The infamous Nixon-era term ‘war on drugs’ personifies a set of policies that started to take root in the 1970’s which were aimed at discouraging the production, consumption and distribution of drugs in the U.S. While initial approaches actually led to a reduction of severity of punishments related to the possession of certain substances, in time ‘war on drugs’ became a synonym with ever harsher punishment for drug related offences, such as mandatory sentencing. However, the tough stance on the issue is a mixed blessing. The costs for combating drug trade in U.S. are rising year on year, yet according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse in U.S. the overall use of illicit drugs is growing and marijuana is leading the pack. The number of arrests for drug possession are steadily climbing too. Based on the Bureau of Justice statistics, around half of people serving time in federal prisons and sixteen per cent of state prisoners entered the correctional system of the U.S. for drug convictions. Even people who supported the initial hard-line approach of the program have acknowledged that the financial and human toll is too big and the tactics are ineffective.
On the other side of the pond we have Europe, a continent with highly variable drug policies. Punishments can depend on the type of drug and its quantity, and even under identical conditions can range from a stern warning from the police to incarceration for five years or more. Estimates always should be viewed with a dose of scepticism, but a recent joint EU-Europol study showed that the current EU drug market is worth at least 24bn EUR per year. To put this into perspective, if this money was directly appropriated, Greece would become debt-free in just under 15 years without spending an extra banknote or imposing any new budget cuts. All in all, money is being poured into programs dealing with the issue of drugs, but as any university student will attest, its laughably easy to get them.
Why is it that despite all the efforts to curb the flow and sales of illegal substances it has been such an uphill battle? The answer partly lies in our approach to dealing with illegal substances. Prohibition by its very nature is not an effective deterrent. Think back to the dry laws of 1919-1933 in the U.S. and several instances in Soviet Union. The overall consumption in certain instances actually went up and the bootleggers were more than happy to fill in the gap in the market with often sub par alcohol that lead to a rapid rise in deaths, particularly in the Soviet Union. A similar pattern is playing out in the drug markets. Despite the efforts stomp out the drug use in Europe, the costs are going up and the usage follows the same trend.
This is not to say that the programs have no effect or should be scrapped. Rather it should lead decision-makers to stop and truly contemplate if the current policies are the right ones in this day and age, but it certainly will not be easy. People tend to have deeply entrenched beliefs about drugs, no matter what particular substance is discussed, making it so much more difficult to soberly cover the topic. The umbrella term ‘drugs’ often invokes and unpleasant, uncomfortable reaction that can go as far as pure disgust. Those who smoke cannabis, for example, will often have labels put on them: lazy, unintelligent, jobless etc. Yet cigarettes, albeit same in principle, will be regarded simply as a bad habit. So the initial barrier lies in our language and it immediately creates hurdles that makes it so much more difficult to discuss the issue.
Looking at the experience of the continent it certainly seems that Europe has enough test-beds to learn a thing or two about what work and what doesn’t. Amsterdam has legalised the consumption of cannabis under certain conditions, such as sales in coffee shops involving small quantities. The Dutch have hit the nail on the head with their philosophy – hiding the problem does not get rid of it, but only makes it worse as there is no easy way to influence, control, or fix a situation if it goes underground. In a similar fashion, Portugal decriminalised low-level possession and use of all illicit drugs in 2001. While it is difficult to attribute all the positive changes to decriminalisation, there certainly was a notable decrease in both drug related deaths and cases of HIV.
The continued battle has also led to an unintended consequence – creation of legal highs. These substances, made from freely available but highly dubious compounds, keep showing up in the market and are sold freely until they are reclassified as illegal, but new compounds tend to fill the void quite quickly. This game of whack-a-mole has seen a rise of a few dozen compounds being created every year to an all time high of just over 100 new substances in 2014.
To put it bluntly, the current policies are not efficient and the decision making related to them is driven by fears, not actual facts or experience. It is treated as a punishable crime, not a health issue. Granted, this is not an ode to decriminalising all drugs, but a critical look at our current practices. Fighting something that we see as a danger to our society may sound like an appropriate response, but the impact of the approach on drug use is highly questionable. In that case, if we cannot defend our current stance towards drugs, we must find the courage to question it and adapt appropriately or we will continue to endlessly move in circles, chasing an unreachable goal of drug-free Europe.