No I am not writing a post on the eminently listenable indie band from Philadelphia. Call me predictable, but as we spend a few days down here on the border of Mexico and the US, I was drawn to the very real and current drug war raging not far from us in many of the border Mexican towns and particularly Juarez. My interest was further piqued on watching the recent film ‘Sicario’ and a brilliantly made documentary on the same subject, ‘Cartel Land’. My further research suggests an overwhelming sense that this is a war that has been lost or worse still, no real attempt is being made to win it.
“Medellin refers to a time when one group controlled every aspect of the drug trade, providing a measure of order that we could control. And until somebody finds a way to convince 20% of the population to stop snorting and smoking that shit, order’s the best we can hope for.” This quote from Matt Graver, a CIA operative in ‘Sicario’ sums up a key dilemma. Supply and demand synthesize to create a world where violence, drug induced death and disease is seemingly unstoppable, despite the efforts of the largest military power in the world and its latin american allies. On this side of the border, though hundreds of thousands are incarcerated in the US for drug related crimes, the trade seems to be as robust as ever and shows no signs of being defeated or even controlled.
And so, I ask the question, should drugs be legalized? I realize I am not an expert in this arena, I am merely asking the question. First of all, let’s take a look at history. The best example of a similar situation has to be the era of prohibition from 1920 to 1933. During this period, the production and consumption of alcohol was controlled by organized crime and similar to the drug trade, those who were subjected most to criminal prosecution were the poor and underclass. In many cases, the crime bosses were protected through corruption of officials, not dissimilar, it seems, from the situation today with the drug trade. Following the repeal of prohibition, the influence and power of the crime organizations was greatly reduced as they retreated into more limited arenas such as gambling. Alcohol still ruins many lives, but its consumption is regulated and taxes derived allow for greater focus on education and treatment.
Secondly, let’s take a look at where this entirely different approach has been taken. Two countries in Europe, Switzerland and Portugal have adopted a legalization of more than ‘soft drugs’. The reports from Switzerland are particularly encouraging. Although there has been little reduction in existing older drug users, the incidence of death and disease from infected needles and overdose in heroin addicts has been dramatically reduced. Perhaps of more interest, the incidence of younger people adopting hard drugs such as heroin has declined with the perception that it is no longer ‘cool’, but the domain of middle aged addicts lining up at clinics to receive their prescription. I realize that this is a different culture and comparison is only partially applicable, but it is at least food for thought.
This is obviously a vast and complex problem, one that I continue to debate internally, but I felt I should at least ask the question. What if we introduced a highly regulated distribution of drugs that allowed medical supervision and prescription? And what if we couple this with a major initiative on educating the general public, providing support for those who are addicted and create an alternative supply of regulated drugs, gradually starving the criminal supply lines of Latin America? After all, we know that tobacco and alcohol still cause harm, but accompanied by proper regulation, education and health warnings, the general public makes predominantly reasonable choices.
It is also important to stress that legalizing something does not necessarily imply support or endorsement. The moves and legal and legislative decisions that have legalized abortion have largely been made by those who would prefer to see less abortions not more, but cannot support the dangerous world of illegal abortion that would continue to exist. Smoking has not been banned, despite the overwhelming evidence of its detrimental health effects.
Let me be absolutely clear. As a follower of Jesus, I cannot point to any biblical prohibition of drug use, but I truly believe that anything that robs us of our faculty to make life enhancing choices has to be inadvisable. The broader question from this whole debate really asks whether we should allow the individual to choose what they consume, imbibe, smoke etc. and that the state’s responsibilities should rest more in the realm of providing education and support. After all, the effective taxation of potentially damaging substances as already occurs with alcohol and tobacco could more than compensate for the expense involved. And let’s not forget the vast sums currently involved in waging a losing war on the current criminal world of drug trafficking! Please take a moment and give your answers to the poll below, thanks.
The first thing that pops into mind in this debate is David Mitchell’s comment on some ancient QI episode regarding pre WW1 England, when one could buy heroin and cocaine at Fortnum and Masons (Mitchell: “if you want to see how brilliant legalising drugs worked out, just look at the First World War…”). But I suppose the debate comes down to the theoretical standpoint. Neoliberalist ideals of universalism necessarily allow choice and demand personal responsibility. I for one wouldn’t like to lose that, albeit recognising that some will inevitably exploit the freedom. On the other hand, how many who are in political control really have the integrity to make informed decisions? David Nutt, sacked by the UK government for being “too controversial” in his role as drug advisor, ardently pushes the case for legalisation. Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist, argues that the most harmful drug is alcohol.
I think I’m with you on this – the real debate probably comes down to whether personal choices materially impact those we share the community with as in the more obvious legal outlawing of driving under the influence. Interesting to hear Nutt’s assessment on the harmfulness of alcohol.