By Jonathan Power
Not that long ago in Britain Sherlock Holmes could quite legally sit by the fire with his pipe and sniff cocaine. If friends wanted to join him they could, without fear of a police raid, smoke marijuana. Opium was used for those in unbearable pain and could be bought without a doctor’s prescription.
Historically, it is the British who have the worst record on drugs. When the British controlled India they became the largest drug trafficker the world has ever seen, transporting opium from India to China and forcing Chinese ports open so they could create addicts among the mass market of the poor.
These days, when it comes to alcohol and tobacco, in most societies the degree of control is subject to fierce debate. When it comes to drugs, banning them seems to be the majority conviction. But do we have our priorities right? In the U.S. hundreds of thousands of young black men languish behind bars for long sentences convicted of possessing quite small amounts of drugs. At long last President Barack Obama is having some success in ending this policy that shoots America in its own foot.
The leading cause of non-lethal health problems in Britain and the U.S. is alcohol, not drugs. “There is no other drug which is so damaging to so many different organs of the body,” writes Imperial College neuropsychopharmacology professor David Nutt in his book, Drugs Without Hot Air. In a study he made, alcohol came out top as the substance that causes the most severe damage. Heroin is a much lower second. Cocaine and methyl amphetamine are far lower down the league table than heroin. Tobacco comes next, followed by cannabis. Ecstasy rarely causes damage. Neither do LSD, khat, nor mushrooms.
In our hospitals one finds only small numbers who have overdosed on drugs. But the perpetuators and victims of car crashes pour through hospital doors and many are there because the drivers were intoxicated with alcohol. Our tax money often pays the bill. Smokers with cancer fill many hospital wards and we the people pay the billions of dollars it costs.
Nutt also points out that each year tobacco kills 5 million people across the world and alcohol 1.5 million. In comparison, illicit drugs kill 200,000.
Public education on smoking, bans on advertising, and increased taxes have seen the proportion of British people who smoke fall from 40 percent in 1978 to around 20 percent today. The same is true of other richer countries. Policies in developing nations are changing, too. Many African airlines have banned smoking.
Shouldn’t that be the way we treat drugs—making them legal but using every tool to cut down consumption? It is their illegality that has created the black market and the monster of drug gangs who intimidate whole societies, as in Mexico and Colombia, with their killing sprees and corruption of governments. Hundreds of thousands would no longer be incarcerated for a minor offense. Governments would receive large revenues from taxes on drugs, which they could use to pay for public health programs.
Alcohol in the U.S. today is legal. Prohibition in the 1920s was counterproductive. If you had money you could get alcohol and gangsters like Al Capone ruled the roost. By shutting down access to alcohol through legal channels, the new policies created a gap for organized criminal networks to fill. Prohibition ended in 1933, but you can argue today that alcohol is too cheap and too easily available.
How should we deal more effectively with freely available alcohol? In Sweden, even the smallest amount of alcohol is prohibited for drivers. In the U.K., taxes are being raised. A good idea would be to make drinkers and smokers pay their own hospital bills, even if they have insurance.
Under Obama marijuana consumption is now permitted for medical purposes. Even conservative Ireland, which still forbids abortion, permits some consumption of heroin as long as it is injected under medical supervision in so-called “shooting galleries.” Consumers know that this way they will get clean needles and immediate medical help in case of need.
Seven countries in Europe have shooting galleries, in addition to Australia and Canada. In Sydney, the policy has reduced the number of ambulance call-outs for overdoses by 80 percent. There is no evidence that these galleries increase the habit.
Unfortunately no country to my knowledge has a policy of providing pure heroin to anyone who walks in – usually consumers have to bring their own illegally-bought heroin off the street, and it can often be impure. This undermines the attempt to destroy the drug gangs who thrive on illegality. At last some countries are beginning to experiment with providing pure heroin to carefully selected addicts.
The so-called “war on drugs” should be called to a halt. As The Economist editorialized this month, “a ceasefire” is needed. The time is long overdue for a more sophisticated approach.
Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums Of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions Of Our Day.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]