Unjust or badly executed? Editor Fiona Sullivan analyses the shortcomings of the War on Drugs.
It has been 44 years since American President Nixon deemed drugs “public enemy number one” and effectively kick-started a war that drains £3 billion annually from the British economy in an attempt to eradicate drugs from our society. This fruitless effort has seen sparse improvements in the roaring drug market that currently dominates the criminal underworld, not to mention it has failed to shift the focus of drug addiction from a crime to a health issue. With the number of young adults aged 16-24 taking an illicit drug in the past year having increased from 16.2% in 2012-2013, to 18.9% in 2013-2014, it begs the question; where are the results of this supposed successful and prosperous war?
A Home Office report, commissioned by the Liberal Democrats, found that “there is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use.” Society’s demonisation of those suffering from addiction is fuelled by the harsh criminalisation of drug possession, which no doubt helps to create a hostile stigma. People frequently refer to numerous celebrities’ deaths by overdose as a “waste” and “selfish”. This is insidiously harmful and perpetuates a lack of empathy which often stops addicts seeking help.
In secondary schools drug education is limited; teenagers are told of the dangers of drug taking in terms of prison sentence length, as opposed to the consequences for their health. Experimentation with drugs is inevitable for many teenagers. If this unspoken, yet unanimously agreed upon information was openly discussed in a secure environment between teachers and students, a mutual respect would be created, paving the way for more effective social education in schools on many issues, not just drugs.
In 2001 Portugal decriminalised the personal use of drugs. This has subsequently led to a decrease in HIV infections and other drug-related deaths; the rapid rise in drug use that was feared by many has failed to transpire and levels are now below the European average. The money saved by the decriminalisation has allowed the country to develop a more health-centred approach to drug use, and to change social policies.
Dr João Goulão, architect of the decriminalisation policy in Portugal, has stated that “the biggest effect has been to allow the stigma of drug addiction to fall, to let people speak clearly and pursue professional help without fear.” This factor is something which the British government is failing to acknowledge. The money casually wasted on stopping and searching over half a million people a year and keeping individuals in cells for possession of a substance to which they are addicted, could be redirected towards an improved welfare system that caters to addiction as a health issue, not a crime.
It can also be argued that the war on drugs is inherently racist as drug criminalisation in the past has been used to demobilise minority communities through incarceration. The war on drugs is more about controlling people than drug use, and those who suffer the most are people of colour from working class backgrounds. Although in Britain the drug war is rooted more in classism than racism, in America the two are so closely linked it is an understandable conflation – they are two intersections of systematic oppression. This ingrained racism is still prevalent today and can be seen in the racial disparities of people being stopped and searched by the police and incarcerated; in Britain black people are 28 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than their white peers.
Early in July 2015 American President Obama visited El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma, an institution housing mainly non-violent drug offenders. The president has set out his late-term plans to reform a justice system that he dubs “a crisis” for waging structural disadvantages against people of colour. “The bottom line is that in too many places, black boys and black men, Latino boys and Latino men, experience being treated differently under the law,” Obama said, citing statistics showing that 60% of the nation’s inmates are black and Hispanic despite both demographics making up only 30% of the population. “A primary driver of this mass incarceration phenomenon is our drug laws – our mandatory minimum sentencing around drug laws,” Obama said. “And we have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and rehabilitate individuals.”
From the anarchist perspective, drug use must be legalised for the preservation of bodily autonomy; criminalisation begs the question “can the government really control what I put into my body?” I can sympathise with this perspective and think that the legalisation of drugs can be viewed similarly to the legalisation of prostitution.
It is claimed that the laws are in place to protect people, however, it must be recognised that criminalisation does nothing to decrease the number of individuals working as prostitutes. Protecting the people, in my opinion, would mean legalising prostitution, henceforth regulating and enforcing the rights of sex workers, instead of shaming individuals in that profession. Similarly, the legalisation of drugs would allow the government more control in regulating usage; revenue could also be generated from consumption taxes on drugs, like the ones that currently exist for alcohol and tobacco.
The “War on Drugs” must be re-examined. To achieve real results in tackling drug consumption, the government must attempt to challenge preconceived conceptions and stigmas by swallowing their pride, confronting the overwhelming evidence and reviewing old policies that must be modernised. The victims of this war are the marginalised in society; institutionalised racism and classism are allowed to exist and prosper under drug laws, and in a society run by “one nation-ism” it seems paradoxical that rules should be enforced that perpetuate oppressive structures. It is time to call an armistice for the “War on Drugs”.