By Peter Webster
Written in 2002
Substance Prohibition lingers on in our time like a waning intoxication which at its height seemed to provide such clarity of mind and certainty of purpose, but whose dreadful comedown is revealing that we have been mightily deceived. Throughout history, ‘Noble Experiments’ of prohibition intended to rid the world of the ‘immorality of intemperance’ and the ‘scourge of addiction’ have repeatedly failed, and our modern version of this folly has left us with overwhelming prison populations, a criminal industry whose proceeds comprise over ten percent of world trade, systems of justice and enforcement riding roughshod over basic human rights, general disrespect for law and government, and increasing use of the prohibited substances by younger and younger citizens. It becomes obvious yet once again that prohibition, logically analysed, does not ‘control’ drugs nor their use, but is an abandonment of control to black market forces.
The continued pursuit of prohibitionism today in a manner more fanatic and pernicious than ever before — the so-called ‘Drug War’ championed by the U.S.A. — is of major consequence to the very future of civilisation, yet curiously, a merely realistic stress on the importance of resolving the problem tends itself to sound like a fanaticism. Talk of ‘legalisation’ or ‘repealing prohibition’ has often placed one amongst the lunatic fringe of conspiracy theorists and alien abductees. The necessary hypotheses for rational debate have thus been a little-heard current in the media, and practically absent in the halls of government.
Reasons for this manifold dilemma make a fascinating study. The roots, facilitations and justifications for prohibition run deep into the fabric of modern civilisation. For example, there are numerous economic incentives for promoting prohibition as viable policy: the momentum of cash-flow involved with interdiction and its agencies, with prison-building, drug-testing, manufacture of Drug War materiel, forfeiture, and of course the billions in kickbacks and bribes and the use of prohibition by shady government operatives to raise anonymous cash. The situation is a major obstacle to any change of policy at the international level or in the leading prohibitionist nations such as the U.S.
In the realm of the psychology of prohibitionism, and beyond the obvious role that 19th Century ‘temperance mentality’ and Puritan morality have played, there is considerable evidence suggesting that prohibitionism may be a manifestation of instinctive xenophobia and expressed in today’s ultra-fanatical mode by default of other possible outlets for the drive. Prohibition may thus be a last remaining socially-approved vehicle facilitating the designation of an ‘out-group’ to be excluded from society. The irrational designation of out-groups has been a pervasive feature of human societies throughout history, and its roots can be found in the social practices of human ancestors, thus the suspicion that the trait is instinctive, or hard-wired into the brain, is unavoidable. The marginalization and exclusion of the poor and the inner-city and immigrant populations is particularly striking in U.S., and it is above all America’s ultra-prohibitionist drug laws which function as tools in this process.
Prohibition as a means of general control of society by conservative and religious fundamentalist elements is also an important factor. The ‘War on Drugs’ is seen in this analysis as a feature of the right-wing reactionary attempt to erase the very memory of the ‘Immoral Sixties,’ much as McCarthyism was a similarly-motivated movement to demonise and eliminate the last traces of the ‘Anti-American’ 1930s labour movements and populist philosophies.
Surely the reasons and mechanisms which allowed drug prohibition to become the world-wide fiasco it is today are many, and the roots of the prohibitionist attitude grow strongly from unexamined and obsolete assumptions and prejudices of our times as well from the stages of development of Western Civilisation. The question today is that as the philosophy of prohibition is finally exposed as bogus, as its goals are shown to be self-defeating in their pursuit, as it is revealed as one of the greatest crowd-madnesses of all time, at what point will the absurdity of our collective folly lead to a general abandonment of prohibition at national, and then international levels? We must finally realise that not only has Substance Prohibition failed to deliver the benefits it promised, but that it is the culprit we will eventually have to blame for the greater part of the problems we now attribute to the use of drugs.
Due to the threat posed by prohibitionism, responsibility for reversing it becomes the common duty of all. So how do we proceed? What will effective post-prohibition drug policy look like? Although there have been several scholarly books and papers published on the topic, it is obvious that after many decades of prohibition it will be no easy task to design and implement such policy. Thus it is perhaps impossible to say, and risky to recommend, for instance, that this or that drug simply be ‘legalised,’ or that the government — or industry — should undertake to supply any and all drugs that are in demand. We have a long way to go and must start from the most basic of considerations.
Drug policy must be changed incrementally. This is not to say that changes cannot be rapid or wide-ranging, but that thinking that a comprehensive policy on all aspects of the situation can be designed in advance, all-at-once, is unwise and may lead to great errors. The easiest and most necessary steps must be taken first. Along these lines, a general and absolute decriminalisation of all drug use and possession should be instituted, first in the nations already considering policy reform, and later world-wide, mandated by U.N. and international agreements.
Prohibition’s most destructive legacy flows perhaps from the widely-held but indefensible conviction that drug use, whether harmful to the user or not, merits any legal or judicial penalty whatsoever. Much leeway to allow and overlook casual exchange and small-scale sales of drugs will also be necessary until the issue of manufacture and supply of drugs is settled. These ideas have already been widely recommended, and at least partly implemented with some notable success in various countries in Europe.
Decriminalisation is certainly merited and when fully implemented will make possible for the first time much more accurate research concerning drug use, its harms and possible benefits. Drug users who are under absolutely no threat of penalty are obviously much more reliable as research subjects than those who fear reprisal for their chosen activities. Such research should be significantly funded and encouraged for it will surely provide much of the hard data needed to continue with reform in an effective manner.
Drug policy must be designed so that it recognises inevitabilities concerning all aspects of drug use, drug production, and supply. So, for example, it will be pointless to try to prevent people from growing their own cannabis and distributing it to friends, collecting magic mushrooms, buying the occasional ecstasy pill at party, etc. Whatever the prevailing moral views say about such activities, insofar as they attempt to interfere with the inevitable, they are useless as guides for constructing effective policy. Drug policy must on the contrary be pragmatic and attempt to guide the inevitable toward situations manifesting the least aggregate and individual harm and most collective benefit to society. As such, it is also pointless to pretend that drug use does not often have positive and even beneficial results when undertaken responsibly.
Drug policy may not legitimately have as a goal the minimisation or attempted overt discouragement of drug use. This may sound drastic, but when analysed fully, becomes obvious. The great majority of drug use today already is undertaken responsibly. Yet legal and medical authorities suffer from a certain illusion concerning the nature of drug use and the general characteristics of drug users because they uniformly see only the problem cases, and prohibitionary policy allows them to ignore even the fact that responsible drug use is possible and represents the norm.
Thus drug policy must recognise that the use of a given drug will find its own equilibrium in a society, and this equilibrium will depend on the balance between risk and benefit that people find in the use of the substance. Trying to convince people that ‘government knows best’ when it comes to such personal choices is counterproductive, and anti-democratic. Government and medical authorities may not transgress the line between education and coercion, between supplying all possible information concerning a drug and its use and attempting to use that information as propaganda designed to narrow the legitimate choices of citizens. Although such a view will be widely labelled as libertarian, in reality it is merely pragmatic.
Finally, perhaps I may suggest a Golden Rule for future drug policy. It is of obvious benefit to society that access to all drugs that present significant risks to the user should be regulated in one way or another. Drugs with greater potential for harmful use must be more closely regulated. How shall we know whether such regulation achieves its goals? Here is a simple rule-of-thumb: Every individual drug, according to its assessed dangers, shall be subject to a regulatory scheme as restrictive as seems merited, yet not so restrictive as to produce a significant black market in the substance. Once a significant illicit trade in a substance appears, we can be sure that regulatory policy is a failure and bound to contribute to, rather than minimise the harms of the commerce and use of that substance. The appearance of the black market will be the litmus test for policy. More than any other single indicator, today’s black market in prohibited substances demonstrates the bankruptcy of our present drug policies.
“Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” (came into force in 1987, ratified by the United States in 1994). Article 2, section 2 of the Convention states: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”Republish