THE ENCOD BULLETIN ON DRUG POLICIES IN EUROPE
Blank stares, frightened faces. Those are what I’ve come to expect when I talk to a person who has never thought about drugs. Drugs, for most people, are so laden with taboo that the average person’s mind doesn’t move beyond ‘drugs are addictive’ or some other propagandised one-liner. Because of this, the conversations I am in usually takes the form of a speed date in which I present nuances to their (mis-)conceptions. I present information, ask how they think about it, find out what their frame of reference is and hopefully we’ll get to a point where we can talk about the laws currently in place. That part of the conversation then centers around the realisation that the laws make no sense in relation to the harms using drugs involves. There is a small celebration party with confetti in my head when I get to this place in the conversation. At least my conversation partner understands there is more to it. If I’m lucky I can manage to get to this point within two hours, after which I am quite content with what I’ve managed to accomplish in terms of widening someone’s perspective. I’ll let them go and am happy to change the subject.
The unfortunate thing about this type of conversation is that ‘the newby’ leaves the subject with the notion that it is just another injustice in the world, for a group of people that they don’t belong to, and that it has no direct relation to themselves. In general, our difficulty is that for most people, the issue is not relatable. For instance, in the Netherlands, 70% of the population wants to improve our current cannabis policies. Yet, the lack of feeling with the subject keeps our institutionalised black market running. Ideally, I would want the conversation to move towards this subject: how do current policies hamper, restrict and burden my conversation partner and society as a whole. What are they paying taxes for and what could be gained by just and effective policies? These issues I want to touch upon in this bulletin.
It won’t go into excruciating detail or present irrefutable evidence for the direction presented. I’m sure you know how to argue for most of the points. Yet I present them with society at large in mind; how does society and the people in it benefit from better policies even if they never have anything to do with drugs. Some points work for all different kinds of drugs, some points are applicable to specific drugs and specific use. Most points derive from the observation that 80 – 90% of people who use drugs are non-problematic users (Executive summary, xi) from whom society only stands to benefit.
No one likes to pay taxes. Anyone who pays taxes hopes his or her money is well spent. Current government spending in a prohibition market, on fighting offenders of the drug laws, does not seem to fit this category ‘well spent’. With a legally regulated market we can expect this spending to make more sense. This should sound good to any taxpayer.
First of all there is of course the spending on the police force. Add to that, that they are part of a larger system of lawyers and judges and the public prosecutor. In the Netherlands and Belgium judges sometimes rule court cases to be inadmissible due to the structure of the law. Some judges seem to be bored by the these cases and would rather work on something else. Their time is money too. A legally regulated market would also save spending on these officials or at least free their time for other work. The amount of time that comes available when everyone who works in this flawed system can do something effective seems enormous.
On the other side of the coin, businesses and organisations in a legally regulated market could be taxed, resulting in more income for the state which means more means are available to create solutions for society in other fields. To illustrate: According to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and European crime-fighting agency Europol,the annual global drugs trade is worth around $435 billion a year. It’s probably not a one to one conversion, but that is the kind of money that could become part of the regular economy. This taxable economic activity could sustain and contribute to the wealth of means that society has available to improve and grow itself.
Safety of drugs
In a legally regulated market the buyer, the seller ánd the product are safer. This means that fewer emergency services like ambulances need to be used, either for gang shootings, for accidental overdoses or for ingesting drug A while you think it’s drug B. Society now bears the costs of all this preventable harm. Safer drugs and a safer social environment in which to obtain them protects our youth. Legal regulation is a form of youth protection against bad social influences that we associate with illegal activities.
Patterns of use
This preliminary research suggests that alcohol use has gone down following cannabis legalisation. This too is beneficial for society as one would expect the costs associated with alcohol use to go down as well. When I see the destruction and litter that fills the streets on a normal Saturday night I can’t help thinking of the cost that need to be made to clean it all up again and fix that which was broken. If the amount of people suffering from illnesses associated with alcohol use would go down, this too would safe society a lot of healthcare costs that are now shared among us all. If the amount of people dying from alcohol use would go down, our loved ones would be around longer.
A healthy society depends on healthy people. There are promising indicators that show that quite a few drugs that are now illegal could be applied in the general healthcare services to alleviate problems that as of yet seem beyond our reach. Addiction, PTSD, Depression, End of life anxiety, and pain are the first ailments now being studied. The benefit for society will be quite dramatic if these conditions could be alleviated as they make up a large percentage of the conditions that people suffer from and need help with. That help not only costs money; having sufferers cured makes them able to contribute to society’s flourishing again as well.
Understanding the brain and mind
Scientific research into the nature of our consciousness is now limited. Mind altering substances have a serious role to play in this matter. This is because they can be used as research instruments. Instruments to investigate consciousness, by taking it apart. Compare it to fixing a radio. If you want to fix your radio or want to know how it works, the usual thing to do is to take it apart. You take out all the screws and open the case, then you continue and take out some more screws so that finally you have an overview of what it looks inside. By the relations that you see between components, you get a feel for how the machine works. Then you can put it back together. Scientific investigation in other fields works like this as well. It takes some object, be it plants, animals, rocks or fluids and they take it apart to see how it works. That’s how they found atoms. Analogous, in any psychology course on the human mind, the first thing you learn is that the most well established knowledge of how our mind works in relation to our brain is inspired by people who have had a part of their brain removed, due to accidents or illnesses. Their brain didn’t function normally and so researchers could see deeper into the relation between the brain and the mind. Mind altering substances have the ability to temporarily change how the brain works and thus could teach us a lot about the mind, without needing to use a scalpel or to depend on accidents. It has been suggested that the potential significance of LSD and other psychedelics for psychiatry and psychology is comparable to the value the microscope has for biology or the telescope has for astronomy. That is to say: an instrument to view, perceive and understand more about the universe we live in. An understanding of consciousness might not be on your daily shopping list of things to think about. But why not, actually? Everything you experience happens in that conscious awareness that you carry around. A more elaborate view of what it is, how you can direct it and how it can grow, how learning works and where ideas come from could be a valuable addition to your life, the lives of your loved ones and for humanity as a whole.
Improve trust in government
Public policy is not something only our own national government is involved in. There are about 200 countries in the world and also within countries there are lower level bodies like cities or states that develop public policy. This obvious observation points to the fact that different policy options are implemented with differing results. This is also true for drug policy. Some are more effective and just and some are less so. While this is common sense to you and me, political bodies seem to think that they need to invent the wheel themselves for every issue and thus will argue that what is working elsewhere is unrelated to the issue in our own country. This retort is seriously flawed, of course, as drugs don’t change their effects when they cross a border. The fact of the matter is that prohibition in relation to drugs is the least effective policy option available to governments and yet this is the norm world wide.
This unhealthy choice reduces the trust that is placed in government institutions. If better options are available, why not use them? Especially when governments protect extremely dangerous falsehoods that have become ingrained in law, it becomes difficult to take these laws and the people standing by them seriously. For instance, the fact that governments equate heroin to cannabis undermines their trustworthiness. It is important for a society to be able to trust it’s institutions as without it, society will fall apart and developing a way of living that benefits everyone is difficult to accomplish. If governments are so mistaken about the dangers of drugs, and the best way to regulate them, the question could be raised what other important issues they might be mistaken about.
Another thing to notice is that it is obvious that when one prohibits a market that has, as economist Milton Friedman said, a willing buyer and a willing seller, that the prohibited trade will give rise to a black market. The prohibition of drugs thus creates a black market. Winston Churchill knew it too. Prohibition does not diminish use, does not protect the health of people who use drugs and does not make streets safer. It does turn an otherwise self organizing market into an unregulated market. If you and I can understand this, and Winston Churchill can understand this, then our policy makers must be able to understand this as well, don’t you think?. The question then becomes: why would you want to create a black market? How does that benefit society?
To be sure: there will always be a black market in regulated goods. There is a black market in cigarettes, alcohol, ivory tusks, weapons, concert tickets, and I suppose in a lot of other goods or services one can conceive of. As long as the legally regulated market is balanced against the black market, the harm to society is minimised. In the case of the drug markets, the whole system is black with all the negative characteristics of it, and that is a government’s choice.
So again, the wealth of options available that would benefit society set against the actual choices of our governments makes people question their wisdom and their intentions, which is not a good thing for society as a whole.
The supply chain of XTC currently has a dark side. Because of the regulation against its components, producers have been looking for new components that can be used in the production process. They found it in the rainforests of Cambodia. There, the components that make up XTC are gathered by local gangs, who ‘guard’ the farmers who do the actual work, with guns. Both the people and the rainforest suffer under these conditions.
The supply chain of cocaine is way more dramatic. The amount of harm that is done to people, communities and the society is appalling.
Would we, as a society, create a legally regulated market, then this suffering would be reduced, which I think is a good incentive for doing it.
Legitimise art, creativity and innovative thinking
By legally regulating drugs a society acknowledges: there is a place for this within society and within reality. That statement would reduce the taboo on the act of using drugs and the act of altering one’s mind. Quite a few people would acknowledge an altered mind can be an inspiration for artistic expression, other forms of creativity and innovative thinking. Besides the fun this could lead to, I would like to state that new forms of thinking are essential for humanity. There are a lot of big problems in the world, like climate change, that require a lot of innovation and creativity on everyone’s part to solve. Legitimising what could be seen as catalysts for this sort of thinking might give humanity the leg up on changing it’s habits towards a sustainable way of living on this planet or any other one.
A strange request?
To sum up, I tried to show, in this bulletin, what drug-using societies could gain from legally regulating them. It has been and continues to be an exploration of the subject for me. What has become clearer for me is how irresponsible it is for a society to push a voluntary market into illegality. Society thereby creates negative influences for itself and for the actors in the excluded market. The 100% black market then becomes polluted by agents that take advantage of the lawless situation. They will eventually become the authorities of that market, not by democratic means, but by force. Society’s authorities and these black market authorities will clash and war ensues. Failing to balance the black market with a legally regulated market creates a totalitarian system outside the law. What could be more destructive, irresponsible, unjust and ineffective?
A drug free world is as delusional as a world without black markets. But the lawlessness of the current situation has me asking, begging, screaming even, for something I’d never thought I’d want: MORE LAWS! Laws that govern the market, protect customers, encourage producers and traders and ensures the quality of products. More laws, to develop a just and effective drug policy.
News from the secretariat:
We are currently at the CND. We are up for an interesting week with both a public presence to raise awareness of the issue for the people in and around Vienna, and an involvement during the CND itself. At the rally both Gaby and Enrico participated in the panel discussion on Cannabis.
Earlier on the 27th of february, Enrico had a speaking engagement. He presented on the Free and Equal election meeting in Italy. Free and equal is the main left wing coalition running in Italy, catering also to the runaways of the ruling Democratic Party. Enrico talked on behalf of ENCOD in Tuscany.
Our vice president Matthijs had a speaking engagement aswel. On the 25th of february he spoke at the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands about solutions that the Pirate Party offers, including their view on the transformation of current drug policies.
ENCOD is represented at the following events:
CND 12 – 16 March, Vienna