Thursday, January 26, 2012

Toward a sensible policy on prohibited drugs

"Do we stop fighting the war on death?" that was a quote from one of the three panelists during a seminar I attended this week on Drug Policy sponsored by the Institute for Liberal Studies. The speaker was comparing the struggle in the medical community to stave off disease and death, with the struggle by governments around the world called "the war on drugs." Don't worry if you don't see the analogy, I don't either. The quote was made during the Q & A near the end of the seminar after most in the room accepted that the war on drugs has failed. But the quote gets to the heart of who the first speaker was, a caring and concerned women, not an expert, but someone that has researched and written on the issue of prohibited drugs, and is convinced that legalization or loosening the rules, will increase drug use, addiction and crime. In the Canadian context, this woman espouses typical authoritarian Conservative values, and in fact she was a Conservative partisan for many years.

The second speaker was an expert, who has written on drug policy and is associated with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. While she was no libertarian on drug policy, her views are probably more in line with many Canadians. She admitted that the war on drugs has failed but was convinced "controls" needed to be in place, because of the risks to users. She was willing to consider legal regulation of certain drugs for the purposes of public health. Her goal was harm reduction.

The final speaker did have a libertarian view, again not an expert on drugs per se, but her efforts toward a doctorate in Latin American studies made it impossible for her to ignore the impact of the gang related drug warfare raging in that area. Victoria Henderson thinks that drug policy needs to be approached from a transnational view because that's how various authorities are prosecuting the war on drugs. Ms. Henderson pointed to the "balloon effect" in Latin American, where the US government has, alone or with help from local authorities tried to squelch drug production in say Peru or Bolivia, only to see production pop-up in Columbia like a balloon under pressure. Of course its primarily US drug consumption that funds the black market in drugs and the gang wars in Latin America. The simple fact that prices of illicit drugs have dropped while purity has increased, is testimony to the simple economics of supply and demand. Usage has increased while prices have dropped, meaning supply is plentiful and the restrictions imposed by governments don't work.
Ms. Henderson pointed to the Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy that begins with:
"The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed." It doesn't get much clearer than that, and they don't stop there. Their recommendations are equally blunt, starting with:
"End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others. Challenge rather than reinforce common misconceptions about drug markets, drug use and drug dependence." 
Practically a libertarian view, if only it were so simple. But as I indicated above, there are well meaning people that have diametrically opposing views.

But things might be changing. In recent weeks, the inappropriately named Liberal Party of Canada, has adopted a policy that involves legalizing marijuana. Not quite what was recommended by the Global Commission, but a move in the right direction. This is what might be called moving the Overton Window on the issue. Putting what was once unthinkable, into the realm of discussion, possibly at the next election. Nothing to get too excited about, but there is evidence from Portugal, here and here, that suggests decriminalization may have positive results, ammunition for future discussion.
Ms. Henderson displayed and described the horrific impact of the war on drugs in Latin America, tens of thousands willfully and accidentally (see video below) dead and she ended with this quote: "If you can't control drugs in a maximum-security prison, how can the government control drugs in a free society?" (Anthony Papa)

Guatemala, victim of the balloon effect in the war on drugs.

"I blame the war on drugs in the United States for what is happening here in Guatemala." -- Giancarlo Ibarguen

The graph above left, comes from Wikipedia on Substance Abuse: Legal drugs are not necessarily safer. A study in 2010 asked drug-harm experts to rank various illegal and legal drugs. Alcohol was found to be the most dangerous by far. The data comes from the UK, and may not be entirely transferable to North America. But even in the Global Commission report, alcohol is fourth behind heroin, cocaine and barbiturates, cannabis is tenth. Alcohol is not controlled in the same way, yet causes almost as much harm, more if you believe the UK graph above. On top of everything, there is hypocrisy in harm reduction and the war on drugs.


  1. Alcohol and drug addiction are diseases that progress through predictable stages. It takes a trained health professional, often a doctor specializing in addiction medicine, to make an accurate diagnosis and prescribe the most appropriate treatment, whether it be outpatient counseling or an inpatient alcohol and drug rehab.
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  2. The libertarian position on addictive drug and alcohol use is that it needs to be treated as a medical issue, not a criminal issue. So yes, it can be viewed as a "disease" and the harm is largely on the addict. However, it becomes a criminal issue if/when the rights of others are affected by the addict. Addicted or not, users of these substances are responsible for their actions if there is a victim. But use, possession and even distribution through voluntary exchange are NOT and should not be crimes where there is no victim.


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