Declare victory in the War on Drugs – then run like hell

October 29, 2012

By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

Wherever you look – radio and TV, novels, internet – history is all the rage these days. Perhaps a large part of the appeal is the nice warm feeling it gives us of being able to look down on the sheer madness and heartless cruelty of our own ancestors. What did they think they were doing back in the 16th century burning witches? Or 300 years later, locking up poor young girls for getting pregnant? Or sending men to jail simply for being homosexuals, as we did until the 1950s ?

History may seem to be nothing but a catalogue of human folly, but have you ever asked yourself what features of contemporary life will have our own descendants scratching their heads and asking themselves: how could they – meaning us, today – be so crazy?

My guess is that the feature of modern life that future generations will find hardest to understand will be our attitude to narcotics. The War on Drugs will look to them as mad as the Salem witch trials do to us today.

Of course, narcotics are mostly bad for you – in some cases, very bad indeed (though the authorities have been rather keen to exaggerate the risks, in some cases quite grotesquely). But then cigarettes are also very bad news, as we all know, and alcohol abuse does a lot of damage (more through its effect on people’s behaviour than anything it does to their internal organs), and under the kitchen sink there are bottles of stuff which could give you a serious high and an even more serious health problem. Yet cigarettes, alcohol, cleaning fluids and glue are not classed as illegal substances. Why does sanity prevail in these cases, but not for narcotics? After all, common sense tells us that we can’t ban something simply on the grounds that it is bad for our health – that is why we haven’t yet made deep-fried Mars bars or turkey twizzlers illegal – but what we call “drugs” are, for some reason, treated differently.

My own drug of choice is Scotch whisky, and I would be no more likely to use narcotics if they were legal than to eat a fried Mars bar – but I would also never presume to inflict my preferences on anyone else. If others wish to drink, smoke and watch TV eight hours a day, that is their right, and I fail to see why the list should not include their right to snort cocaine or inject heroin.

To those who object that high-risk behaviour and self-harm of one kind or another costs the NHS billions of pounds, I would simply say: if we think the cost to the NHS is prohibitive, then it is the NHS that must give way, because curtailing my freedom to run my own life as I see fit is a cost which is too high to bear. So much for the principles at stake. As far as the practicalities are concerned, the disastrous consequences of the criminalisation of narcotics have been obvious for decades. Just as happened in the 1920’s with liquor prohibition in the USA, current policies have thrown millions of otherwise law-abiding people into the arms of criminals, played a major part in spreading AIDS through the population, and forced addicts into prostitution and petty theft, or into becoming dealers themselves.

Internationally, the War on Drugs is nothing short of a global catastrophe. The drugs trade funds much of the world’s terrorism, and the policy of restricting the supply is plainly never going to work, because in places like Afghanistan poppy-growing is vastly more lucrative than any practical alternative. With America at the forefront of the War, the damage has been greatest in its own hemisphere, starting small, with the subversion of pinprick islands in the Caribbean, which were quickly turned into airstrips for the drug barons to use as staging posts. Then Columbia, a medium-sized middle-income country fell victim, with drug money funding a brutal civil war, and now Mexico is under occupation, with thousands of deaths a year in drug-related violence. Will the Americans wait till Texas and Southern California have been turned into a battle-ground too before they come to their senses?

It bears repeating that societies have lived and prospered for centuries without feeling the need to outlaw these substances. In Victorian times, laudanum was a common remedy for every ailment under the sun, even crying babies. Indeed, Britain went to war with China for the right to sell opium there. The result of this permissive attitude was that some people in both countries became addicts, just as some today are alcoholics.

When it finally comes, legalisation may mean that narcotics abuse becomes more widespread than alcoholism, but it will not necessarily be much harder to cope with – and of course the billions we currently spend on policing prohibition and dealing with the crime wave it causes will be available to spend on treating addicts. Here again, those who defend the status quo stubbornly insist on conflating the effect of drugs themselves with the effects of illegality. For example, the damage done by needle-sharing is entirely a result of criminalisation, as are the deaths caused when drugs are adulterated or of erratic quality, in the same way that the Prohibition era in America saw a wave of deaths and blindness from drinking moonshine.

What is so depressing today is that the criminalisation of narcotics is a topic which is as impossible to debate rationally as was witch-burning in the Middle Ages. In those days, anyone who spoke out against the wave of hysteria was accused of being on the side of Satan, and likewise today if you are against jailing junkies, it must be because you’re one yourself, or alternatively you’re on the side of the dealers (go figure!). Those who defend the current policy know full well that their position is too weak to stand up to rational examination.

Unfortunately, there is nothing politicians love better than a good war, which they always imagine will promote them overnight from hacks into statesmen (remember Jim Hacker in his Churchillian moments). The War on Drugs is a popular (and populist) policy because everyone knows that drugs are a Bad Thing.

But then so was Soviet Communism, so back in the 1960’s the urge to rescue Vietnam from the clutches of the evil empire was understandable. As with the War on Drugs, the cost was in the end far far too high – and as with the War on Drugs, it was mainly borne by innocent civilians, the collateral damage in the fighting between the two sides. Just as, back then, the ever-rising body count was mindlessly quoted as evidence that America was winning, so today the value of drug seizures is cited as proof we’re winning – it isn’t, and we aren’t.

In the end, reality will catch up. Just as the U.S. military was unable to deliver the victory the politicians demanded in Vietnam, the same is plainly happening now with drugs, as more and more senior policemen – the generals in this crazy war – are ready to tell their political masters the truth, that it’s all over, we’ve lost, and the proof is out there on the streets for all to see, where the price of many drugs is at rock-bottom levels.

Even if we call a halt to the madness tomorrow, it will take decades to recover, but the sooner we stop it, the better. There is only one possible solution, and it is the one which got America out of Vietnam (and will end up getting us out of Afghanistan): declare victory – and run like hell.

Image — Federal police officers escort suspect David Rosales Guzman alias “El Comandante Diablo” as he is presented to the media during a news conference at the federal police headquarters in Mexico City September 2, 2012. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see