone would be ‘better off’ without, say, their heroin habit by default would be to undermine their personal agency in determining how to cope with their difficulties. There are always going to be people in society who struggle, and, for some people heavy drug use might actually be a way of coping. For these individuals, criminalising their coping mechanism doesn’t seem very ethical.
#10 — The Rationality Perspective
Finally, and most importantly, the bottom lines is that prohibition is simply backward and irrational. A Transform report suggests that drug policy needs to protect the young and vulnerable, reduce crime, improve public health, promote security and development, provide value for money, and protect human rights. Prohibition achieves none of this. While experts and policymakers continue to push decriminalisation and even legalisation, politicians who don’t know better, who have been fed the same bullshit moral panic discourse throughout their lives, keep pushing for prohibition and criminalisation of drug use and drug users.
In the end, the War on Drugs has shown—through its absolute failure—that we don’t need to be hard on drugs, we need to be smart about them. We need to be rational, not idealistic. We need to listen to the experts. A drug free society is a utopian ideal, and one that we don’t want. This needs to be recognised. I personally believe that controlled regulation, following a system akin to alcohol regulation in Norway and cannabis regulation in select US states, would be optimal. However, before we get there, let’s look to Portugal, where personal consumption of psychoactive substances were decriminalised back in 2001 along with the implementation of encompassing Harm Reduction and treatment programmes. By holistically responding to the ineffective prohibitionist policy, Portugal managed to revamp their justice system and create a much better and healthier drugs landscape. 16 years ago, Portugal set a standard the rest should be able to follow.
There is still resistance, however. While he has previously stated that “we’re losing badly to the war on drugs” and that “you have to legalise drugs to win that war”, Donald Trump’s administration seems to be ramping up the drug war yet again. This drug war is also harshly fought in South-East Asia; and particularly terrifying is Duterte’s targeted mass-murdering of drug users in the Philippines. Moreover, in the UK, the emergence of New Psychoactive Substances has pushed broad reaching generic controls.
Nevertheless, all things considered, there has been a ‘quiet revoution’ in drugs politics on a global scale, characterised by a surge in decriminalisation, medicalisation, legalisation, and Harm Reduction efforts all over the world. Hopefully this rational approach toward widespread substance use will continue to grow in reach.