Struggle Against the “War on Drugs”

4 January 2007

The Struggle Against the “War on Drugs”

By Gwynne Dyer

Barry Cooper’s new DVD, Never Get Busted Again, which went on sale over the internet late last month, will probably not sell very well outside the United States, because in most other countries the possession of marijuana for personal use is treated as a misdemeanour or simply ignored by the police. But it will sell very well in the US, where many thousands of casual marijuana users are hit with savage jail terms every year in a nationwide game of Russian roulette in which most people indulge their habit unharmed while a few unfortunates have their lives ruined.

Barry Cooper is a former Texas policeman who made over 800 drug arrests as an anti-narcotics officer, but he has now repented: “When I was raiding homes and destroying families, my conscience was telling me it was wrong, but my need for power, fame and peer acceptance overshadowed my good conscience.” Of course, Cooper’s DVD, which teaches people how to avoid arrest for marijuana possession, will also bring him fame, plus a lot of money, but at least it won’t hurt people.

However, Cooper lacks the courage of his own convictions. He argues that the war on drugs is futile and counter-productive so far as marijuana is concerned, but nervously insists that he is offering no tips that would help dealers of cocaine or methamphetamines to escape “justice”. It’s as if reformers fighting against America’s alcohol prohibition laws in the 1920s had advocated re-legalising beer but wanted to continue locking up drinkers of wine or spirits. But there are bolder policemen around, who are willing to say flatly and publicly that all drug prohibition is wrong.

One is Jack Cole, 26 years with the New Jersey police, whose organisation, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (Leap), is supported by growing numbers of serving policemen who have lost faith in the “War on Drugs” and want to make peace. “Leap wants to end drug prohibition just a we ended alcohol prohibition in 1933,” says Cole, who argues that neither kind of prohibition has ever had any success in curbing consumption of the banned substances, but that each has fuelled the growth of a vast criminal empire.

It is policemen who take the lead in these issues because they are the ones who must deal with the calamitous consequences of the “War on Drugs.” No doubt the use of “recreational” drugs does a lot of harm, as does the use of alcohol or tobacco, but that harm is dwarfed by the amount of crime and human devastation caused by forty years of “war” on drug-users.

Howard Roberts, the deputy chief constable of the Nottinghamshire police, was the latest senior policeman to make the case for ending the war, pointing out last November that heroin addicts in Britain each commit, on average, 432 robberies, assaults and burglaries a year to raise the money for their illegal habit. Each addict steals about $90,000 of property a year, whereas the cost of providing them with heroin on prescription from the National Health Service in closely supervised treatment programmes would be only $24,000 a year.

So the NHS should provide heroin to addicts on prescription, said Roberts, like it used to in the 1950s and 1960s, before Britain was pressured into adopting the “war on drugs” model by the US. (Since then, the number of heroin addicts in Britain has risen several hundredfold.) Days later, it emerged that the NHS is actually experimenting with a return to that policy at three places in Britain — and Switzerland has actually been prescribing heroin to addicts on a nationwide basis for some years now, with very encouraging results: crime rate down, addict death rate sharply down.

If every country adopted such a policy, legalising all drugs and making the so-called “hard” ones available to addicts free, but only on prescription, the result would not just be improved health for drug-users and a lower rate of petty crime, but the collapse of the criminal empires that have been built on the international trade in illegal drugs, which is now estimated to be worth $500 billion a year. That is exactly what happened to the criminal empires that were founded on bootlegging when alcohol prohibition was ended in the United States in 1933.

But what about the innocent children who will be exposed to these drugs if they become freely available throughout the society? The answer is: nothing that doesn’t happen to them now. There is no city and few rural areas in the developed world where you cannot buy any illegal drug known to man within half a hour, for an amount of money that can be raised by any enterprising fourteen-year-old.

Indeed, the supply of really nasty drugs would probably diminish if prohibition ended, because they are mainly a response to the level of risk the dealers must face. (Economist Milton Friedman called it the Iron Law of Prohibition: the harder the police crack down on a substance, the more concentrated that substance becomes — so cocaine gives way to crack cocaine, as beer gave way to moonshine under alcohol prohibition.)

This is probably yet another false dawn, for even the politicians who know what needs to be done are too afraid of the gutter media to act on their convictions. But sometime in the next fifty years, after only few more tens of millions of needless deaths, drug prohibition will end.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 10. (“It is..drug-users”; and “But what…prohibition”)