There has been some interesting discussion recently about the death penalty, and its popularity with our near Northern neighbours as a punishment for drug crimes. There is a lot of international pressure, from the US, as well as from our neighbours to the north, to wage a fierce war on drugs. They see drug running as a terrible crime, worthy of the ultimate punishment. There are many facets to the issue, but one that has been prowling around my own head with increasing agitation is the very idea of a war on drugs.
Our attitude to drugs is very strange, and it’s not often that we are able to step back and examine where it came from. First of all the very definition of drugs seldom includes alcohol and tobacco – which is a strange omission. They are no less addictive, no less dangerous, no less destructive than many of the illegal drugs that we blithely declare war on, but they are socially acceptable by historical accident.
In fact, someone snorting cocaine in my vicinity is unlikely to cause me direct harm, even if they do it regularly, unlike the very clear and definite dangers of second hand smoke. I would much rather be around someone shooting up with heroin or munching on a hash cookie than have someone lighting a cigarette beside me. Alcohol, too, seems to lead to vastly more antisocial behaviour than, for example, marijuana.
Then there are the personal downsides. Consider this list of short term effects of a well known drug: Speech slurred; Balance and coordination impaired; Reflexes slowed; Visual attention impaired; Unstable emotions; Aggressive behaviour; Nausea, vomiting; Unable to walk without help; Apathetic, sleepy; Laboured breathing; Unable to remember events; Loss of bladder control; Possible loss of consciousness.
Or this one, for a different drug: Confusion; Pain relief; Slowed breathing; Decreased blood pressure and heart rate; Constricted pupils; Dry mouth; Suppressed cough reflex; Reduced sexual urges; Drowsiness; Slurred and slow speech; Reduced co-ordination; Nausea and vomiting.
Both drugs pose the risk of death in case of overdose. Both are addictive, and withdrawal from either drug, once addicted, is physically and emotionally traumatic. If you look purely at short term effects, though, those of the first seem rather more alarming than those of the second. The first is, of course, alcohol. The second? Heroin.
Most of the serious downsides that we see as a result of illegal drugs seem to be a result of prohibition rather than the drugs themselves. Overdoses result from not knowing for sure the content or purity of the drug, which could be avoided if drugs were regulated, over-the counter purchases. Regulation would also deal with a lot of the peripheral crime (burglaries etc to finance drug habits), as drugs would presumably be cheaper and easier to obtain.
I have to admit that I am no expert – my personal experience of potentially addictive drugs is limited to alcohol (and limited even there) and caffeine. There is no doubt that drugs are bad for the body, and addiction to almost anything can kill you. I’m not suggesting that we all rush out and look for the nearest source of illicit drugs and get stoned. But I think it is high time (sorry) that we questioned the paranoid, hysterical rhetoric that gets trotted out any time anyone suggests something like decriminalising marijuana.
Prohibition doesn’t work. It doesn’t make sense. The winners in any prohibition scenario are the criminals who take over the supply. Even worse, prohibition of some drugs but not others seems to be randomly political rather than based in science. Truly the world needs more scientists and engineers in charge.
Wars are never won. They are inevitably lost by all sides – it’s just that some lose more than others. It’s time we took a more rational, evidence based approach to solving our problems. I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if human beings were better at objectivity. If we were able to take the evidence, weigh up the research, and take the most effective, evidence-based approach to our legislation. Instead we seem to take the approach of soothing the loudest pressure group – regardless of their size, rationality, or relationship to the truth.
So next time someone rants about the need for a war on drugs, ask yourself – who is winning this war? And why are we waging it?