One of the fallacies that dominates the thinking of many people, is that if something is legalised, then it is being condoned.
Drugs are a case in point.
Legalising drugs doesn't necessarily mean or imply that proponents advocate blazing up at every given opportunity.
Instead, the case for legalisation is in response to evidence that criminalising drug use causes more harm than it prevents. The irony is that legalisation, or even its poor cousin, decriminalisation, actually saves lives and makes it easier for users to get off the drug.
Criminalisation means that drug users become criminals if busted and may end up being jailed. Prison is not a rehabilitation centre, it's a place to network with other criminals. Prison is nothing more than a school for developing or honing ones criminal skills. Recidivism rates have increased in Australia as incarceration rates increase. With prisons at bursting point, the courts should be limiting incarceration to those who have committed serious crimes against other persons or property, not those whose actions are not harming others.(1)
Perhaps the most ubiquitous drug has been marijuana, or cannabis. Modern society was founded on the cannabis plant(2), from the hemp products used on the ships that facilitated international trade and colonisation,to the paper used for writing, manufacture of clothing, provision of food and nourishment, to the spiritual element of the plant that is mentioned in ancient scripture of numerous religions. The bible refers to it as both incense and intoxicant, for example, one of numerous scriptures where it appears is Exodus 30:21-25, in which God drops a recipe on Moses for making a holy anointing oil that includes myrrh, sweet cinnamon, sweet 'calamus', cassia and olive oil. Calamus is a modern translation of the original word 'kaneh bosm', which is the Ancient Hebrew word for cannabis.(3)
Marijuana is the people's drug. It is easy and quick to grow, doesn't require a degree in chemistry, and there have been no deaths from the direct consumption of the natural grown product. However, the prohibition of this drug has destroyed countless lives, through execution, incarceration, children being removed from parents by over-zealous authorities, wars waged in developing countries that have directly killed innocent people, increases in famine and starvation as a result of removing such a viable food source. Having a criminal record makes it more difficult for people to be accepted back into society. Many employers will not employ people who have a criminal record or have spent time in the big house.
The decades-long US-led War on Drugs has been a dismal failure. The United States started it with the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. This was followed by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which had nothing to do with keeping Americans safe from marijuana and everything to do with pandering to big business, in this case, the DuPont Corporation.
Of course, pandering to big business is not going to resonate well with the electorate, so the government resorted to the old chestnuts: fear and racism. It produced ludicrous propaganda movies, with one of the most famous being Reefer Madness. This little piece of blatant fear-mongering, showed how quickly murder and mayhem would ensue from one toke of a reefer! Shock, gasp, horror! Lock up your daughters and protect them from the evil herb!
This followed on from newspapers in the early 20th century reporting that cocaine-crazed black men were raping white women. William Hearst, the newspaper owner, reveled in sensationalism and had used racism for years to attack African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Latinos, going back to the 1898 Spanish American War. The demonisation of the world's most useful and versatile plant to a sinister turn through terminology. Everyone knew the usefulness of hemp. Hell, they were either growing it or wearing it. They knew of the medicinal qualities because most had used cannabis tinctures. So the demonisation could not refer to hemp or cannabis if it was to be most effective. Hearst used a Mexican colloquialism that had the added benefit of not only being unknown to most English-speaking people, being Mexican added to the mystery and fear. The word: marijuana ... or as it became known in the United States by people who couldn't reconcile the letter 'j' being pronounced as an 'h': marihuana.(4)
The ubiquitous hemp plant had been used for the production of clothing, rope and medicine until 1937. Up to 90% of rope products were manufactured from hemp(5). After 1937, this was replaced by petrochemical products mainly manufactured by DuPont. Both of these Acts effectively outlawed cannabis products, including cannabinoid medicines which had been used to treat conditions such as glaucoma, asthma, tumours, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, back pain, muscle spasms, arthritis, herpes, cystic fibrosis, rheumatism, migraines, as well as provide nausea relief and increase appetite in patients undergoing cancer treatment. In the 19th century, cannabis tinctures were prescribed to men, women and children in daily dosages that would equate to today's marijuana user's moderate to heavy intake over a one to two month period(6)
It was used as currency for decades in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. Farmers were encouraged to grow it during this time. During World War 2, farmers were again encouraged to grow it for the war effort(7). The American government considered hemp to be a patriotic crop and produced posters and movies declaring Hemp For Victory. After the war, it was again demonised as a killer crop and was again rebadged as marijuana.
Videos of both Reefer Madness and Hemp for Victory are embedded at the bottom of this article.
Hemp is a crop that was the staple go-to for civilisations around the world for centuries. It has the potential to end starvation in developing nations, yet the War on Drugs has decimated hemp crops. In the 19th century, Australia survived two famines through a reliance on hempseed for protein and roughage.(8)
American conservative commentator, William F. Buckley Jr, stated, 'Marijuana never kicks down your door in the middle of the night. Marijuana never locks up sick and dying people, does not suppress medical research, does not peek in bedroom windows. Even if one takes every reefer madness allegation of the prohibitionists at face value, marijuana prohibition has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could'.
As previously seen, racism played a significant role in the demonisation of marijuana and it didn't stop in the 1930s. In 1994, John Ehrlichmann, a former assistant to disgraced President Richard Nixon, admitted that Nixon's war on drugs during the 1960s and 1970s was based on the exploitation of racism and fear. Ehrlichmann stated:
'The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar 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 black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing 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'.(9)
Like any product, the drug industry obeys the laws of economics, namely supply and demand. It also follows the law of greed, that is, the maximisation of profit, which can occur through driving the price up or diluting the product.
Despite the best efforts of drug enforcement agencies boasting of large-scale drug busts and increasing numbers of users incarcerated, drug overdose deaths have increased 540% and drug problems worsened since 1980(10). This is a result of the 'balloon effect', that is by squeezing the drug industry in one area, only results in shifting the problem to another area.
Efforts to stop the supply of drugs have done nothing other than shift the problem to other regions or products. For instance, in the 1970s, the US targeted marijuana production in Mexico and Jamaica. While production of marijuana in these regions reduced, the overall production of marijuana merely relocated to other regions, such as Colombia. As US efforts zeroed in on Colombia's marijuana production, the Colombian producers expanded into other areas that were easier to transport, namely cocaine. Targeting supply-side factors is like squeezing a balloon; one area may be constricted, but it will pop up in another area. Demand for marijuana did not decline, while supply and demand for cocaine increased.
United States efforts to target methamphetamine commenced with regulating the precursor ingredients that the large drug labs were using to produce it. This initially saw a reduction in hospital admissions of people addicted to meth. However, the regulations did not stop the small scale producers, and resulted in the spread of small meth labs all over the country using readily-available over-the-counter chemicals, such as cold and flu medication. While the final product was less pure than that developed by the large-scale producers, it was still an effective methamphetamine. There was also an increase in do-it-yourself production. So the balloon effect of targeting supply, initially reduced usage, but ultimately ended up increasing supply using smaller labs selling cheaper product and eventually increasing demand. And then the government focused on the ingredients that the small labs used. This reduced local production, but increased imports from countries such as Mexico, which facilitated the growth of drug cartels throughout this region.
Targeting marijuana in Mexico did effectively reduce marijuana production there, however, the Mexican drug cartels increased as they expanded into more lucrative and easier to transport products, such as heroin, cocaine and crystal methamphetamine (ice), which was driven by demand to fill the void created by the reduction in domestic US production following law enforcement efforts at home.
In terms of harm to the individual and its flow-on effects to wider society, the banning of drugs in general has done more harm than good, with increases in consumption and prices, increased organised crime, increased property and violent offences as poorer users try to find money to pay for the drugs, increases in HIV/AIDS because of poor injection practices, increased drug purity and potency, increased hospital admissions because of the higher demand and increased potency, increase in human rights abuses and environmental damage in developing nations being forced to comply with US drug policy in order to access aid funding.
Prior to banning of drugs, usage was lower and subsequently there were fewer addicts. The 19th century and early 20th century saw the usage of drugs such as opium, cannabis and cocaine. From a health perspective, marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco.
The wiser alternative to the war on drugs, is to treat drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one. This strategy is known as 'harm reduction'. In Australia there has been much controversy about the opening of drug injection rooms. In Switzerland, a similar program established heroin maintenance facilities, providing a safe environment to treat and stabilise addicts. This resulted in a sharp decrease in drug-related crime and a third of the addicts obtaining employment. There was a 50% reduction in the number of injection-related HIV/AIDS cases(11). It did not result in an increase in drug use.
In Holland, authorities provide facilities to test the purity of ecstasy tablets. Users are warned if dangerous chemicals such as strychnine are identified. Additionally, Holland decriminalised marijuana and hashish, resulting in fewer arrests for minor possession, no increase in drug use, heavy investment in treatment, prevention and harm reduction(12).
In the year 2001, Portugal decriminalised all drugs, and has since proven to be an exemplar for harm reduction. Its model was to treat drug possession and use of small amounts of drugs as a health issue rather than a criminal one. While drugs remain illegal, people caught with drugs may face a small fine and possible referral to a treatment program. They do not get jail time and are not saddled with a criminal record. There has been a significant reduction in the number of overdose deaths, with Portugal recording 3 deaths per one million citizens, compared to the European Union which records an average of 17.3 deaths per one million. In the UK, there are 44.6 deaths per million.(13) There has also been a 90% reduction in drug-related HIV/AIDS infections, significant reduction in use of dangerous 'legal high' drugs such as synthetic marijuana, 44% reduction in incarceration of drug-related offenders, and a 60% increase in the number of people in drug treatments(14). Following decriminalisation, there was a slight increase in drug use, that peaked in 2007, but has since been declining, with two of the three measures used showing lower drug use than in 2001, as shown in the following table(15).
A number of Australian jurisdictions have decriminalised marijuana, with no significant increase in drug usage. Additionally, there are some areas with harm reduction programs in place, such as safe-injection rooms in Sydney's Kings Cross and trials of similar facilities in Melbourne's Richmond precinct. The number of ambulance call-outs in Kings Cross have reduced by 80%, there has been no increase in crime, and the number of publicly discarded needles and syringes has halved. Similar facilities in Vancouver, saw a 35% reduction in fatal overdoses and 30% increase in people seeking detox and addiction treatment.(16)
Globally the war on drugs has failed. In 1998, the UN unleashed a war on drugs as well. Like the US-led one, this was also a failure. The winners of the war are the criminal organisations raking in $320 billion per annum. There have been thousands executed, millions incarcerated, including more than 1.4 million in the US during 2014
A number of countries still have the death penalty for possession and trafficking. Every year, Iran executes hundreds of people for drug offences, including juveniles, yet drug addiction doubled in the six years from 2011 to 2017(17).
Clearly, even the harshest penalties do not deter people from using drugs.
While there is little attention given to the hundreds of people executed globally each year because of drugs charges, there have been some high profile executions, including Indonesia's execution of Bali 9 duo, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in 2015, and Malaysia's execution of Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers in 1986. Some people have no sympathy for drug traffickers being executed. Their argument is that had these people succeeded in their drug trafficking countless lives would have been ruined with the drugs. However, this argument fails to consider the fact that most drug dealers do not push drugs onto people. Drug users have a way of finding the drugs themselves. People who start on drugs generally have a desire to try them without anyone needing to force the drugs onto them.
The argument that traffickers could have killed innocent people is absurd and fails to acknowledge the responsibility that drug users must take for their habit. The term 'pusher' is a misnomer. Drug 'pushers' are drug dealers. It is rare for one to actively force people to take drugs. Dealers are simply meeting the demand of the market.
People should not be executed because of the demand of people who fail to take responsibility for themselves or who blame others for their situation.
In 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a report condemning the war on drugs as a dismal failure that has destroyed lives. It acknowledged the balloon effect discussed above, in which the war on drugs has merely displaced the areas of production, as well as resulted in substance displacement, in which users have moved to new substances when their drug of choice experiences supply shortages because of law enforcement actions. Ironically, marijuana has often been described as a gateway drug, despite any evidence to the contrary, however, the gateway is provided through the War on Drugs itself as it targets supply-side activities. Additionally, as users are interacting with dealers, they are exposed to other drugs and may be more willing to try those. Among the Global Commission's recommendations were replacing criminalisation and punishment with health and treatment services, as well as recommending governments experiment with legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organised crime and safeguard the health and security of citizens.(18)
In 2016, an international commission of medical experts found that drug laws caused 'misery, failed to curb drug use, fuelled violent crime and spread epidemics of HIV and hepatitis C through unsafe injecting'. The commission was established by the esteemed Lancet medical journal and John Hopkins University. The report stated that drug laws had 'harmed public health, human rights and development'. It asked the UN to support decriminalisation of minor, non-violent offences and made a number of recommendations, including 'move gradually towards legal, regulated drug markets ... '.(19)
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, acknowledged the damage caused by the war on drugs when it noted, 'Global drug control efforts have had a dramatic unintended consequence: a criminal black market of staggering proportions'.(20)
After almost 20 years of the UN war on drugs, the United Nations and the World Health Organization have released a joint statement on ending discrimination in health care settings, which includes calling on member states to take 'targeted, coordinated, time-bound, multisectoral actions', including:
Reviewing and repealing punitive laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes and that counter established public health evidence. These include laws that criminalize or otherwise prohibit gender expression, same sex conduct, adultery and other sexual behaviours between consenting adults; adult consensual sex work; drug use or possession of drugs for personal use; sexual and reproductive health care services, including information; and overly broad criminalization of HIV non-disclosure, exposure or transmission.(21)
There are two main approaches that could be taken: legalisation or decriminalisation. There is no country of recent times that has legalised all drugs, so it is difficult to fully understand the impact that this would have. However, it is anticipated that legalisation would carry the following benefits:
- reduce black market activity and organised crime involvement
- enable regulation that can ensure purity of product, for instance, similar to alcohol content labels found on alcohol products
- enable taxation of drugs which can be channeled into harm reduction strategies, such as health treatments
- reduction of people incarcerated, so any addictions can be treated as health issues rather than criminal issues
- addresses demand-side, rather than supply-side issues through education, treatment and harm reduction activities
- keeps people out of the criminal justice system
- reduction in associated crime
- reduction in HIV/AIDS that occurs from poor injection habits, by providing education and safe-injecting facilities
- reduced cost to tax-payers, through reducing policing and incarceration issues
- reduced burden on welfare systems as users do not have criminal records, providing them with a greater chance of obtaining employment
- reduced numbers of overdoses through providing safe-injecting rooms, drug purity testing, education and treatment
- instead of increased recidivism under criminalisation models, decriminalisation increases the access to detox and addiction treatment programs
In the United States, legalisation of marijuana in states such as Colorado, Washington and California, has had a dramatic impact on Mexican drug cartel's profits. Legalisation has led to a burgeoning market for domestically grown cannabis which has produced lower prices and higher quality than produced in Mexico and Jamaica. Legalisation is achieving what the drug war failed to do as the following graph shows.(23)
After decades of policies that have wreaked havoc across the globe with no reduction in drug use and massive increases in organised crime, it is clear that a change in tactic is long overdue. The evidence clearly shows that decriminalisation and harm reduction programs achieve what the war on drugs could only dream of.
1. The Guardian, Christopher Knaus, Prisons at breaking point but Australia is still addicted to incarceration, 29 December 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/dec/29/prisons-at-breaking-point-but-australia-is-still-addicted-to-incarceration. Accessed 30 December 2017.
2. Robinson, R., (1996), Chapter 4 - A Global History of Hemp, The Great Book of Hemp. Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont.
3. Bennett, C., Osburn, L., Osburn, J., (1995), Chapter 5 - Ancient Hebrews, Green Gold, The Tree of Life - Marijuana in Magic & Religion, Access Unlimited, Frazier Park, CA 93225.
4. Herer, J., (1995 Australian Edition), Chapter 4 - The Last Days of Legal Cannabis, The Emporer Wears No Clothes.
5. ibid, Chapter 2 - Uses of Hemp.
6. ibid. Chapter 12 - Cannabis use in 19th century America.
7. ibid. Chapter 9 - Economics: Energy, Environment and Commerce.
8. ibid. Chapter 8 - Cannabis Hempseed as the Basic World Food.
9. Harper's Magazine, Dan Baum, Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs, April 2016, https://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/ Accessed 30 December 2017.
10. Laffiteau, C., 2011. The balloon effect: The failure of supply side strategies in the war on drugs. Academia. edu, 1, pp.1-18.
11. Reuters, Stephanie Nebehay, Swiss drug policy should serve as model: experts, 26 October 2010, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-swiss-drugs/swiss-drug-policy-should-serve-as-model-experts-idUSTRE69O3VI20101025. Accessed 30 December 2017.
12. Open Society Foundations, Kasia Malinowska, For Safe and Effective Drug Policy, Look to the Dutch, 16 July 2013, https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/safe-and-effective-drug-policy-look-dutch. Accessed 30 December 2017.
13. The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham, Why hardly anyone dies from a drug overdose in Portugal, 5 June 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/05/why-hardly-anyone-dies-from-a-drug-overdose-in-portugal. Accessed 30 December 2017.
14. Business Insider, Drake Baer, 6 incredible things that happened when Portugal decriminalized all drugs, 26 April 2016, http://www.businessinsider.com/what-happened-when-portugal-decriminalized-all-drugs-2016-3. Accessed 30 December 2017.
15. Transform Drug Policy Foundation, The success of Portugal's decriminalisation policy - in seven charts, 14 July 2014, http://www.tdpf.org.uk/blog/success-portugal%E2%80%99s-decriminalisation-policy-%E2%80%93-seven-charts. Accessed 30 December 2017.
16. Alcohol and Drug Foundation, Medically supervised injecting centres, 17 February 2017, https://adf.org.au/insights/medically-supervised-injecting-centres/. Accessed 30 December 2017.
17. The Independent, Bethan McKernan, Number of drug addicts in Iran 'doubles' in six years, 26 June 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iran-tehran-drug-addiction-opium-heroin-afghanistan-taliban-a7809046.html. Accessed 30 December 2017.
18. Global Commission on Drug Policy, (June 2011), War on Drugs, https://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/wp-content/themes/gcdp_v1/pdf/Global_Commission_Report_English.pdf. Accessed 30 December 2017.
19. The Guardian, Sarah Boseley and Jessica Glenza, Medical experts call for global drug decriminalisation, 25 March 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/mar/24/medical-experts-call-for-global-drug-decriminalisation. Accessed 30 December 2017.
20. The Guardian, Jamie Doward, The UN's war on drugs is a failure. Is it time for a different approach, 3 April 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/02/un-war-on-drugs-failure-prohibition-united-nations. Accessed 30 December 2017.
21. World Health Organization, Joint United Nations statement on ending discrimination in health care settings, 27 June 2017, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/statements/2017/discrimination-in-health-care/en/. Accessed 30 December 2017.
22. News.com.au, Katie Horneshaw, Why you should stop judging addicts, 8 March 2016, http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/mind/why-you-should-stop-judging-addicts/news-story/e8c46674873e0c07e8abdeb7af4a3933. Accessed 30 December 2017.
23. The Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham, Legal marijuana is finally doing what the drug war couldn't, 3 March 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/03/03/legal-marijuana-is-finally-doing-what-the-drug-war-couldnt/. Accessed 30 December 2017.
Reefer Madness (1936):
Hemp for Victory News Reel (1942):