The bizarre universe of drug prohibition: an introduction to the oD Drug Policy Forum

International drug policy is at a tipping point. Emerging from a forty year repressive dark age following the excesses of the 1960s, has the world learned enough to craft a saner, more compassionate approach to drug use?
Charles Shaw
14 May 2010

International drug policy is at a tipping point. Emerging from a forty year repressive dark age following the excesses of the 1960-1970s, the world seems ready to begin making serious changes in response to problems that have not been getting any better. But has the world learned enough to craft a saner, more compassionate approach to drug use? This question is on the lips of politicians, policy makers, and reformers everywhere, as the consequences of repression—bloated bureaucracies and prison systems, spiraling cartel violence, abrogated civil liberties, millions addicted and millions more disenfranchised—have become larger than the problems they were put in place to solve.

Let's take a quick tour through the status quo.

Imagine your child is addicted to heroin. For some this is not imagination, but daunting, visceral reality. As you read this sentence, perhaps 30 million people worldwide are addicted to opiates, a figure equal to the population of Greater Tokyo, the world's largest city.

Knowing you will do anything to save that child's life, what are you facing? Despite tens of billions of tax dollars spent on combatting drug use every year, you can't run from the drug, because legal and illegal versions are everywhere, in your cities, in your schools, in your medicine cabinet, in every corner of society. If you want to get your child off the drug, you quickly find that treatment is prohibitively expensive, and subsidized treatment is in short supply and requires long waits. If you can find treatment, you soon learn that the few legal methods available are meant only to substitute a legal opiate for an illegal one, so now your child has a methadone addiction. In this case, the medical establishment's solution to addiction is more addiction. For other drugs, it blithely prescribes total abstinence, and a Twelve-Step program. The long term success rate of these treatments are less than 10%.

Imagine, in your desperate search to save your child, you come across ancient indigenous psychedelic plants like Ayahuasca, Iboga, or Peyote, that have shown to be remarkably safe and effective healing treatments for addiction. Imagine your confusion when you learn that they are illegal and classified as Schedule 1 substances, with a "high potential for addiction and no known medicinal properties." Imagine your anger when you investigate further and discover that pharmaceutical companies have known about these, but refuse to develop them as widespread treatments because curing addiction is less profitable than treating a chronic disease. Your child is a criminal for using drugs. and will continue to engage in criminal activity if he or she tries to end their addiction by these alternative means.

If your child continues his or her addiction, odds are that sooner rather than later they will run afoul of law enforcement and, without considerable financial resources (which also permits one to avoid many of the legal entrapments), will eventually end up in prison. Nearly 2 million people were arrested for drug offenses in the US last year while UK drug arrests totaled nearly 300,000. Drug arrests are so prevalent in our criminal justice milieu that in the United States, roughly half of its 2.5 million prisoners are incarcerated on nonviolent drug charges. The combined cost of the US/UK war on drugs, and their companion criminal justice systems, amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars, larger than the defense spending of most nations. Ironically, it nearly equals the annual revenue reaped by the global illicit drug trade, which the UN estimates at around $312 billion.

Now imagine that you discover that the heroin your child is addicted to is coming from Afghanistan, where your other child has been deployed. Your government is telling you it is occupying this country, and your child is risking his or her life, in part, to eradicate the heroin trade, yet you discover that every year since the invasion opium production increased. In fact, you soon discover that everywhere the US and UK have deployed to interdict the drug trade—Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico, Southeast Asia—drug production has increased. Despite forty years of a War on Drugs, there has been no appreciable decrease in either drug use or supply.

And imagine that your child comes home from his or her tour of duty,  and like most, is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. How surprised would you be to learn that MDMA, once maligned as "ecstasy" the dangerous "rave drug," is now being used to treat this terrible condition? Though still illegal, approved clinical trials on veterans are underway in the US, Israel, Jordan, and Switzerland.

All of this exists because of an international policy of prohibition, and this may be why 90% of all addicts never break free.

But of course not everyone is an addict. Drug use is an integral part of the human existence. Nearly every culture throughout history has had some form of chemical rite of passage because, as Carl Jung taught, we have an instinctual need or drive to transcend our consciousness, to relieve our state of being from suffering. In this pursuit billions consume legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco and prescription medication, and up to 250 million people worldwide will use some illicit drug at least once this year. That's just under the population of the United States, the world's third most populous nation.

In this bizarre universe alcohol and tobacco are legal, taxed, and regulated substances that easily kill more than half a million people every year in the US and UK, yet the most anyone ever does to try and stop their use is to put a warning label on the package. Meanwhile, cannabis, a relatively benign, medically effective plant, responsible for zero annual deaths, is classified by the governments of Britain and America as "highly addictive with no known medicinal applications." Despite these ominous warnings, millions use it, making it the largest cash crop in America, and sixteen states have legalized it for medicinal use. In the US, 1 in 34 children are taking addictive amphetamines to treat ADHD, at the same time, quietly in the background, US and EU politicians are trying to implement the CODEX Alimentarius, which will make natural vitamin supplements available only by prescription. 1 in 31 American adults are in the correctional system, and more African-American men will go to prison than college.

These paradoxes are at the heart of the hypocrisy and insanity that has characterized the American war on drugs, which it has been imposing on the world since the first international drug convention in the Hague in 1912, and continues today through the United Nations and NATO. It is hypocritical because prior to the 1912 Convention opium and other drug monopolies were legal and integral tools for colonial expansion, and subsequent to the Convention they became the purview of Western intelligence services, who used their proceeds to fund covert military operations around the world. These paradoxes are insane because they begin from the supposition that drug use can be wiped out like poverty or war, and whether or not that is a legitimate goal or merely a cover for other political machinations, its clear that all official positions on drug use run counter to human nature, and scientific reality.

There is a new movement afoot, however, to change all this. In just the last few years international drug policy has seen seismic shifts. In defiance of the old international conventions foisted by the US, countries like Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Canada, the Netherlands, Argentina, Mexico, and even the UK, have all decriminalized various levels of personal drug use. In the United States, the budget crisis facing the states has made their bloated prison systems no longer manageable, prompting Federal judges to order nonviolent offenders to be released. Acknowledging the role of the War on Drugs in expanding the national prison system, a bill has been introduced by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) to form a National Criminal Justice Commission, the first real attempt at prison reform since the late 1970s. For the first time in forty years the FDA is permitting the formal study of psychedelic medicine, and in November Californians will vote on whether to tax and regulate cannabis.

It is, by past standards, a sea change in public opinion, evidenced by the recent conference held by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which was widely covered in the mainstream media. Many believe this heralds a new age of professionalism and normalization in intellectual and spiritual inquiry. Even the most cynical and strident prohibitionists admit that the policies are likely to shift to accomodate new economic realities.

In policy circles we often refer to a Libertarian term, "Cognitive Liberty," as the freedom to learn, grow, operate, and heal through methods of one's choosing. In simpler terms, it means that someone, for example, can be free to employ whatever substances he or she chooses as part of one's intellectual, medical, or spiritual pursuits. If one wants to substitute marijuana for Ritalin, if one wishes to take ibogaine instead of methadone, if one wishes to take LSD or drink Ayahuasca with the Daime in pursuit of the Divine, is this not an inherent right? Cognitive Liberty implies that one has sovereignty over one's own body. On a larger meta-level, the prohibition struggle is merely one front in the ongoing war against all civil liberties that the US and UK are waging against their own citizens in the name of "security." At its most personal, it's about the freedom to make the most intimate choices and decisions about who and what we are. 

The system we face is entrenched beyond all reason. Despite their own exhaustive study of the illicit drug trade over the last 100 years, and their admissions that prohibition is ineffective, enforcement budgets are unsustainable, and the black market propagates the cartel violence infecting much of the world, the United Nations Office of Drug Control Policy's most recent position (in answer to the groundswell that has risen in favor of decriminalization) is that illicit drugs must remain illicit at all costs. Their reasoning: more people will do drugs if they are made legal.

This flimsy, dubious rationale, is the piece of gum holding the international drug conventions together, and it was spit from the mouth of American policymakers. Despite campaigning on a promise to reform the US approach to the drug war, end the emphasis on enforcement, and shift the focus to treatment and prevention, the Obama Administration's leaked 2011 Drug Control Strategy reveals it is virtually the same as the Bush Administration's, focusing on largely futile interdiction efforts as well as arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating extraordinary numbers of people, with a significantly smaller percentage earmarked for demand reduction. In the UK the War on Drugs continues despite being regarded as "phony" and "a failure" by virtually everyone.

When you get down to it, beneath all the pontificate moralizing on crime and drug use, the primary drivers of this issue are economic: money and jobs. Any significant shift in either drug control or criminal justice policy would invariably lead to politically unacceptable levels of unemployment. The US Criminal Justice system consumes $212 billion a year and employs 2.4 million people, more than America's two largest private employers, Wal-Mart and McDonald's, combined. It may economically behoove the US to tax and regulate cannabis, because marijuana users generally dont end up in prison, but it's a whole other story when we're talking about cocaine and heroin, which comprise the bulk of drug incarcerations (and which are central to our covert foreign policy). Just like military spending, any attempts to cut criminal justice or prison budgets is considered political suicide. This is because America's War on Drugs and its' prison empire were built upon a "tough on crime" political philosophy that emerged forty years ago in response to the social crises of the day. It has proven to be an intransigent ideology that now requires distorting the truth in order to maintain its own survival.

It is only through changing the cultural story behind this entrenched ideology that we will find a way beyond it, and that can only be achieved by humanizing the story. That is the intention of the openDemocracy Drug Policy Forum, which will frame the stories of drug policy and criminal justice reform, and bring the human arguments into the policy agenda. From the street corner to the poppy field, the Drug Policy Forum will rigorously examine existing policies and their alternatives, encourage collaboration in pursuit of common solutions, and debate with Prohibitionists and the prohibition-minded. The Forum will also showcase the in-depth testimonial videos of the "Unheard Voices" project, which will collect interviews of those most impacted by drug prohibition: the addicts, ex-offenders and other disenfranchised Americans and Britons, all as part of an ongoing dialogue that focuses on crafting a saner international drug policy.

Join us. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData