There was a time when the idea that the president of the United States would embrace gay marriage was highly improbable. Now that that’s happened, some are wondering if Obama will evolve on America’s drug prohibition, too. And a new report connecting drug prohibition to HIV/AIDS transmission may give Obama the public health argument he needs.
Just now, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include former Secretary of State George Shultz, Virgin entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson and several former presidents from around the world, issued a report stating that the ongoing war on drugs exacerbates the HIV/AIDS pandemic among intravenous drug users, with the sharing of dirty needles accounting for one-third of new HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa. Beyond oppressive drug laws that create barriers to medical treatment for infected users who might otherwise seek help but instead remain hidden, the massive amounts of incarcerated non-violent drug offenders also increase the risk of spreading HIV.
In the U.S., as many as 25% of those infected with the virus go to jail annually. It’s no wonder then that with a disproportionate amount of African Americans behind bars, they’re also showing higher-than-normal rates of infection.The report estimates that at the moment about 16 million people across the globe inject illegal drugs, and nearly one in five of them have HIV. Overall, the report claims that not only is the war on drugs a failure, but governments that refuse to seek alternative solutions are actively damaging the public’s health and compromising its safety.For example, despite an increase of more than 600% in the U.S. anti-drug budget since the 1980s, the price of heroin within the U.S. has dropped by an estimated 80% while within the same timeframe its purity has risen an astonishing 900%. With similar trends showing for cocaine and cannabis, those aren’t the directions any tough-on-drugs official wants to see those numbers heading. Furthermore, between 1980 to 2010 the worldwide supply of illegal opiates such as heroin, swelled from 1,000 metric tons to over 4,800 metric tons, while the price of heroin in Europe has decreased nearly 80% over the past couple decades.
Then there’s the death and violence. The report estimates that since 2006 more than 50,000 people have died as a result of the drug war in Mexico.
In a movie-like portrait of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel published in the New York Times Magazine a couple weeks back, author Patrick Radden Keefe illustrates how violence is an essential aspect of Central America’s robust drug industry. He notes the bulletproof vests and machine guns, the 49 mutilated bodies found by the side of a highway—not to mention the bodies dissolved in barrels of lye never to be found again. With so much destruction left in its wake, many of the article’s top comments wonder why America doesn’t just ditch the war on drugs already and take the legalization, taxation, and regulation route instead. Indeed, there seems to be an escalating push in this direction. Earlier this month, an article published in The Guardian speculated that a move toward legalizing pot could be Obama’s “secret weapon” come November, citing a Gallup poll that found a record-breaking 50% of Americans are in favor of making the drug legal. (A more recent poll has that number at 56%.) The article also mentions that, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), teens are now smoking more weed than cigarettes. That’s a first, too.
“We know that prohibition hasn’t worked in 40 years, and if we continue for another 40 years it’s still not going to work, so we need to change our strategy,” said Terry Nelson, a retired Customs and Border Protection supervisor and current spokesperson for the organization, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). “We need to accept the fact that we’ve done it wrong, cut our losses and cause a little less harm in the world than we’ve been causing. We’ve broken up more families with incarceration due to prohibition than drugs ever would have on their own.” As Nelson explains, LEAP views the whole drug problem as two separate issues: one is the criminal aspect; the other is health. While legalizing drugs would diminish the criminal element and subsequent violence, it does nothing to solve the health problems associated with drug abuse. LEAP believes the health issues related to drugs should be handled through education and treatment for those who’ve become addicted, much like the multiple campaigns that have led to a reduction in cigarette smoking. Plus, with fewer resources being spent to maintain prohibition, there’d be more to left over to invest in education. The Global Commission concurs, urging governments to adopt policies in favor of sterile syringe distribution, safer injection facilities and prescription heroin programs. In Canada, particularly in the province of British Columbia with its supervised injection center and heroin maintenance study, they’re doing just that. One figure shows that in 1996, before B.C. implemented any of these harm reduction measures, the province reported over 400 new cases of HIV attributed to drug injection. In 2010, that number was reduced to 50.
Donald MacPherson, Executive Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and a central figure in shaping Canada’s stance on drugs, says if 15 years ago he had announced that the war on drugs had failed, few would have listened.
Now, he gets several hits on Google Alerts everyday with articles and essays indicating what he’s argued all along.
MacPherson believes that some countries, such as the U.S., are slow to abandon the old approach. First, a nation can’t arrive at new solutions if they’re discouraged from discussing them; second, there’s vast bureaucratic infrastructure set up to fight the drug war, and perhaps even incentives to exaggerate the problem, which an administration can’t just dismantle and set in a new direction over the weekend.
“The irony is, the harder the war gets fought, the more secure your job is,” said MacPherson. “There’s a huge investment in the war on drugs that creates a lot of inertia and opposition to taking a public-health approach.”
It’s almost like a psychiatrist who wants her patients to remain sick so she can keep her current level of income instead of striving to excel at her job to the point where she can’t maintain clients because they’re being cured too quickly.
“We can begin to experiment with different ways of handling the issue, knowing it won’t be the end of the world,” said MacPherson, who, it should be noted, lives in a province whose top health official recently said ecstasy in its purest form can be safe for consumption. “Some people think that arguing for the legal regulation of drugs means we’re in favor of people doing drugs, when in fact we’re arguing for safety. It’s hard to get this argument across without someone accusing you of being pro-drug. It’s like, we acknowledge that people will speed in their automobile whether we like it or not, so we try to make automobiles as safe as possible. What we are is pro-safety.”
Despite the notion that legalizing drugs will cause a spike in drug users, one recent study found this simply wasn’t the case when it came to medical marijuana. (And besides, don’t most people in America these days know where to find some weed if they really want it?)
Of course, not everyone thinks drug legalization is a good idea. Anyone who has lost a friend or family member to an overdose, or witnessed someone they once knew slowly transform through chronic drug abuse into a belligerent stranger has surely, at one point or another, longed for a planet devoid of harmful substances. (If you haven’t, volunteer at your local homeless shelter or spend a weekend watching Intervention.) And don’t think marijuana is without its downsides, such as memory loss or the potential for psychosis.
Roger Morgan, Chairman of the Coalition for A Drug-Free California, thinks where the war on drugs went wrong is its focus on curtailing supply around the globe instead of demand at home, but that it’s not entirely a lost cause. He’s aware his position is slowly losing ground, and has been called a “fucking asshole” more times than he cares to remember. “What we need to do is prevent the problem from starting in the first place,” said Morgan, whose two stepchildren got so entrenched with drugs and out of control in their early teens that Morgan and his wife slept with bells on their bedroom door to warn them if someone was trying to break in to rob or attack them. “If people knew what drugs were doing to them, I think a lot fewer people would actually use drugs. The brain, for example, is not fully developed until age 25, or even later. You can’t win this war by only treating the wounded.” But is education enough to prevent people from ingesting harmful products—whether it’s cocaine, alcohol, tobacco, or a Big Mac—if, in the short term, it feels oh so good?
“People have always used mind-altering substances and they’re always going to,” said Nelson, a registered Republican. “Let’s try to talk them into not using drugs, but if they’re going to use then let’s try to keep them safe until they get old enough to realize they’re stupid and should stop.” (Photo: Thomas Marthinsen/ Flickr)