The Failure of the Drug War and Why Drugs Should be Legal

Upon thinking about my previous post, I was struck by an irony. I said I was going to write more specifically and leave the more general abstract stuff to Charles Eisenstein. I then proceeded to write about my ideal world using nothing more than vague, abstract concepts. What the hell, Dan? I tend to lose focus when I’m writing I guess. Wait, where was I? Oh yeah. So this time I’m really going to zero in on an issue I feel strongly about. Drug legalization.

There’s a lot of controversy around drugs. I’m not going to tackle all of them, but legalization I will gladly talk about. There’s a question of prime importance here: Should any drugs be illegal? Well I have the answer and that answer is no.

Controversial opinion I know, but I am entirely certain that the US would benefit if drugs were all legal. But let me back up, because I’m sure I’m not making myself clear.

I am NOT saying that drugs are good. There are a great many drugs out there that I feel are overwhelmingly bad for people and society: heroin, meth, and cocaine to name a few. So I want to make myself clear here, I am NOT advocating their use in any way.

So why should they be legal? First of all, the drug war has failed. Despite decades of DEA activity-the attempts to curb drug use by making it illegal and hunting down drug cartels- drug use is not declining and drug cartels are not disappearing. In fact, death tolls from drug cartels are increasing! This is despite the fact that the US spends more than $51 billion annually on the drug war.  Meanwhile, overdose death rates from illicit drugs are increasing for many of the most dangerous drugs out there. Meanwhile, according to the Huffington Post, the US has the largest prison population in the world-half of those inmates being incarcerated for drug-related offenses.

So what has drug prohibition brought us? A booming underground drug market, increasing drug abuse, and a hugely overburdened prison complex. This may sound familiar. We’ve definitely seen these types of trends before with Alcohol Prohibition in the 20s. Alcohol consumption did appear to decrease initially, but it eventually rebounded. By the time alcohol prohibition was repealed, alcohol use reached nearly the same levels as it was before prohibition. Had the law remained, it may well have continued to increase even more than pre-prohibition levels. Regardless, what is very clear is that prohibition led to a huge boom in organized crime. It’s interesting to note that the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the one that dealt with prohibition was the only Amendment ever to be repealed, as was done by the 21st Amendment.

So, basically, prohibition is super lame. It’s expensive, it supports the growth of organized crime, and it doesn’t eliminate, or even decrease drug use in the long term.

This would all be moot if there was no better alternative. Luckily for humanity, though, there is one: legalization- or at least decriminalization. A beautiful thing happens when drug users are no longer labeled as criminals. Be legalizing drugs, we can actually begin to combat the enormous drug problem this country has. It seems paradoxical, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

In general, people don’t want to do drugs. If your life is going well- you’re financially secure, you have close friends and family, you have fun and enjoyable experiences- you won’t likely want to do drugs. If you don’t believe me based on your own experiences, perhaps I can convince you otherwise- or maybe someone else can. I invite you to read this comic about a compelling rat study regarding drug use and addiction.  I invite you, also to read this heartfelt Huffington Post article.

In case you didn’t follow the links (or thought they were too long) I’ll summarize the major points. If you did read them, feel free to skip the next three paragraphs, all the important information is pulled directly from the links above.

The study involved two groups of rats: one group had the rats in simple cages with no companions, the other group of rats lived in a “Rat Park” it was a large enclosure with toys and plenty of other rats to socialize with. The study demonstrated that rats in socially isolated cages are far more likely than rats in a socially diverse rat park to develop drug addiction. In addition, previously drug addicted rats will almost never kick a drug habit in an isolated cage, but most all drug addict rats will dramatically reduce drug use in the rat park. It pokes a lot of holes in the fearsome chemical hook story- the idea that people on drugs are hopelessly enslaved by their chemical addictions. But of course, these are rats, not humans. But there are also many worldly experiments of a similar type being performed on humans. Not by scientists administering drugs, but by doctors.

Many of you- or perhaps people you know- may have broken bones. Often, people are sent to the hospital and given morphine as a painkiller. These people are often given high doses of morphine for weeks, plenty of time to form an addiction. Morphine is almost identical to heroin, and equally addictive, differing only in the dosage required for the same effect. If chemical addiction was as powerful as we’ve been led to believe, one would expect people to quickly turn to the streets looking for heroin after their morphine prescription ends. However, this almost never happens.

Another example of this effect is the Vietnam war. It’s estimated that 20% of soldiers were addicted to heroin while fighting the war. Many feared that when the war ended, the US was going to be flooded with helplessly addicted drug users, but that’s not what happened. What did happen is that when the heroin addicted soldiers returned home they just stopped- 95% of them just stopped! A very small amount of them ever needed rehab. It’s as if when they returned to their loving homes and families, they felt no compulsion to do heroin anymore.

It’s not that chemical addiction doesn’t matter, of course. After all, the Office of the Surgeon General states that 17.7% of cigarette smokers can kick their habit with the help of nicotine patches. However, that 17.7% doesn’t appear to be nearly as important as we thought.

What does appear to be more important than we thought, is social connection. Social isolation breeds and maintains drug abuse. Love and companionship, on the other hand, appear to be the most powerful ways to combat drug abuse that we have ever seen.

Back to the legalization issue. What are we doing by making these drugs illegal? We’re only serving to further the social isolation that fuels drug abuse! People with drug abuse problems are often forced to withdraw from their families and friends due to their dark secret. They are forced to interact with more dangerous types of people- likely people who don’t provide the love and support that one looks for in companionship. Worst case scenario, they are arrested and put in jail- literally isolating them from society.

So what happens if drugs are legalized? Let’s ask Portugal. They decriminalized all drugs in 2001. In the fourteen years since then, drug use has declined and drug-related deaths have dropped dramatically. Would this look any different in the US? Look to Leonard Campanello, the police chief from Gloucester Massachusetts. This past March, he really shook things up when he reached out to his community via Facebook, saying, “If you are a user of opiates or heroin, let us help you. We know you do not want this addiction. We have resources here in the City that can and will make a difference in your life. Do not become a statistic.” Between then and August, his police department helped 109 different drug addicts, many of them coming from out of state. That’s 109 people being treated for their drug addictions that would otherwise likely have continued their destructive behaviors in secret. Clearly, there are many people out there just waiting for a helping hand to be extended to them. By not threatening them with jail time, they felt free to go and ask for the help they desperately needed. Over time, I’m sure there will be many more addicts visiting Campanello’s police department for support and assistance. I hope there will be other departments following his example.

As compelling as all of this information may be. The real reason that drugs ought to be legalized or decriminalized is a reason of morality. It is a question of personal freedom. I may not agree with a person’s decision to smoke PCP, but it is their personal choice to do with their body what they wish. If they commit violence towards another person while on PCP or otherwise, that is something I cannot abide by. However, the fact remains that their body belongs to them- not to me and not the state. Who has the right to tell another how to treat their own body? By making drugs illegal, the law is essentially stating, “We (the lawmakers) do not like drugs. Therefor we revoke your freedom to use them under threat of force.” How can a people that believe in personal liberty and freedom possibly abide by such an obvious infringement of personal rights?

So we are now presented with a choice. A choice between two possible worlds we can live in.

One: a world where people are forced to behave a certain way that the state regards as right.

Two: a world in which people are free to do anything that doesn’t limit the rights or freedom of others, regardless if it’s “right” or “wrong”

One world seems to promote arrogance, control, violence, and self-imposed authority. The other seems to promote tolerance, acceptance, compassion, and freedom.

I know the world I would like to live in. What type of world do you want?


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