By Andrew Brown
The war on drugs is a failure that has been lost and is now due for a radical re-think.
Bold statement to open with you might think but that’s how I see it. Those who started and continue to push the “war” have always been at least a step behind their supposed enemies and are unable to catch up with them. The dealers, smugglers, users will never be fully eradicated.
According to a recent BBC report the U.S. states of Colorado, Washington and now Alaska have all legalized recreational marijuana. Users across these states are busy celebrating this newfound freedom and choice at the end of prohibition. The state of Oregon is due to follow suit and other states are then expected to follow them as the dominoes begin to fall. This trend is not just running through the United States but across the world as laws are being relaxed. Jamaica has just decriminalized the possession of marijuana for personal use and Portugal decriminalized drugs 10 years ago. Uruguay became the first country where it is legal to grow, sell and consume marijuana.
Policy makers are chasing their tales
All of these examples represent not only a change in laws and policies but a general change in attitudes. Even some of the most ardent opponents to recreational drug use are softening as they realise that decades of aggressive action to try and stem the flow of narcotics has so often failed to deal with the root of the problem. Cut off the head of the snake and another one grows straight back. Eliminate a street dealer and another one steps into his territory almost immediately. The current drugs offensive can be traced back to the early 1970s when US president Richard Nixon officially waged war and the battle has raged ever since.
The main problem remains clear. There is no one person or country to target, no single entity to remove to win this war. Not every drug user is a smuggler, gangster or high-level criminal. Real people are caught up in this war as the webs become ever more tangled and the lines blurred. Similar to our previous snake analogy, whenever a trafficking ring is shut down and the supply cut off then another one springs up in its place. Push the issue to another state or country and the problem is shifted, not solved.
The War on Drugs cannot be won in the way we are fighting it. There needs to be a dramatic change in the way we tackle this problem. I’ve laid out the problems but what are the solutions to these problems? As ever it’s a complex issue with no easy answers but I propose adopting some radical measures to start with. These ideas are of course not mine exclusively and have been mentioned many times before but I am happy to endorse them in this humble blog post.
Locking up offenders is not the answer
Locking up low-level offenders with drug problems is not an effective solution because so often they go to jail, come out a few months or even weeks later and get involved with drugs again upon release. Therefore it should be treated as a health problem not a criminal issue. Prevention, treatment and recovery are more preferable options.
High profile authorities have gone on record declaring the War on Drugs to be lost so it’s time to end the criminalization. By changing the way drug use is tackled I believe we can save lives by legalizing and regulating all drugs, like Portugal has done. Consumption rates are too high, people are in prison as a result and the system doesn’t work. If an alcoholic admits he has a problem then he is rightly treated and aided to recovery. It a marijuana user does the same then he is locked up as a criminal. Many alcohol users across the UK alone consume far too much and end up in physical conflict each and every weekend by using a completely legal drug. I don’t see many “stoners” rampaging across town centres on a Saturday night punching each other’s lights out.
Legalize marijuana in the UK
The logical response? Start by legalizing marijuana. Put it into state hands and allow doctors to administer it medically to those who need it. Treat all drugs as a health problem rather than a criminal problem with public health rhetoric rather than law enforcement. Prevention and harm reduction could prove more financially beneficial as marijuana is less of a health risk than alcohol or smoking where both of the latter are still lobbied and advertised aggressively in modern society wherever possible. Under my proposals, marijuana dependency may, as some fear, increase but it will then replace other drug-related problems such as criminal acts committed by current addicts attempting to afford a fix. The use of prohibition has not worked well and a new response is long overdue.
The War on Drugs? End it now. Drugs are a problem to be managed not defeated.
Andrew Brown works in the publishing industry by day and studies and debates politics on and offline by night.
Photograph Credit: Images Money on Flickr
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