A Glimpse of the World after the War on Drugs

Report and videos from the recent openDemocracy symposium, "After the War on Drugs: Envisioning a Post-Prohibition World."

Charles Shaw
4 October 2011

On September 16th and 17th at the Oxford House in London, openDemocracy, The Exile Nation Project, KnowDrugs.net, and the Tedworth Charitable Trust hosted a gathering of pioneering figureheads and reform organisations from the UK and US to discuss what happens after the war on drugs finally ends, and how to "envision a post prohibition world." The premise of this two-day symposium was articulated by several of the speakers including Caroline Lucas MP and addiction specialist Dr Axel Klein: After 40 years of failure, "no one can justifiably support prohibition."


Although the movement against drug prohibition has been small but vociferous over the forty years of the US-led "War on Drugs", in recent years the public consciousness has begin to shift notably. Driven by exploding rates of arrest and incarceration, economics and budget crises, and a changing culture that is much more knowledgable about the dangers of drug use, the era of "Just Say No" has given way to a new age of possibilities.

The preceding Wednesday, September 14th, UK-based CLEAR (Cannabis Law Reform) announced the findings of a study showing that £6.7billion a year could be saved in the UK economy alone if cannabis were to be properly regulated by the government instead of left for the criminal markets.That Sunday the Liberal Democrats voted overwhelmingly to explore decriminalisation of drugs

In the US, the California cannabis industry alone has estimated annual revenues of over $14 billion, making it the #1 cash crop, while the states network of medical dispensaries are providing a small (in percentage of revenue) but important example of what a regulated market could look like, posting $200 million in tax revenues in 2010.

These sorts of facts do not go unnoticed by those who shape policy. On May 30th, 2011 the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the most high-profile collection of upper-level current and former world leaders ever assembled, with a mission to change the way society deals with illicit drugs, announced jointly that the war on drugs has failed. Two weeks later, on June 17th, the War on Drugs officially turned 40, and was promptly met by an onslaught of hundreds of mainstream news stories all advocating for an end to Prohibition.

The underlying purpose for "After the War on Drugs: Envisioning a Post-Prohibition World" was to connect US drug reformers and academics like Ethan Nadelmann, Julie Holland, Charles Shaw, and Dimitri Mugianis, to leading UK activists, to share ideas and progress reports, and discuss the promises, problems and pitfalls of when Prohibition officially ends.

The American reformers stress the importance of last year's 46% showing in California's "tax & regulate" cannabis ballot initiative, Prop 19, and the rapidly expanding quasi-legal medical cannabis market as the spearheads for further change. In Europe, reformers such as Niamh Eastwood of the UK based drug and human rights organization, Release, draw heavily on the 10-year success of decriminalization policies in Portugal. In one decade, problematic or abusive drug use in Portugal--at one point the third worst crisis the country faced--has seen a massive decline, while the much-feared "explosion" in overall drug use was in actuality a paltry .03% "increase. Many of the predicted disastrous policy outcomes, such as Portugal becoming a haven for so-called "drug tourists" have not materialised. Soon Spain, Argentina, and even beleaguered Mexico followed suit, officially decriminalizing drug use and possession.

The war on drugs is lost and most UK politicians know it. Caroline Lucas' Green Party and the Liberal Democrats are moving to face the issue while the Tories and Labour are still (publicly) sticking their heads in the sand, even on the possibility for exploration of substantive policy change. It is well documented that before becoming Tory leader, David Cameron said it was time for "fresh thinking and a new approach" to drug policy. Now Party Leader and Prime Minster, Cameron has slipped back to the over-simplistic 'drugs are damaging' soundbite rhetoric that avoids any real issues.

In the face of such overwhelming evidence that Prohibition has failed, why does it appear to be such an ensconced policy? There are many possible answers, not the least of which is the entrenched nature of the economics. Prohibition is a multibillion dollar a year industry, employing millions; the US criminal justice system alone employs more Americans than Wal-Mart and Mc Donald's combined. There is no clear path of transition for all that money and all those jobs.

And perhaps the paradigm is more culturally ingrained than we care to admit. INPUD's (International Network of People who Use Drugs) Mat Southwell posited that it simply boils down to prejudice. It's no longer culturally acceptable to discriminate on the grounds of race, gender, or sexual orientation, so that leaves immigrants, drug users, addicts, and offenders. It has been argued that for capitalism to function properly it needs a "despised underclass" to make the most exploited workers feel a sense of superiority and inclusion. Drug users, addicts, and offenders now compose that "despised underclass" that is mostly disenfranchised, and receives little to no public compassion. It certainly begs the question, "If Prohibition is repealed, who's next?"

Damon Barrett from Harm Reduction International closed out his address at the symposium with a reminder that a post-prohibition world will be “fragile at first" but will quickly find equilibrium and assimilation. It will be a welcome fragility, certainly preferable to the brutality of the status quo. For maintaining the War on Drugs is and remains an ongoing crime against humanity.


Below you will find a collection of videos featuring all the presentations and panels from After the War on Drugs: Envisioning a Post-Prohibition World.

A three minute summary of the entire symposium.


Caroline Lucas MP speaking on the the way she would like to tackle drug problems in her constituency.


Mat Southwell, Project Manager of INPUD (International Network of People Who Use Drugs) discusses the "7 Pillars of Reform" for drug policy that could be put into practice today.


Law lecturer Charlotte Walsh's talk on how the Misuse of Drug's Act could be applied differently - to include alcohol and tobacco and to regulate all drugs properly.

Niamh Eastwood, Release’s Deputy Director and Head of Legal Services, looks at decriminalisation – explaining what the policy is and examining jurisdictions that have adopted it. She also looks at the harms associated with criminalisation of drug users in the UK and what the potential benefits of decriminalisation could be.

Release is a national centre of expertise on drugs and drug law – providing free and confidential specialist advice to the public and professionals. Release also campaigns for changes to UK drug policy to bring about a fairer and more compassionate legal framework to manage drug use in our society.

Dr Anna Waldstein received her Ph.D. in ecological and environmental anthropology from the University of Georgia, after earning a B.A. in medical anthropology from Hampshire College. She has done fieldwork on traditional medicine in Zimbabwe, Mexico and the United States and is currently studying cannabis and healing in the UK. Her areas of specialization include medical anthropology, ethnopharmacology, Mesoamerica and migration.

Filmed at the recent ‘After the war on drugs: envisioning a post prohibition world’ event this talk addresses what we can learn from other cultures and ancient times about a Post Prohibition World.

New York based Dr Julie Holland talks about her work with post traumatic stress disorder sufferers and MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Live videolink from New York filmed at the Envisioning a Post Prohibition World event organised by Know Drugs and Open Democracy.

Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the leading organisation in the United States promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. This talk was given live via Videolink from Santa Barbara, California at the Envisioning a Post Prohibition World Event in September 2011. It gives a perspective on drug reform from the US, particularly looking at Proposition 19 and the effect that is having on the American legislature and the American people. There is also discussion of parallel drug policy ‘progress’ in Europe.

Dr Axel Klein takes 18 minutes to explore some of the effects which ending Prohibition might have. Dr Klein is a specialist in addictive behaviour and a trustee of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

Damon Barrett talks about unintended negative consequences of lifting Prohibition – and particularly how those may affect children once the war on drugs is ended. He draws attention to the possible role multi-national corporations might play if they take over the supply of some drugs from criminal gangs.Damon is the senior human rights analyst at Harm Reduction Internatianal. He is a co-founder and project director of the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy and an editor of the International Journal on Human Rights and Drug Policy. He has recently published a book ‘Children of the Drug War’ – is a unique collection of original essays that investigates the impacts of the war on drugs on children, young people and their families. It is available for free download at http://www.childrenofthedrugwar.org

Charles Shaw, co-producer of the symposium and creator of The Exile Nation Project, shares the very moving personal story of his journey with drugs – and much more.

In a video produced by Charles Shaw, Carl Kerwick, CFO of Peace in Medicine Healing Center in Sebastopol, California, takes you on a guided tour of their flagship dispensary, and explains the pitfalls of attempting to operate such a business in the current political climate.

Complete list of presentations

  • Amanda Feilding, founder of the Beckley Foundation speaking on the Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform and the Global Commission on Drugs.
  • Special adress from Ethan Nadelmann, founder of Drug Policy Alliance via videolink
  • Screening of The Exile Nation Project and Q&A with the director Charles Shaw.
  • Caroline Lucas MP, Green Party  - Brighton and Hove, a new approach to drugs.
  • Mat Southwell, INPUD (International Network of People who Use Drugs) - The Seven Pillars of Reform - how Drug Policy and Practice could be Transformed Today
  • Charlotte Walsh, Law Lecturer - The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971: A meditation on untapped possibilties
  • Niamh Eastwood, Head of Legal Services and Deputy Director, Release - Decriminalisation of drugs: ending stigma and prohibition
  • Dr. Julie Holland - expert on street drugs and intoxication states Treating post traumatic stress disorder with ‘illegal drugs (via Videolink)
  • Anna Waldstein - Lecturer in Medical Anthropology and Ethnobotany, University of Kent -  Anthropological Insights for a Post-Prohibition World
  • Francis Wilkinson Former Chief Constable (retired) Policing in a Post Prohibition World
  • Charles Shaw -  Short film from a California medicinal cannabis dispensary 
  • Dr Axel Klein, Trustee, Transform Drug Policy Foundation & Lecturer in the Study of Addictive Behaviour -  Post Prohibition Scenarios.
  • Team Shulgin (Sasha & Ann Shulgin, Paul Daley, Tania Manning) The Shulgin Index and Shulgin Legacy Project.
  • Charles Shaw - author, film maker, journalist, openDemocracy / Exile Nation -  Living in the Exile Nation - Overcoming Second Class Citizenry
  • Damon Barrett, Senior Analyst: Human Rights, HRI (Harm Reduction International) - Children after the drug war’: Lessons in ‘unintended negative consequences
  • Screening of I'm Dangerous With Love with q&a with director, Michel Negraponte and main character Dimitri Mugianis [via videolink]. 
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