The longer the war on drugs goes on, the more it resembles a political crusade against its own rotten legacy. When the “zero tolerance” approach produces high levels of drug use, a further “crackdown” is initiated. Record numbers of drug-induced deaths serve as rationale for doubling down on a status quo that is complicit in them.
The war on drugs is a failure. We know this. We’ve long known it. In fact, there is such an abundance of evidence for its failure that we have more certainty here than in most areas of policy.
Globally, the war on drugs has had little impact since it was launched by Richard Nixon in 1971, when he named drug use “public enemy number one”. By the time a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy was published in 2016, Nixon had been out of office for 42 years, and dead for 22. The report said that the banning of drugs had had “little or no impact” on drug use globally.
The war on drugs would probably have been halted years ago if it had the same impact in the rich world as it does in the poor one. As the investigative journalist Antony Loewenstein put it in his 2019 book Pills, Powder, and Smoke, the war on drugs “will never end until African, South American and Asian lives matter as much as white lives in the Western Heartland”.
Utopian urges often produce a mountain of corpses. Yet many still believe that an idealistic crusade to banish drugs will produce a different outcome; that the war is winnable. Hard-line prohibitionists echo history’s other fanatical idealists and argue that a real war on drugs has never been tried.
Meanwhile the bodies stack up. In Mexico alone there were 33,341 murders in 2018, many of them drug-related. As many as 27,000 people have been killed in the Philippines since 2016, the human cost of president Rodrigo Duterte’s savage drug war.
And for what? According to the International Drug Policy Consortium there was a 31 per cent global increase in drug taking between 2011 and 2016. In 2015 drug-related deaths reached 450,000 worldwide.
Nor should we forget the racist element to prohibition. Nixon himself blamed Jews for the popularity of marijuana in the counterculture of the 1960s. “Every one of the bastards that are out for legalising marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews?” he said.
Nixon was thrown out of office but the racist legacy of the war on drugs lives on. In the US, there is a drug arrest every 20 seconds, and Black and Latino people are disproportionately represented in state prison for drug offences, comprising nearly 60 per cent of the prison population. Some figures are even starker: in early 2018, 93 per cent of New Yorkers arrested for possession of cannabis were people of colour.
In recent years, US states have taken modest steps to bring about a more common-sense approach to drugs. Recreational marijuana is now legal in 19 states.
Yet here in Britain, politicians remain terrified of upsetting the curtain-twitching combatants of the drug war. We get announcements like this week’s 10-year drugs strategy from the government promising “tougher” action. Those in government who support a moralistic approach will probably see its futility once they leave office, succumbing to what the American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls “retirement wisdom”. They often do. But it is more than their political careers are worth to admit it.
In recent years there has been progress. Drug users have been recast as the victims of unscrupulous and malevolent dealers, rather than weak and depraved individuals. Yet the government still refuses to acknowledge it is prohibition that creates the army of pushers who supply them. It is because of prohibition that we now have “county lines”, a worrying phenomenon that is really just another consequence of a thriving black market.
Meanwhile, those who use drugs recreationally have been branded as “middle-class”, the go-to insult in these populist times. In a sinister twist even for a war that has ruined so many lives, the government has now threatened to remove the passports of “lifestyle drug users”.
At its core, the war on drugs is a destructive utopian endeavour. It is also a futile one: humans have always taken drugs. As Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and now chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, recently told the Observer: “The total elimination of drugs? Dream on, there’s never been a time in human history where human beings haven’t resorted to some kind of substances that will take them out of their current reality for whatever reason.”
It is impossible to suppress the demand for drugs. There will be no “drug-free future” – as then-president Donald Trump put it at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in 2018. This is true however many “crackdowns” are announced. A British government report from 2005 found that police must seize 60 to 80 percent of drugs in the country for there to be a tangible effect on drug flows. They had never achieved a seizure rate above 20 per cent.
Indeed, the government’s own independent review of drugs has stated that enforcement “crackdowns” have little sustained impact on overall drug supply, and that even if the police, Border Force and the National Crime Agency “were sufficiently resourced it is not clear that they would be able to bring about a sustained reduction in supply”.
Policymakers know where the scourge of drug addiction is really tackled: in rehabilitation. It is reassuring, therefore, to see that most of the money in the government’s latest announcement has been targeted here. But that is still addressing a symptom of the problem, rather than its root cause, which is prohibition.
It remains close to impossible to have a frank conversation about the tragic consequences of the war on drugs with proponents of “get tough” policies. “Do you want your children taking drugs?” they ask in self-righteous tones. “How would you like it if someone you loved died of a drug addiction?”
Yet all of this – and more – is a fact of life under prohibition. According to the Crime Survey England and Wales 2020, one in 11 people aged 16 to 59 report having used drugs in the past year, increasing to one in five people aged 16 to 24.
We need only look abroad to see how things could be different. In Portugal, where minor drug offences were decriminalised in 2000, drug-related deaths have fallen and are currently less than a tenth of the UK figure. As the Johns Hopkins-Lancet Commission of 2016 put it, Portugal’s enlightened policy has resulted in “significant financial savings, less incarceration, significant public health benefits and no significant increase in drug use”.
Those who want a fresh approach to drug policy are often wrongly accused of advocating a libertarian free-for-all. Ironically, that is what prevails under the black market in drugs, where criminal gangs make huge profits creating thousands of addicts and selling contaminated drugs.
And yet we remain wedded to a moralistic obsession with preventing people from putting mind-altering substances into their bodies. The ongoing drug war is the “bad trip” of policymaking – and it always comes with the mother of all comedowns.