The Last Days of the War on Drugs

September 26th 1998

The Last Days of the War on Drugs

By Gwynne Dyer

 I noticed the ashtray winking up at me as soon as I sat down at the table. I was having dinner at an auberge at the far end of L’De d’Orleans, and it seemed to be saying: “This is Quebec, where we aren’t afraid to live and we aren’t afraid to die. You can have an after-dinner cigarette here if you want. ”

I did want, as it happens. I started smoking at nine and quit in my late 30s but after-dinner cigarettes were always the best and very occasionally I do make an exception. So I got a pack of Players Light from the bar and lit one up — and it hit me, as it always does, far harder than if I had just lit up a joint.

Regular tobacco smokers don’t know what they’re missing, because regular use dulls the effect; most of the time, they’re just feeding the addiction. But if your system is really clear of nicotine, the first two or three puffs don’t just taste good; your vision sharpens, your whole body buzzes, and you’re floating three or four inches off the ground. Then the whole effect clears within minutes of putting the cigarette out. If it wasn’t so addictive, if addiction didn’t ruin the effect — and if it didn’t kill so many of its users –tobacco would be the ideal recreational drug.

Marijuana (or cannabis, to be technical) is not addictive and it’s not a health problem, but it has drawbacks too. Much the same ones as alcohol, in fact: The high lasts an inconveniently long time, and temporarily affects judgment in ways that make it incompatible with driving for example.

Marijuana doesn’t have the same association with violent behaviour as alcohol, and it would be equally foolish and futile to try to ban it, but, like alcohol it clearly needs to be regulated. No sales to under 18’s for example.

Except that marijuana is illegal. Over the past three decades there have been more than a million drug arrests in Canada, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Canadians getting criminal records after conviction possessing small amounts of cannabis. We assume that Canada, unlike, say, Arkansas, does not send people to jail just for cannabis possession but last year an estimated 2,000 Canadians did go to jail for just that offence (though many of them were people unable to pay the fines that were originally imposed).

Relax. This is not yet another article about how we ought to legalize banned drugs in order to cut the crime rate and save addicts’ lives. I used to write pieces about that but now I don’t bother. As far as the technical and philosophical debate is concerned the war is over; we just haven’t declared a cease-fire on the actual battlefronts yet. But that is coming too.

One sign that the “war on drugs” is nearing an end is the willingness of mainstream newspapers in Canada, Europe and even the United States to open their columns to informed advocates of legalization in ways that would have been unimaginable 10 Years ago. (The most recent examples in The Globe and Mail were articles by then business columnist Terence Corcoran and by Eugene Oscapella and Diane Riley of` the Canadian Centre for Drug Policy.)

But the most convincing evidence for impending change is that experts in the field are now moving on from mere advocacy to discussing how drug use should be regulated after the war ends. Which brings us, in roundabout fashion to the international symposium on Regulating Cannabis: Options for Control in the 21st Century, held at Regent’s College in London on Sept. 5. In the coffee room there was the obligatory pony-tailed, middle-aged man conspicuously smoking a roach behind a table with leaflets on it — but there was only one. and the besuited participants from 14 countries completely ignored him. Which is also what most of them propose doing at a policy level about the whole marijuana “problem. ”

As Benedikt Fischer of the Drug Policy Research Group at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto put it: “It is a waste of energy at this point to go for formal political and legal reform.” This was the central paradox at the symposium: Almost everybody present agreed that “depenalization, ” decriminalization, even de facto legalization of marijuana use was coming to many countries in practice, but almost none believed that it would be achieved through the usual means of changing bad laws.

A lot of the people present were lawyers and they clearly didn’t like this. Most of them would prefer to deal with regulating hitherto banned drugs in the same rational, straightforward way that the U. S. ended alcohol prohibition in 1933: American lawmakers just passed the 21st Amendment to cancel the 18th Amendment, made new laws about where and when and to whom alcohol may be sold, and then taxed the hell out of it. It was an approach that accepted that lots of people would still suffer from alcohol abuse — but at least they would no longer go blind or die from poisonously bad alcohol, and the criminal black market that thrived on prohibition would be closed down.

As soon as the various panelists in London got into the nuts and bolts of post-prohibition policies for marijuana, however, they all had to acknowledge the same problem: In the course of this century, American anti-drug crusaders have exploited their countries growing clout to turn international law- into an almost insuperable legal barrier to rational drug policy. It might make sense to legalize marijuana use, but you can’t.

As late as 1900, all the drugs that we are now called to fight a “drug war” against were perfectly legal. Everybody knows the story behind Coca-Cola’s early success, but the use of barbiturates in modest quantities was equally -acceptable on the other side of the Atlantic.

Opium, sold freely in pharmacies in Britain, was the Valium of the Victorian middle class. And the l 9l 2 Hague Convention for the Suppression of Opium and Other Drugs, arising from a U. S. initiative three years before, was an unmitigated disaster for A. R. Clark’s pharmacy in Braemar, Scotland, which had previously done a thriving business in supplying heroin, cocaine and other drugs to the Royal Family round the corner at Balmoral Castle.

But the real war on drugs only got under way after the Second World War, when America’s undisputed superpower status enabled it to impose its prohibitionist domestic policies on the rest of the world as well. The 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances (to ban new drugs that hadn’t existed in 1961), and the 1988 UN Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (to close loopholes and criminalize even cannabis possession) constitute a towering wall of prohibition.

The Single Conventions not only block the outright legalization of drugs. but also render most “harm-reduction” policies (maintenance doses of heroin and methadone, needle exchanges and safe injection rooms, decriminalization of possession and retail sale of small amounts of cannabis) of doubtful legality. Yet there is no hope of dismantling or substantially amending the Single Conventions until the United States is ready to end its “war on drugs,’, and it will almost certainly be the last to kick the habit.

There are stirrings of revolt against prohibitionist policies even in the United States, things like the 1996 referendum in California that legalized the medical uses of marijuana (principally for pain relief in AIDS and cancer patients and sufferers from multiple sclerosis). Similar referenda will be held in November in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado; Nevada, Oregon and Washington D.C. But the federal government has fought back by raiding the “cannabis buyers’ clubs” that have been set up to provide marijuana to patients too ill to grow it themselves. (The city of Oakland, California, in response, has tried to afford legal protection by designating some club members as “municipal officials.”)

Change will doubtless come to the U.S. but so many Americans –bureaucrats, police, prison guards — now make their living from the war on drugs that they constitute an institutional pressure group similar to (though less wealthy than) the celebrated military-industrial complex. This often results in active U.S. disinformation efforts like the suppression early this year of a key chapter in the World Health Organization’s first report on cannabis in 15 years, which originally concluded that cannabis; compared to alcohol and tobacco, posed less of a threat to health. (The respected journal New Scientist published a leaked version of the report in February. )

It is dangerous for even the most prominent and respected Americans to question the wisdom of the war on drugs: Former Secretary of State George Shultz was vilified and ridiculed; and Attorney-General M. Jocelyn Elders lost her job. So one must not expect early movement within the US federal government on these issues, and until that happens there is not a snowball’s chance in hell of changing the Single Conventions. So what is the rest of the world to do in the meantime? The answer, put bluntly, is to cheat.

And the cheating is happening. All over Europe, and now in Canada, initiatives are being taken that get around rigid and immovable anti-drug laws under the guise of medical and public-health experiments; or simply turn a blind eye to actual practice while leaving the draconian anti-drug laws on the books. The oldest and best-known example is the Dutch “coffee shop” system. It began in 1976, when the Dutch government adopted a policy of separating the soft and hard drug markets by turning a blind eye to the emergence of “coffee shops” that openly sell retail quantities of cannabis and hash to their (over- 18) customers.

Dutch law still officially makes marijuana possession an offence (though not one subject to criminal penalties), but in fact there are now an estimatccl 1,500 of these “coffee shops” all over the country; some operated by municipalities. Nobody gets arrested, the government collects value-added tax (a GST, that is) on the sales, and the black market for marijuana has shriveled up. In 1992-96, only 7.2 per cent of Dutch youths aged 12-15 had tried marijuana, compared to 13.5 per cent of Americans of the same age.

For a long time the Dutch were virtually alone apart lrom Spain, which decriminalized private use of marijuana in 1983, but now they are being emulated all over the place. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has declared himself in favour of decriminalization? as have the Belgian government and the Luxembourg parliament. In April, the Italian government finally stated that it would act on the 1992 referendum in which Italians voted to decriminalize personal drug use.

The German state of Schleswig-Holstein is planning a three-year pilot program to sell up to five grams of marijuana per day through pharmacies to over-16 participants in one big city. one small town and one rural area, with the idea of spreading the system state-wide if results are satisfactory, the council of health ministers from all of the country’s states has approved the plan in principle. The Swiss have allowed 200 “hemp shops” to open in the past two years. They sell 12-gram bags of marijuana for 50 francs –with printed instructions that it is to be mixed into bathwater or hung in clothes closets as an aromatic.

In Australia, the Northern Territory, the state of South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory moved to on-the-spot fines for cannabis possession that involve no criminal record years ago, and this year the states of Victoria and Western Australia are adopting simple “caution” systems. And in Canada, where a recent poll found that a narrow majority of 51 per cent favour decriminalizing marijuana, the Vancouver police, until recently- the Canadian leaders for marijuana busts (260 per 100,000 people, compared to 41 and 43 per 100,000 in Toronto and Montreal, respectively), have announced that they will only press charges for simple possession if there are aggravating factors.

Not surprisingly, there is a parallel movement in a number of countries toward the so-called British system of prescribing heroin for addicts who are not ready or able to quit. The Swiss have been running a pilot program with about 1,000 volunteers since 1994, with excellent results: Criminal offences by participants dropped by 60 per cent, their health improved enormously, the number in regular employment more than doubled, there were no deaths from overdoses, and no prescribed drugs were diverted to the black market.

The Netherlands, Spain and Luxembourg are planning similar heroin-prescription programs, and the League of Cities in Germany has petitioned the federal government for leave to do the same, with support from the police chiefs in 10 of German’s 12 biggest cities.

A majority of Australia’s state health ministers approved a heroin prescription trial last year, but were blocked by Prime Minister John Howard (who faces an election next month). Vancouver is considering a similar program, which would be a first in North America. “Filling prisons or hospital beds with substance abusers does not make any public policy sense,” said police chief Bruce Chambers in a July press conference, while chief coroner Larry Campbell stated bluntly: “It’s time someone stepped forward and said the war on drugs is lost. We cannot even pretend to be winning the war.”

No less an authority than Raymond Kendall, secretary-general of Interpol, said in 1994: “The prosecution of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens every year is both hypocritical and an affront to individual, civil and human rights . . . Drug use should no longer be a criminal offense. ” But given the power of the U. S. government and the international legal barriers it has erected, nobody is able to sign a separate peace in this war. What they are doing, instead, is deserting one by one.