What if just about everything we think we know about the war on drugs is wrong?
Start, for example, with the oft-repeated proposition that the war began in the 1970s, during the administration of Richard M. Nixon.
Wrong. The war is far older, and originates in Henry Anslinger's Federal Bureau of Narcotics, created in 1930. Anslinger's preoccupation with marijuana set the nation on a tragic and costly course from which we still have not recovered. You can drink yourself into a coma, but don't dare touch weed or a pill, at least in most states.
Or how about the canard that narcotics use or any sort inevitable leads to addiction?
Wrong. Recent research shows only a fraction of those who use narcotics, even serious narcotics, end up addicted. Most users can walk away from drugs, and, it goes without saying, alcohol, with no struggle at all.
The story of a drug war gone horribly wrong is wonderfully told in Johann Hari's new book "Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs."
Hari traveled the world, asking questions about why we criminalize drug use, whether drug use is an incurable illness, how users should be treated, whether legalization makes sense.
Among the facts he reports:
The United States imprisons more people for narcotics related offenses than does western Europe for all offenses combined.
Outbreaks of drug addition historically occur during periods of great social dislocation—think gin-soaked slums in the Industrial Revolution, or heroin-addled troops in Vietnam.
When prohibition of alcohol was repealed, the violence associated with organized crime's control of the illegal sale and distribution of liquor diminished.Hari travels from inner city America, to Juarez, Mexico, to drug treatment clinics in western Europe, to Portugal, the first nation to legalize drug use in general. He wants to know why we criminalize the sick.
The most persuasive anecdote in the book reflects work done with rats and cocaine. When rates are left alone in a cage, they return repetitively, and often fatally, to a cocaine-laced bottle of water. But place that same bottle of water in a cage in which there are plenty of other rats, and plenty for the rats to do, and most rats ignore the cocaine altogether.
In other words, drug use may have more to do with opportunities for meaningful social engagement than drug warriors want to admit.
The arguments Hari raises won't persuade everyone. Law enforcement, for example, has powerful incentives to oppose decriminalization or legalization. Asset forfeiture policies in drug prosecutions permit police departments to line their coffers with cash used to purchase new and better weapons and means of social control. Prisons, too, need to be filled.
Hari admits that there will most likely be some small increase in drug use if usage is legalized. But the enormous savings resulting from the closing of prisons will make more funds available for effective treatment and drug education. Whether legal or not, drug use, like liquor consumption, is here to stay: Shouldn't the point be to cope with the obvious rather than criminalizing the relatively common?
I've lost friends to drug use. I understand that addiction is serious. But, candidly, I see far more the effects of alcohol in my day-to-day life. Why the double standard?
Hari's point is simply this: A good society provides opportunities and a place for all, and works to understand those who have lost their way. We're not a good society. We ostracize the weak, and then, when they numb their pain by any means ready at hand, we penalize them. We do all this at great and never-ending cost, and pretend that we are fighting a war against some foreign invader.
It's a silly fight, and it's high time to end it.