Dealing with drugs — what must be done

The war on drugs has been lost — so what do we do about it? There is a simple and very effective solution to the problem.

It is not good. In 2016 around 64,000 Americans died from overdoses of drugs. That is almost twice as many as were killed in car accidents, or due to fatal injury by firearms. Well over 200,000 people are serving time in jail for drug offences. In recent decades the incarceration numbers have surged — the US now has by far the highest prison population in the world. The rise was driven mainly by the “war on drugs”, which generated a twelvefold increase in the number of locked up citizens. Today around 20% of all prisoners in the US are in jails due to drug charges.

Can we please admit, at long last, that the war on drugs has been lost? For the population, that is, not for drug traffickers. They are the big winners, they are the ones reaping the profit. In his heyday Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel was smuggling 15 tons of cocaine, worth $70 million, per day into the US. That amounted to about $26 billion a year. Today the illegal drug trade world-wide is worth half a trillion dollars. This is what that means. It exceeds the GDPs of 290 nations — only 20 countries in the world turn over more cash than the drug traders.

The results are catastrophic: globally around twelve million people inject drugs, over six million have contracted Hepatitis C and 1.6 million HIV. There are close to 200 million drug related deaths per year. How many people must die, how many must ruin their lives in an effort to finance their addiction, how many must be incarcerated, before we admit that the war is lost?

So what do we do about it? There is a simple and very effective first stage solution, one that could, in one fell swoop, destroy the massive half-trillion dollar economy of the illicit drug industry, and condemn the drug lords to oblivion. All we need to do is to legalize drugs—I mean all of them. In fact make them free for all users. Horrified? Let me explain.

First steps have already been taken: in a number of US states cannabis, even in its recreational form, has been made legal. The resulting chaos and downfall of society has not taken place — in fact overall drug addiction has declined, and there is no significant increase in use of the relatively harmless drug. Let us look at some of the numbers provided by the US Centers for Disease Control: in 2016 the total number of deaths attributed to drug overdose was 63,632, of which 42,249 involved opioids, and 3,373 from overdoses of methadone — presumably incurred during treatment of opioid addiction. In the same period the number of overdose deaths attributed to cannabis was — zero. In fact there are no recorded cases of OD from cannabis to be found in extensive literature reviews.

Legalizing cannabis has in no way had the adverse effects that critics predicted — it turns out that it is not a “gateway drug”, and it causes orders of magnitude less social turmoil and health problems than alcohol or tobacco. It actually weans people off hard drugs. The only question is: why did it take so long to discover this?

But what about opioids and other “hard” drugs? Do I really advocate legalizing them, and in fact making them free? Yes I do. But there are certain conditions attached: these drugs will be given to addicts in special “needle clinics”, where they are administered, one dose at a time, under supervision and with sterile needles. That would drastically reduce the risk of HIV and other blood-infectious diseases. And, more importantly, it would eliminate the need of addicts to go on crime sprees to finance their horrendously expensive habit.

But: in return addicts would have to endure half-hour meetings before the administration of each hit — therapeutic conversations, advice and guidance by experts, in group sessions together with other users and addicts. They would have to listen to talks about the possible alternatives available to them, to the methods available for kicking the habit. Very tedious, I’ll admit, but so very much easier and pleasant than the acquisition process they have had to go through so far.

All this is not a new idea. Let us take a look at Zurich. In the early 1990s Switzerland’s largest city had become a magnet for the country’s 30,000 heroin addicts. This GlobalPost story tells us what it was like:

In Zurich’s Platzspitz Park you could see drug users lying in their own blood and feces, while others were shooting up beside them. The park reeked of the vomit and decay enfolding the camp. Rats were everywhere… Drug gang violence was prevalent, HIV spread among users, prostitution was commonplace… And drug-related crimes and deaths surged — twelvefold between 1975 and 1992.

Clearly policing and prevention, the war on drugs, hadn’t worked. So the Swiss introduced a new policy that emphasized therapy and treatment: instead of criminalizing addicts, authorities decided to reintegrate them back into society. Zurich became the first place in the world where heroin prescriptions were handed out to heavy and long-term opiate users. And it worked. Today 70 percent of heroin addicts in Switzerland are in substitution therapy, while only about eight percent — 1,400 patients — receive heroin. The country sees almost no new heroin users, authorities say.

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Zurich’s Platzspitz before (see “Junkietown Needelpark” in Youtube) and after the drug strategy reform.

So what happens to the drug lords and dealers if this kind of legalization is introduced globally? They would be put out of business — bing: immediately, completely, irrevocably. And the half-trillion dollars they were turning over, on a yearly basis, can be put to far better use.

What I am not advocating is releasing hard drugs on a commercial basis, as was done for liquor and tobacco. We don’t want billion-dollar companies profiting from the legalization of drugs, we don’t want to see their advertisement and jingles, their political lobbies. We don’t want their mendaciously false information campaigns — opium is cool, cowboys use it, supermodels will flock around you… Just make drugs, and their administration in the needle clinics, a free, non-commercial enterprise. Private possession remains illegal, trafficking is punished just the way it is today. But the supervised use is problem free.

And how do we pay for all of that? Just consider: in the US it costs on average around $100,000 per year to feed, house and guard a prison inmate (in New York the number is closer to $180,000). Drug rehabilitation of incarcerated inmates costs around $50,000 per person. Outside prisons that number is currently under $10,000. Uncomplicating the rules and procedures after legalizing drugs would bring the price down even further.

So what are we waiting for? We can smash a half-trillion dollar criminal enterprise and put the drug dealers out of business next week (well, maybe it will take a bit longer, but not much), we could free hundreds of thousands of people from serial incarceration, and society of the horrors of drug trafficking. Sounds like a great deal, to me.

Addendum: Portugal!

After publishing this article my son Martin pointed out that in 2001 Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs — not just cannabis, but heroin, cocaine, and other hard drugs. They remain illegal, but possession and use of small quantities is not a criminal offence. If you are caught you get a small fine and a referral to a treatment program. No jail time, no criminal record.

The result: since decriminalization, things have improved dramatically: There are now three drug overdose deaths for every million citizens. In the Netherlands, where drug laws have been similarly liberalized, the number is 10.2 per million, in the UK it is 44.6, in the European Union the average is 17.3 per million. The situation in the US is described at the top of this article.

Even more importantly: the dramatic rise in drug use, feared by critics, has failed to materialize in Portugal. The country has not been run into the ground by massive numbers of drug addicts. Actually the number of users has decreased — but mainly all the horrific problems stemming from the illegal use of narcotics have disappeared. “Portugal’s radical drugs policy is working. Why hasn’t the world copied it?” writes The Guardian. That is the question.

Addendum 2: War on Drugs lobby

It occurs to me that if I were a drug lord, if I was a kingpin, making billions of dollars per year, I would invest a few hundred million dollars to hire an army of lobbyists to promote the War on Drugs. I would try to convince politicians in all major countries to step up their efforts, to make drug possession hideously illegal. The further they go, the higher the price, the market rate for the illegal substances. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Has anyone looked into this possibility?

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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