Every war effort is sustained by propaganda. The war on drugs is no exception. The propaganda that motivates the war on drugs, especially in the U.S., rests on the idea that illegal drugs are unhealthy, and that therefore people must be prevented from using them. The influence of this conception of health in relation to drugs manifests in their prohibition, state attempts to deter people from violating the prohibition, and punishments given to those who violate the prohibition. Yet despite the idea’s popularity, it has led to a disastrous war on drugs that targets the wrong enemy with faulty weapons.
Each component of the strategy against drugs (prohibition, deterrence, punishment) has led to disastrous consequences. The prohibition of a wide range of drugs is the most well-funded manifestation of the idea that people must be prevented from using drugs. For example, the U.S. has spent at least $1 trillion over the last 40 years in an attempt to destroy the supply of drugs that millions of their citizens demand. This effort has failed, as the U.S. leads the world in drug use, with an increasing rate of illegal consumption.
The next step in most states’ anti-drug strategy is deterrence. Since state efforts to destroy drugs have been tremendous failures, states should determine that they need to attempt to convince their citizens not to experiment. Providing accurate information regarding the negative effects of drugs is extremely important, yet most information the government relies upon grossly exaggerates the negative effects of drugs in an attempt to make the deterrent factor more effective. This is prevalent in numerous examples of television anti-drug campaigns and the scientific studies they rely upon, such as one by Dr. George Ricaurte, published in 2002, which claimed that one hit of MDMA could cause Parkinson’s or death in primates. The study was retracted shortly after publication as it turned out the scientists had used extremely high doses of methamphetamine in their tests instead of MDMA. Despite this, Congress members quoted the study extensively, leading Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the Safety First Project of the Drug Policy Alliance, to claim that “[this] study looks like high-class ‘Reefer Madness.’ The government’s trying to scare the kids out of experimentation and into abstinence, and it just doesn’t work.”
Finally, the state drafts and enforces punishments for those who decide to do drugs regardless of all the deterrent efforts. These punishments are deeply flawed in three ways. Primarily, the logical basis of these punishments is that taking a substance that only harms you means you deserve to be punished so that you will stop doing said substance. These laws impede on an individual’s agency but are also tremendously ineffective at aiding individuals who may have addictions as a result of their drug use.
Additionally, these punishments disproportionately affect the most marginalized within society in numerous ways. For example, black people make up 13 per cent of the U.S. population, but 56 per cent of those incarcerated for drug-related crimes (and this has nothing to do with drug usage rates, as white people are more likely to use drugs and develop addictions than black people, according to a 2011 study from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.)
These ineffective and racist punishments also create a costly cycle that does nothing to stop the drug problem, but only adds to the prison problem. From 1973 (three years after the agreed-upon start of the “War on Drugs” in the U.S.) to 2009, the prison population has grown by 705 per cent. These typically unjust prison sentences are funded by tax payer dollars and have destroyed families and communities from the inside out.
Essentially, the policies that have emerged from the notion that people must be prevented from doing drugs are clearly ineffective. So, despite all of the ‘tough on drugs for your benefit’ rhetoric, it is astonishingly clear that drug-prohibiting states do not actually care about their citizens’ health as it pertains to drug use. If they did, they would drastically alter their anti-drug strategy instead of spending more money on the same things to get worse results.
Future drug policies should start from a refined conception of health in relation to drugs which seeks to ensure that people purchase and use drugs in the safest way possible, instead of banning them from doing so. This conception would treat citizens like autonomous adults instead of like children who are told what to do. This means that current policies regarding prohibition, deterrence, and punishment must be turned on their head.
Rather than prohibiting drugs, drugs should be legalized and distributed by the state to ensure that drugs are not dangerously laced; this would simultaneously destroy the income source criminal networks rely upon. Then, rather than harshly punishing those who use drugs, the state should offer rehabilitation and support to those who desire it. This has been the model in Portugal since all drugs were decriminalized in 2001, and it has resulted in reduced drug use and reduced rates of addiction to hard drugs, which have dropped by 50 per cent. Finally, rather than seeking to use exaggerated health effects to scare people away from using drugs, states should properly fund areas where people can learn how to use drugs safely. For example, safe injection sites in Vancouver have aided local drug users tremendously, as there have been no deaths on the site even though over 2 million people have used it in the last ten years.
While these examples are steps forward, it will take much more than a few minor reforms in a broken drug system to solve the ever- expanding problem. The way drugs are dealt with in society needs to be revolutionized. This must begin by reconceptualizing how policies should deal with health in relation to drugs.