Nearly all governing bodies of countries throughout the world are working to reduce the adverse affects of illegal drugs. Some have decriminalized less harmful drugs such as marijuana as a means of addressing the growing problem. The US has waged a ‘war on drugs’ for more than 30 years. This ‘war’ has served to heighten violence, contribute to the development of organized crime, fill the prison system past capacity, consume large amounts of capital and has still had very little effect on the availability of these drugs or the numbers of individuals who use them. Prohibition does not work. Decriminalization, education strategies and harm reduction laws do. These two statements have been proven by various world governments and will be illustrated in this paper.
Decriminalization implies different meanings to different people. To some it means simply legalization which takes the profit, thus the crime out of the drug trade. One interpretation involves three steps. The first is to make drugs such as marijuana legal under restricted circumstances, but not as controlled as it is now. Secondly, sound reasoning should prevail in substance abuse policies. The government should form a policy that is harsher in regards to alcohol and tobacco but not by enacting criminal laws. The third aspect is to manage our tax money more wisely and discontinue wasting billions of dollars on criminal law enforcement techniques. Instead, these funds should be diverted into treatment and abuse prevention. When speaking of the decriminalization of drugs, prohibition policies should be examined to determine their costs in relation to benefits, and then compared with other options. Many citizens believe that the best combination of costs and benefit may look much the same as legalization. Varying degrees of decriminalization is often confused with total legalization. Alcohol is legal, for example, but it is not legal to operate a car under its influence or to sell it to those less than 21 years of age. Conversely, people speak of cocaine and the opiates as illegal, but doctors prescribe these drugs everyday. (Nadelmann, 1990).
Much of Europe is currently undergoing a decriminalization program as a result of European unification under terms set forth in the Frankfort Accord. A comparison of comparable cities such as New York and Liverpool, with comparable drug use statistics, can prove enlightening regarding the effects decriminalization might have on the United States. According to (Schaffer), heroin and cocaine addicts in New York suffer from tremendous medical programs remain unemployed criminals creating a major problem in crime statistics and usually have their children removed from the home to live in miserable conditions. Thousands of babies are permanently damaged every year by their mother’s drug use and sixty percent of all intravenous drug users are infected with AIDS. “In the United States, drug use is illegal and the police hunt down drug users to throw them in prison. Four thousand people died from illegal drugs in the US last year and we now have more than 600,000 people in prison on drug charges.” (Schaffer) By comparison, Liverpool’s heroin and cocaine addicts suffer few medical problems, are gainfully employed taxpayers who cause little additional crime and manage to raise healthy, well-adjusted children. Health authorities report little damage to babies as a result of their mother’s drug use and only one percent of the intravenous drug using population is infected with AIDS, contributing little to the spread of the disease. “In Liverpool, England, the police do not arrest drug users any more. Instead, health care workers seek them out and encourage them to come in for counseling and medical treatment. Both counseling and medical treatment are provided on demand. The medical treatment often includes maintenance doses of narcotics under the management of a physician.” (Schaffer)
Harm reduction, on the other hand, is a public health rather than a legislative philosophy that concentrates on lessening the dangers that drug abuse and drug policies create within society. It is not a drug legalization tool, as many have been led to believe. One of the founding principles of this policy is the knowledge that there will never be a drug free society regardless of the legal and enforcement methods put in place. Instead, harm reduction focuses on finding solutions that work in the current situation by using a variety of interventions developed through science, compassion, health and human rights. “A harm reduction strategy demands new outcome measurements. Whereas the success of current drug policies is primarily measured by the change in use rates, the success of a harm reduction strategy is measured by the change in rates of death, disease, crime and suffering.” (Drug Police Alliance, 2006).
Recognizing that imprisonment does little to reduce the harmful effects of drugs within society, harm reduction policies favor drug treatment programs run by licensed professionals over the current method of immediate incarceration, encouraging attention to be focused on the benefits that can be gained from certain drugs, such as marijuana, as well as recognizing the relative harmfulness of a particular drug to society rather than blanket banishment and standardized treatment. Finally, harm reduction strategies work to provide education and information services to both reduce the over-emphasis currently displayed in the enforcement and incarceration of drug users and the effects this has on the black market as well as the harm caused by society regarding the polarizing nature of the issue to more effectively encourage more people to decide for themselves to stay off of drugs and to provide more effective and acceptable treatment for addiction. (Drug Police Alliance, 2006). Most countries now have some sort of harm reduction policies in place or are working to develop new interventions, including the educational programs included in school curriculums and new treatment centers and research groups working with those involved in drug use or trade. The striking aspect of harm reduction policies is that they work within the current legal systems to bring about necessary change to begin addressing some of the harmful effects legislation has introduced into the American economy without the threat of widespread carte blanche on drug use that many see as the outcome
Just as the laws have proven incapable of keeping drugs out of the country, so has the limitation of supply not been sufficient to deter demand for the products. Paradoxically, the laws against drugs have instead served to increase their appeal among potential users. While the government has worked diligently to include anti-drug programs within the national curriculum, there remains significant seduction in the use of these drugs precisely because they are unacceptable, placing them in prime position for abuse by those individuals who wish to explore options beyond the status quo. The most recent and most successful campaigns interestingly combine alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana as opposed to other types of drugs and tend to focus on a new slogan – “Be Under Your Own Influence” rather than the old “Just Say No” program of the 80s. “Strong fear appeals regarding alcohol and marijuana, we’ve learned over the years, are typically not effective with teens,” (Slater, 2006). tending typically to bring to mind examples of friends and relatives who have used drugs or alcohol with no obvious problems and underscoring the need for social resistance. But even in these newer programs, the status of Class C drugs such as marijuana are continued to be downplayed as it is becomes more generally recognized among both parents and teens that marijuana poses at most the same type of threat as cigarettes or alcohol.
What Doesn’t Work
As studies have repeatedly suggested, prohibition of these drugs in the United States has not proven to be efficient or effective. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “U.S. federal, state and local governments have spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to make America ‘drug-free.’ Yet heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other illicit drugs are cheaper, purer and easier to get than ever before. Nearly half a million people are behind bars on drug charges – more than all of Western Europe (with a bigger population) incarcerates for all offenses.” (Drug Policy Alliance, 2006).
In addition, a rare study conducted in America that could be related to a study conducted in Europe enabled comparisons to be made among drug use tendency between countries. The Monitoring the Future study found that 41 percent of all tenth grade students in the United States had used marijuana in their lifetime compared with the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Drugs (ESPAD) (Bjarnason, 2001) showed that only an average of 17 percent of tenth grade students in European countries had ever use the drug – with a high degree of variability among countries (some were as high as 35 percent in the United Kingdom). However, “all the participating European countries had a lower rate of lifetime cannabis use than did the United States.” (Bjarnason, 2001). These statistics on usage alone suggest the failure of prohibition to keep the drug out of the country as the numbers of users continue to grow despite the threat of imprisonment and use continues for longer life periods.
Increasing drug seizures and arrests during the 1990s as reported by (King and Mauer, 2005) did little to persuade Americans stop using the drug either by preventing access to it or dissuading users from partaking for fear of the consequences. Prohibition strategies that focus on blocking the supply lines have proven to be ineffective. However, the efforts that have been expended have made bringing these substances into the country high risk ventures. The high risk enables distributors to charge more for their products based on the risk involved in delivery, which makes it an attractive proposition for organized crime. Those interested in working in the drug trade take risks not only in terms of running against the law, but also in terms of running against other criminally minded distributors, who are not regulated or controlled by any governing body and therefore have only themselves to answer to. The strategies involved by these individuals do not follow along the typical rules of conducting business. Instead, they rely on violence and corruption. Thanks to the laws restricting the flow of these substances, they also have access to practically unlimited funds that make it possible for them to purchase their way through the legal system. (Boyum, 2003)
Finally, the costs of prohibition go far beyond the mere funding of legal authorities and transportation for search and seizures. Other costs include additional ‘drug-related’ crime that is the result of users attempting to gain enough money to fulfill their demand in response to artificially high prices thanks to the lack of supply. “Public health problems like HIV and Hepatitis C are all exacerbated by zero tolerance laws that restrict access to clean needles.” (Drug Policy Alliance, 2006). People who are at most casual users of drugs are arrested and incarcerated for mere possession charges, actions that do not take more drugs off the streets or encourage more people to stop using the drugs. At the same time, arresting possessors of drugs creates an encumbrance on society as tax dollars go to support these people no longer free to hold a job outside prison walls and bringing more children into the welfare system, contributing to their subsequent failure and dependence on society.
Although the issue of what to do about dangerous, possibly addicting drugs such as heroin and cocaine have long been issues within many countries, the approaches taken to stem the tide have had widely varying results. Particularly, the prohibition approach taken by countries such as the United States have led to an astronomical increase in the rates of crime and numbers of incarcerated individuals as a result while having little to no impact upon the actual availability and usage rates within the country’s borders. The statistics regarding the numbers of individuals currently using drugs at least as a recreational activity remain stable even as drug busts and numbers of people incarcerated for drug possession continue to rise, indicating greater quantities of drugs being smuggled into the country and greater degrees of organization within the crime syndicates that accomplish this. Rather than dissolving the demand for these substances, the attempted block on supplies not only fails to adequately block trafficking, but it leads to greater degrees of violence and corruption by ensuring this industry remains in the hands of criminals.
Other countries, such as the Netherlands and England, have demonstrated that a reduction in the prohibition can lead to very positive results in terms of both health and safety of its citizens. By bringing lower-level drugs such as marijuana and other Class C drugs within the context of the law, prices are stabilized and reduced, distribution points are available yet closely monitored, client base remains restricted to a higher degree and law enforcement is freed to pursue more harmful and dangerous crime. In addition, by shifting the focus off of the lower-level drugs, the citizenry ceases to view the use of such substances as a form of resistance and use levels have been seen to drop over the long term.
Concerns over legalization center around the questions of who, what, where and how these drugs would be distributed, which are questions that have been satisfactorily answered in other countries as well. The Netherlands allows for cafes and coffee houses with special licensing permits to distribute marijuana and doctors have the ability to work with patients who are addicted to heroin. Company employees are not fired for having inhaled at lunch, but are able to readily find counselors if they find they have become psychologically addicted to marijuana’s effects. Prohibition laws in the United States prevent this type of activity, ensuring that people who use drugs have no hope of living a productive life once discovered regardless of past and current drug activity or lack of any other type of criminal activity.
However, the choice is not simply a black and white issue of whether or not to legalize. Policies that work to decriminalize drugs, reducing the severity of punishments, or to reduce harm, shifting the focus back to treatment and education, can also be used to help reduce the negative effects of the war on drugs.
Bjarnason, Thor. “Press Release Issued by the State University of New York at Albany.” Monitoring the Future. New York: State University, Albany. (February 20, 2001).
Boyum, David & Kleiman, Mark A.R. “Breaking the Drug-Crime Link.” Public Interest. (Summer 2003).
Drug Policy Alliance. “England.” Drug Policy Around the World. (2006). November 25, 2009
King, Ryan S. & Mauer, Marc. “The War on Marijuana: The Transformation of the War on Drugs in the 1990s.” Washington D.C.: The Sentencing Project. (May 2005).
Nadelmann, Ethan. “Should Some Illegal Drugs be Legalized?” Science and Technology. Vol. 6, pp. 43-46. (1990).
Schaffer, Clifford A. (n.d.). “Basic Facts About the War on Drugs.” Schaffer Library of Drug Policy. November 25, 2009
Slater, Michael. “New Anti-Drug Program Shows ‘Phenomenal’ Success by Focusing on Positives.” Medical News Today. Sussex: MediLexicon International. (March 5, 2006).