Mark Twain reportedly said: “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”. If he were alive today, he would have to agree that in the criminalisation of drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis, we see something that comes pretty close to a re-run of an earlier attempt to prohibit use of another drug, alcohol.
With the lesson of Prohibition, President Nixon should have known what to expect when he declared the “War on Drugs” in 1971. He should have remembered Einstein’s reported remark that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”.
By 2008 the US was incarcerating 0.8 percent of its citizens, a higher proportion than any other country. The cost to the United States is over $50 billion a year, and total cost is reportedly over $US1 trillion. And yet cocaine, heroin and cannabis remain readily available to those who want them.
One has to wonder if Nixon was just stupid, or whether there was more to it. In an interview for Harper’s Magazine in 1994 John Ehrlichman, who had been Nixon’s domestic affairs adviser, had this to say:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Shocking though this is, the hidden truth may be even worse. As British journalist Nick Davies has described in his Channel 4 documentary The Truth about Heroin, the war has been even more dishonest. The film documents how there are many people who have been taking morphine as a painkiller for years with little ill effect other than constipation and drowsiness. In the body, morphine gets metabolised to diamorphine or heroin, so people taking morphine are essentially taking heroin. Of the thousands of people who have taken morphine under medically-controlled conditions, there have been no recorded serious health effects.
Black market heroin is a different matter altogether, as it is adulterated by the criminals to make it go further, and the use of “dirty” needles incurs a serious risk of infection with HIV and hepatitis C. Moreover, illicit users have no control over strength of the drug, so there is a risk of overdose. As Davies puts it, politicians have created a black market that inflicts just the kind of damage they say they want to prevent.
In the frontline of the war against ignorance and bigotry in drug policy is Professor David Nutt, a psychologist and director of the Unit of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. When he had the temerity to advise the UK government that policy on drugs should be based on evidence rather than politics, he was sacked for his trouble. Evidently the “law and order” issue is just too rich a source of votes for politicians to be interested in evidence-based arguments.
Most troubling for the politicians was Professor Nutt’s clear demonstration that alcohol is by far the most harmful drug of all. So out of need to protect the hospitality industry and their political patrons, it became necessary for the authorities to use the intellectually dishonest phrase “alcohol and drugs”, rather than “alcohol and other drugs”.
In the minds of voters there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between what they would like the law to do and what it can do. Many people seem to regard the law as an instrument of public disapproval rather than a tool for modifying behaviour. I remember the then UK home secretary Douglas Hurd arguing against decriminalisation of cannabis on the grounds that “it would send a message of approval”. He evidently did not appreciate that tobacco has always been legal, but this did not imply approval, as a succession of reports by the Royal College of Surgeons had made clear.
Amid all this foolishness, there are signs of hope. In Portugal, possession of small quantities of all drugs was decriminalised in 2001, and is now treated as a health problem. Anyone found in possession of personal amounts of any drug is given the option of paying a small fine or signing up for a treatment programme; there is no criminal conviction. There has been no increase in addiction, and there has been a steep drop in HIV infection since addicts are given access to clean needles. The number of deaths caused by drug overdose decreased from about 80 in 2001 to just 16 in 2012.
As Nick Davies put it, you have to go back to World War 1 to find generals who managed a war with such staggering disregard for the lives of the people involved. Maybe there is a puritanical psychosis lurking beneath the political surface. As the American journalist H.L. Mencken put it: puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy”. When one considers the spectacular failure of the war on drugs, one has to wonder what the politicians are smoking.