In a recent piece for Harper’s magazine titled ‘Legalize it all: How to Win the War on Drugs’, Dan Baum, a staff writer for The New Yorker and Wall Street Journal, released a frank quote from John Ehrlichman, a policy advisor for Richard Nixon and chief instigator of the war on drugs. The quote sparked controversy worldwide, shining new light on the reasons behind the Government’s war on drugs.
While writing a book on politics and drug prohibition in 1994, Baum had the chance to ask Ehrlichman a series of questions during a book signing. He recently revealed the details of their conversation:
“I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. “You want to know what this was really all about?” Ehrlichman asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect.
“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.”
The War on Drugs was a Nixon invention but it’s been useful for political figures around the world, and its function as a political tool hasn’t changed. Being seen to fight drug crime is a great way for politicians to win votes, regardless of what the evidence tells us.
In New South Wales, the law and order auction that happens during each electoral season has seen ever-increasing penalties for drug offences, and more people sent through the criminal justice system. Last year, the Federal Government’s ‘Dob in a Dealer’ anti-ice campaign was widely criticised for being used as a political distraction to take attention off the Abbott-Government’s failing legislative agenda.
The Failed War On Drugs
Someone smart once quipped that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. This would seem to hold true in most places, except drug policy, where the Government is happy to continue burning tens of millions of dollars a year fighting a war on drugs – despite mounting expert opinion telling them to change tact.
The $1 million annual cost of the dob-in-a-dealer campaign would almost cover the $1.3 million needed to run a 10-bed rehabilitation unit, so a few more addicts don’t have months longer, often in custody, for a proper shot at beating addiction and getting their lives back-on-track.
According to Victoria’s former chief commissioner Ken Lay, this is where the Government should be looking to spend its resources:
“For social problems like these, law enforcement isn’t the answer. Unless you get into the primary prevention end, unless you stop the problem occurring you simply won’t arrest your way out of this,” Lay said last year.
“Ice has been on the scene for over a decade and we’ve had a really strong law enforcement approach and it hasn’t resolved the problem. The time’s right now to look at the other options.”
Mountains of research support this view. The Australian Medical Association has pointed out the obvious: “reducing drug addiction reduces demand for drugs, reduces crime, reduces harm to addicts and their families and reduces the burden on our health system – not to mention the courts, prisons and police.”
However, in New South Wales, the police and Government continue to treat drug use just like every other law and order problem – arrest and sent more people to prison for longer and the problem will vanish. Guess what, it hasn’t worked.
So what could work?
On July 1st, 2001, Portugal decriminalised the possession of small amount of every drug imaginable, from marijuana, to cocaine, to ice and heroin. Some thought the country would become a drug tourist haven, others predicted that usage among youths would skyrocket. Fifteen years later, neither of those things have happened.
Instead, Portugal has seen a drastic reduction in drug addiction. The number of addicts, at 100,000 before the policy was enacted, was halved in the space of 10 years. Portugal’s drug usage rates are now among the lowest of EU member states.
This happened because Portugal moved from treating drug use as a criminal law problem, to a health issue. Possession and use was moved out of criminal courts and into special tribunals where each user’s unique situation is judged by legal experts, psychologists, and social workers. This is an important step to make – no-one chooses for drugs to overwhelm their lives and place them on the wrong path. Providing users with pathways outside the traditional justice system is a win-win for all involved.
This idea isn’t as farfetched as it sounds, and is beginning to affect drug laws around the world.
An international commission of medical experts, set up by the Lancet medical journal and Johns Hopkins University in the United States, recently called on the United Nations to back global drug decriminalisation, arguing that current policies lead to violence, deaths and the spread of disease, harming health and human rights.
In a report published on the eve of a special session of the UN’s General Assembly devoted to illegal narcotics, the group urged Governments around the world to begin decriminalising minor, non-violent drug offences involving the use, possession and sale of small quantities.
“The goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production, and trafficking of illicit drugs is the basis of many of our national drug laws, but these policies are based on ideas about drug use and drug dependence that are not scientifically grounded,” says Dr Chris Beyrer of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a member of the commission.
“The global ‘war on drugs’ has harmed public health, human rights and development. It’s time for us to rethink our approach to global drug policies, and put scientific evidence and public health at the heart of drug policy discussions.”
While politicians win votes, and private prison companies and criminal lawyers get rich, the hardworking taxpayer will continue to foot the bill for the failed war on drugs, and users who want to reach out will not only fail to get the support and assistance they need, but will be labelled as criminals in the process.