Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (6)

Medicine and Recreation

To feel better, take a pill.

That’s the logic behind use of drugs for recreation; and it’s exactly the same logic behind too much modern medicine.

The difference is this. If a person decides of their own volition to take a pill – or smoke a joint or inject something or whatever – to make themselves feel good, then they are a depraved criminal fit for punishment. If they take a pill to make themselves feel good because an authority figure in a white coat tells them to, they are a good and responsible citizen; in fact they are bad if they fail to “comply” and don’t take the pill.

I’m not saying that there is no difference between medicinal and recreational use of drugs. Obviously there is, and obviously there is a role for health professionals.

The problem is that these different things lie along a spectrum of use, and frequently involve the same substances; and yet our current legal structures creates an artificial divorce between them.

Historically, most recreational drugs have had a medical application: opium, marijuana, LSD, and so on. Similarly, many medical prescription drugs are commonly used for “recreational” purposes, whether licitly or illicitly.

The structure of current medical use of drugs is intended to manage their use so as to limit their harmful effects. This is never more than partially successful, as very few patients actually follow their doctor’s orders in taking medicine. Doctors are well aware of this fact. There are countless people who are addicted to prescription medicines, and who take them in ways that are just as harmful as any illicit drugs; the death of Michael Jackson is proof enough of this.

The more fundamental problem, I believe, is that by creating a very effective aura of authority, the medical establishment contributes to a culture that fervently believes that taking pills is a solution to problems, and leads to happiness. I believe there is a flow-on effect from this pill-positive tendency in modern medicine to cultural attitudes around drugs at large. In this way, I believe that modern medicine contributes to the drug problem both directly – by making massive amounts of drugs available to addicts – and indirectly, by conditioning society to seek solutions in pills.

Any effective approach to addressing the drugs issue has to start with the understanding that there are three areas of concern: medical drugs, legal recreational drugs (alcohol, tobacco), and illegal recreational drugs. These are currently treated as virtually independent issues, with clear-cut divisions in law and social attitudes. But in reality they are part of the same issue, the same fundamental principle that by putting some mind-altering chemical in our body we can be happy.

As long as we insist on separating them into watertight, radically opposed categories, we are going to avoid noticing the harm that is caused by the legal substances, and will exaggerate the harm caused by the illegal ones, and our policies will be unbalanced, hypocritical, and ineffective.

The rational response to this, in the fields of both mental and physical health, is to move away from a pill-centric approach to a holistic one. Treat the whole person, not the disease. Pills have their uses, but doctors should be more cautious in prescribing them, and should whenever possible seek alternatives. This approach is especially relevant in mental health, where mindfulness-based therapies have proven to be more effective than drugs in dealing with a range of problems, including depression.

Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (5)

The Experience of Pleasure

Drugs feel good, there’s no denying. Human beings are primed and polished pleasure-seeking devices, and if we can get a hit, we will. In all the discussion on the legality of drugs, their role and harm they cause in society, there is a resonant, echoing, and very revealing avoidance of this fundamental fact.

A recent article in Crikey drew attention to this, saying, ‘Telling people that all illegal drugs are totally bad is not only patronising and paternalistic, but implausible in terms of those users’ own lived experience.’

So, full disclosure: I’ve used drugs. I smoked pot on a fairly regular basis, maybe a few times a week on average, for 7 or 8 years. During this time I was also drinking, occasionally in excess. In addition I used other drugs, although I never used any of them more than two or three times at most, and never in large doses: ecstacy, LSD, mescaline, amphetamines, heroin, opium, mushrooms.

I never had any problem getting drugs that I wanted. In fact, I hardly never went out of my way to get any, they were just around. I never had much money, but there always seemed to be enough to buy some pot. Except for the odd occasion, I never felt like I wanted more. Nor did I feel like smoking was an problem. I never had any run-ins with the law, even though we commonly smoked in public, in pubs, or coffee shops. Once I was at a party and some police arrived. Some guys threw a bag of pot on the BBQ, and the cops said, ‘You didn’t have to do that. We just wanted you to turn the music down.’ When I went to Thailand, drugs stopped being around and I stopped smoking and drinking, without missing it or craving at all. But of course, my life was soon filled with something much better: meditation.

I never smoked tobacco: hated the stuff, even a bit in a joint would give me headaches. I learnt early on at school about the irrationality of rules against drugs. My friends were having a ciggie and I was sitting chatting with them – everyone knew I never smoked. We got busted, and despite our protests the teachers refused to believe that I was not smoking and I was punished along with the rest.

So my main experience with drugs is pot and drink, often together. I’d like to give a few reflections about what, in retrospect, these experiences meant.

When you smoke pot, there’s an instant hit, a gentle glow of pleasure in the body. Your head gets lifted out of itself, and the concerns of life recede. At the same time there is a feeling of connection, of harmlessness and friendliness. Smoking is usually a communal activity. But even though it brings friends together, in the experience each one gets further out on their own trip. You can be laughing hilariously at something silly, but then just withdraw into watching a crack in the wall.

As a muso, I would normally find a guitar and start improvising. You get right into it, focused on every note, which sounds amazing – at least to stoned people. To others it sounds like aimless doodles. Actually, there’s a shift in relation to time: questions of form and structure become meaningless, and all that matters is the flow of notes happening in the present moment, the sheer sensual sound of it.

In all my years smoking, I never had any significant negative side effects, even after smoking a lot: a little groggy in the morning, perhaps, sometimes a mild paranoia (this can be strong in some people). In my experience, this contrasts strongly with alcohol, with its hangovers and vomiting; and in my case, tobacco, which gave me instant nausea and headaches.

This is my actual embodied experience, and I suspect many people have similar stories. It is one thing for scientific studies to lay out statistics and predictions, such-and-such a percentage of people will get lung cancer if they smoke x quantity of pot for a period of y years. But this is only one realm of discourse, an academic, disembodied, abstract notion of truth. The whole point of drugs is to get you here, into this body and experiencing this truth. And here, these things do not exist. In my own body, pot has no noticeable side effects, but alcohol and tobacco are clearly toxic. My body doesn’t like them and tells me so by becoming sick.

So you can come along with all your statistics and studies and try to prove to me that somehow your straight world has got it right: ciggies and drink are fine, but pot is of the devil. My own body – and the bodies of my friends – tells me otherwise. There is a culture of knowledge among drug users – not scientifically validated, but informed by countless occasions of actually using the stuff. Who is to say that a limited, randomized study of a few people in an abstract, artificial setting is inherently a better source of knowledge than the accumulated wisdom of an entire culture? For us, it is not a matter of establishing a valid experiment so that we can get our paper published in a journal, but a matter of life and death. We’re actually putting the stuff in our veins. It’s part of our life, who we are and how we define ourselves.

This is not to say that users will ignore science. Not true: we were very interested in it. It’s just that in the living of it, science is just another set of opinions, which does not displace our own lived experience. It’s apparent from the science, as I have shown in previous posts, that drugs cause harm, but also that there is no particular justification for asserting that illicit drugs cause more harm than licit ones. The science is ambivalent, and will be read accordingly.

In my years of using drugs, associating with musos, artists, and the like, almost everyone used drugs. I’d have to think hard to find anyone who never used drugs at all. Of course people would vary, some just didn’t like them, some used them a lot. None of these were evil or depraved. They were kind, harmless, creative, and intelligent people, who thought deeply about their lives, and who genuinely wanted to do good in this world.

I would have to say that, contrary to the straight world’s fantasy of wastrel addicts, most of us used drugs fairly responsibly most of the time. This is like when people drink, they will usually know when they must restrict themselves to one or two drinks, and when it’s okay to let go and get really drunk. Not all the time, obviously, but by and large. When you’re smoking pot, the hit comes on instantly, so it’s pretty easy to judge how much you want to have.

In all that time I never knew any addicts, or anyone whose life was ‘destroyed’ by drugs. I knew of some addicts indirectly, friends of friends, but no-one I normally hung out with. For sure, using drugs has a lot of negative effects, it saps energy and you just end up wasting a lot of time. But this is a long way from the stereotype of the wasted addict lying in a gutter. It happens, of course: I’ve seen a lot of people lying in the gutter on drugs, some of them drinking meths. I’m just saying it is not the norm, and it had no connection with my own experience of drug use.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I did know a few people whose lives were pretty devastated by drugs. But for them, while they did use other substances, the real killer was alcohol.

Why did we do it? We were young. We wanted to be different, independent. We thought we knew it all. We did it because it was outlawed, taboo. While this might sound strange, I think it is true to say that for us taking drugs was a moral choice. Not a wise moral choice, but a choice nevertheless. By taking our stand against the straight society, by actually ‘incorporating’ taboo, illicit substances in our own blood, we defined ourselves against ‘them’. We affirmed our own right to take control of our bodies, to make our own choices, to seek pleasure in our own way. Even to make our own mistakes.

And making mistakes is one way of finding your path. If you don’t have a map, you can either follow what everyone else is doing – even if you know it’s not going where you want – or you can strike out on your own. Sure, you’ll get lost, take wrong turns, end up in blind alleys. And some will die along the way. But sooner or later you’ll hit it.

And this is what happened to me, and several of my friends. We discovered Buddhism. Slowly, messily, dangerously, but we got there. This is not an isolated phenomenon. As is well known, the modern Western interest in Buddhism grew out of the hippy counterculture of the 60s, with its fascination with ‘Eastern’ mysticism. The experimenting with drugs, while it left a lot of wreckage, had some positive outcomes, namely, the modern flourishing of meditation in the West.

It is essential to understand this, as it underpins our attitudes to drug policy. The prohibitionists would have us return to an imagined 50s, when drugs were even more marginalized (whether or not this was actually the case is another matter). The problem is that this ignores the social forces that led to the widespread experimentation with drugs in the first place. There was a genuine movement towards a Higher Consciousness – we all heard it in the Beatles’ music; and their trip to India to do TM was a defining moment. This was not just a hedonistic indulgence: some of the people from that era, notably George Harrison, became genuinely interested in meditation and mystic spirituality, and continued to promote that in a positive way for many years.

The problem with the hippys was, I think, clearly analyzed by Ken Wilber, based on his pre/trans fallacy. He argued that within the hippy movement there was both a genuine yearning for a Higher Consciousness, a disenchantment with the means and methods of rational science whose ultimate gift was the atomic bomb; and a base hedonistic indulgence. These tendencies would be differently present in each person. However they were all united in their rejection of rational thought, and so were unable to distinguish between what was genuinely transformative and what was mere indulgence. This fracture line continued into American Buddhism, where it resulted in the well-known drugs-and-sex scandals that rocked several of the formative communities.

This historical process is not just my own experience, not just the experience of Western Buddhism as a whole, but is the experience that lies at the very roots of meditation in history. Meditation is a specifically Indian invention which evolved from the pre-existing religious and shamanic practices. One of these was the ritual consumption of a drug called soma. The identity and effects of soma are debated, but there is little doubt that it was a mind-altering substance of some sort, which would have contributed to the ecstatic trances of the ancient rishis. Together with the rituals, it stimulated the rishis to ‘envision’ inspired verses, just as artistic creativity today is often fueled by drugs. Today we call these verses the Ṛg Veda, one of the earliest and most magnificent cultural products of humanity.

The Vedas frequently lament the ‘death of soma’, which is often interpreted as a cultural memory of the time the ancient Āryans moved into India, where their former drug of choice was no longer available. This may be so, but it may also record a more subtle memory: the disillusionment and disenchantment with the drug experience, as with repeated use the drugs just don’t get you there any more. In any case, with the decline of the soma, the ascetics turned to other forms of spiritual stimulus – physical mortification, ecstatic ritual incantation, and ultimately meditation. This progress is recorded in the history of our meditation words: the Pali word jhāna is from the Vedic root dhī, which was the drug-inspired ‘envisioning’ of the sacred texts.

I am not making the argument that drug experience is an essential ‘gateway’ to meditation. That would be as ridiculous as the argument that pot is a ‘gateway’ to harder drugs. Remember the simile of the journey: if you don’t have a good map, you take a lot of byways first. if you do have a good map – the eightfold path – then you just walk it.

I am, however, making the argument that drug use is not solely an expression and cause of humanity’s lower instincts, but is also an expression, albeit confused, of a yearning for a higher, less constricted form of consciousness. I agree with Jung that the desire to become more conscious is humanity’s strongest motivation. If we want to formulate an effective drug policy we must stop misrepresenting drug users and drug usage as an entirely negative force. Nothing is. It has its good and bad sides. The more we try to repress it, the more we create divisions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and the more we confirm the belief of young people that the straight world just doesn’t get it.

In the discourse on drug use, the reality that the drug culture has had positive results, though it is plain to see, is systematically ignored, as it might ‘send the wrong message’. But the ‘wrong message’, which young people see with brutal clarity, is the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the straight world’s take on drugs. We knew very well that these things were not the demons they were painted as, and laughed outright at the absurd propoganda.

An effective policy must start by sending the ‘right message’: people who choose to take drugs are human beings with inherent wisdom and the capacity to make moral choices. As a society we should act with them, in respectful consultation and dialogue with users, who have the greatest investment in the issue. We should recognize that drug use has serious negative consequences, and out of compassion we should regulate its use in order to minimize harm, as we do with alcohol and tobacco.

At the same time we should go beyond mere management, and recognize that drug use is, in part, an expression of a genuine spiritual yearning. History has shown, time and time again, that this yearning will not be fulfilled through drugs, and the result will be either a downward spiral or stopping usage. The actual means to this transcendence is meditation, or comparable contemplative practices in different religious or secular contexts. Meditation is not, by itself, the solution to our drug problems. Nor are all drug users seriously interested in higher consciousness. Nevertheless, a significant number of them are. And rather than treat them like criminals, why not show them the real path to find what they’re seeking?

Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (4)

History Lessons

If you don’t learn from history, you’re doomed to repeat it.

So they say – but I don’t believe them. History is too complex and variable, and susceptible to too many readings. The choices we make now are different, and so they should be.

There’s no sense in trying to avoid repeating history, because that is simply not possible. Instead, we should study history in order to inform our understanding of where we come from and where we’re going.

Like any history, the story of drugs is complex and will depend on who is telling it. There’s a lot of information out there, and I won’t even attempt to make a coherent history. But I think it is essential to bear a few things in mind.

There is little evidence that drug use was widely prohibited before the modern era. In Buddhist history, for example, we find plenty of morality tales that illustrate the bad effects of intoxication, especially alcohol. A good example of this kind of story is the Samuddavanija Jātaka, which we featured here a few weeks ago. In addition, we find restrictions on alcohol consumption. I believe sales of alcohol are restricted on uposatha (poya, wan phra) days in Thailand and Sri Lanka – perhaps someone can supply us with some more information on this. I believe such restrictions have a historical basis, although again I am not sure of the details. In any case, I have certainly come across no evidence that drug use was ever prohibited in any Buddhist country before the modern era.

In modern Buddhist countries, we see a wide divergence, from Singapore which has a very strict anti-drugs policy and, at least according to the official figures, very little usage, to Thailand and Burma, which are global centers of drug production and trafficking, and in the case of Thailand, also of drug tourism.

The point I am making here is that current drug policy does not stem from history, but from 20th century developments in the drug trade and in attitudes towards drugs. It is a historical phenomenon, not a natural state of society, and like all historical phenomena it is contradictory, paradoxical, and we can draw from it what lessons we like.

The modern attitudes to opium and its derivatives, for example, are traceable to a San Francisco ordinance which banned the smoking of opium in opium dens in 1875. The reason cited was “many women and young girls, as well as young men of respectable family, were being induced to visit the Chinese opium-smoking dens, where they were ruined morally and otherwise.” Meanwhile, the medicinal opiate laudanum, which was popular among respectable white folks, remained legal. For many years, and probably to some degree today especially in Australia, the drug trade was linked in the popular imagination with Asian, especially Chinese, who were seen as depraved, immoral sensualists.

The reality was that opium, although historically used for medicine in China, was promoted on a wide scale by the English. They grew opium in India, and created a massive export program to China, with the result that some 2 million Chinese became regular users, prompting the infamous ‘Opium Wars’.

It was not the mere presence of the substance that caused the problem. Opium had been used for centuries, since it has genuine medicinal applications. It was not until there was a change in the culture and society, and in particular the intervention of an unethical commercial entity, the East India Trading Company, which actively promoted opium as a recreational drug, that the problems arose.

These problems were deeply interwoven with international politics, race, and profits. It is plausible to suppose that the English promoted opium for the purpose of weakening Chinese society; at the very least, there was less ethical concern for ‘them’ than for ‘us’. But since the boundaries between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are never absolute, the problem comes back.

Chinese laborers came in their thousands to the US, where they helped build some of America’s greatest infrastructure, including the railways. Some Chinese brought with them their now-preferred drug of relaxation, opium. As long as they consumed it themselves, no-one cared. But when girls and men ‘of respectable family’ started to join in, laws were required to keep them away. Obviously a major concern here was not the drug itself – since laudanum is effectively identical – but the disturbing possibility of drug-affected ‘girls of respectable families’ having half-Chinese children.

Such racist concerns were also prominent in the criminalization of Cannabis. This was associated in the US with the Mexican workers, who, like the Chinese with opium, used it as their preferred chill-out drug after a hard day’s work building America on a minuscule wage. As with the chinese, the Mexicans were caught up in a wider commercial dispute, this time about whether hemp would become a major cash crop in the US. A lack of scientific evidence did not prevent the widespread use of shrill, ludicrous condemnations of cannabis, the ‘Killer Drug’. the raves of the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, are amusing today – but our current drug policies are the direct descendant of his way of thinking.

By the tons it is coming into this country — the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms…. Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him….

There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.

Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.

There is, of course, no link between cannabis and violence, unlike the case of alcohol and some other illegal drugs such as PCPs.

The period when drugs were coming under legislative control was also the period of the notorious prohibition era, which in the US lasted from 1919 to 1933. The moralistic effort to control alcoholism by making alcohol illegal was a drastic failure. There’s a wide range of contemporary comments and statistics available on this page. In addition to having little or no long-term effect on alcohol consumption, it promoted the formation of organized crime, and a widespread disrespect for the government.

The link between drugs and music is an important one, and moved into the mainstream in the 60s. That was the time when pro-drug messages, endorsed by progressive intellectuals like Timothy Leary, became an intrinsic and overt part of pop music. And along with it, the much more widespread adoption of drugs among young people, no longer defined by their race, but by the antipathy to straight society. Enter the hippys.

From the sixties, while illicit drugs were subject to an ever-stricter legislative environment, the international drug trade really took off. What had changed was the culture, which now presented a romanticized view of drugs as a source of creativity and an exotic, physical pleasure that the straight world was afraid of. This view of drugs is, of course, as distorted as the earlier straight view. Drugs may have helped some creative artists, but they sure destroyed a lot, too. The pleasures of drug use soon enough turn out to be limited, and ultimately boring. The increase in drug use was not because of a liberalization of policy, but because of broader cultural shifts, which flourished despite – and no doubt to some extent, because of – the broader social and legal opposition.

With changing social attitudes, there have been widespread calls for a revision in approaches to drug policy. These calls have spread from the radicals, so that now, for example, several national leaders and prominent intellectuals in South America have called for a complete rethink of our policies on drugs.

Many countries have moved towards a greater liberalization of drug laws, including Australia, the US, Portugal, and most famously, the Netherlands. The Dutch experience is often referred to as an example of what happens when drugs are legalized, although technically the policy is of tolerance rather than legalization. So what happens when you set up ‘coffee shops’ where people can use cannabis in a de facto legal setting? Here’s some data from Wikipedia:

In the Netherlands 9.5% of young adults (aged 15–34) consume soft drugs once a month, comparable to the level of Finland (8%), Latvia (9,7%) and Norway (9.6%) and less than in the UK (13.8%), Germany (11,9%), Czech Republic (19,3%), Denmark (13,3%), Spain (18.8%), France (16,7%), Slovakia (14,7%) and Italy (20,9%) but higher than in Bulgaria (4,4%), Sweden (4,8%), Poland (5,3%) or Greece (3,2%). The monthly prevalence of drugs other than cannabis among young people (15-24) was 4% in 2004, that was above the average (3%) of 15 compared countries in EU. However, seemingly few transcend to becoming problem drug users (0.30%), well below the average (0.52%) of the same compared countries. The reported number of deaths linked to the use of drugs in the Netherlands, as a proportion of the entire population, is together with Poland, France, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic the lowest of the EU.

So the Dutch experience does not support the idea that making drugs available will inevitably lead to major increases of use. There are still issues, and the situation is under constant scrutiny. There are concerns over the increase in ‘skunk’, a super-strong form of cannabis. But, it should be noted, this arises because the Dutch government has not legalized the supply side of the trade, but prefers to turn a blind eye. If the production and supply of drugs were legalized, then it would be possible to control the strength of drugs to a much greater degree, as is done with alcohol.

To end this little survey, I would return to the caution I expressed at the start. We can’t draw any straightforward conclusions from history, because the present is different. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the driving force in making drugs widespread and problematic is not because of their mere availability, but because of other political, economic, and cultural forces. This means that the effect of legalizing drugs will be different in different times and places. Crucially, the determining factor will be the manner it is legalized, not the sheer fact of the legalization.

While the story of the Prohibition on alcohol cannot be straightforwardly extrapolated to the current global drugs situation, it does hold some lessons for us. The rise in organized crime is not merely parallel to the current dominance of the drug lords, but is a direct causal process: after alcohol was legalized, the crime lords turned to other drugs for their profits. More subtly, the prohibition undermined confidence in government, a theme that is essential to understanding the near-universal embrace of drugs by the counter-culture in the 60s.

If changing cultural circumstances are the critical factor in drug use, then there is some hope. Such circumstances are not fixed or arbitrary, but can be understood and to some extent influenced. By working with the forces of history, by seeing that drugs and intoxicants are part of us, part of the story of who we are and where we are going, we can move towards a society that does not repress drugs, but moves beyond them. And that is the story of Western Buddhism.

Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (3)

The English Experience

It is widely agreed that consumption of mind-altering substances creates harm in society. This is by no means the whole picture, as it is also widely agreed that taking such substances causes pleasure. In order to fully understand a thing, the Buddha insisted we must know the origin, ending, advantage, disadvantage, and escape. In future posts I will take up the question of the pleasure that drugs offer.

However for now I will look at a few indices of harm. The previous post considered the harm outside the drug-consuming country. I looked in particular in the ongoing Mexican drug wars, where hardly a day goes by without some fresh blood-soaked atrocity: another drug lord dies in a hail of bullets, a 14 year old boy admits to beheading 4 victims, women are pressed into ‘killing taxi drivers, police officers, innocent people and children’. The wikileaks cables have revealed that even the US government thinks the Mexican army has no hope of dealing with the crisis. These astonishing photos show the vast, mad wealth that flows through the criminal drug trade.

The problem is by no means limited to Mexico. In Afghanistan, wikileaks shows that efforts to eradicate the poppy trade will ‘increase the security threat’, that prosecution of high-level dealers does nothing to stem the flow, that farmers whose crops were eradicated will turn into insurgent fighters, that Government response is ‘extremely disorganized’, and that use of police for drug eradication increases police corruption and takes them away from their genuine security role. In west Africa, the key transit point for drugs for the European market, Mr. Corinne Dufka, a West African expert at Human Rights Watch observed that, “What we’re seeing is the criminalisation of the state as a result of drug trafficking.” The Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, warned that “West Africa is at risk of becoming an epicentre for drug trafficking and the crime and corruption associated with it”, and said that “This is more than a drugs problem – it is a threat to public health and security in West Africa”. Guinea-Bissau has been described as the world’s first ‘narco-state’ following its rapid and destructive takeover by the Colombian drug cartels. The corrupting effects of the drug trade, formerly in opium, now mainly in methamphetamines, has been one of the major factors in the ongoing calamity experienced by the Burmese people.

All this is the direct result of drug-consuming societies not taking responsibility for their own consumption. Rather than managing drug use in a reasonable manner, within a society that has a fairly clean and well-structured legal system, use is swept under the carpet, where it inevitably thrives in countries with the most inept, corrupt governments, creating even more chaos and destruction. As the Colombian economist Francisco Thoumi has noted in regard to the drug trade, “illegality generates competitive advantages in the countries or regions that have the weakest rule of law.”

For this post, however, I will focus on the internal harm that drug consumption causes, especially the recent developments in England.

A previous commenter has already noted the findings of David Nutt. As a regular Guardian reader, I had followed these events, and in fact this was one of the motivations for writing these series of articles. In brief, Nutt was a scientific adviser to the UK government on drugs policy. He argued that alcohol was significantly more dangerous than many illicit drugs. His list of harmful drugs at the time placed alcohol at number 5 (since revised – see below). He criticized the UK government’s current policy, arguing that it is ‘incapable of thinking logically’ on the topic.

For his troubles he was sacked, the government saying that his comments damage efforts to give the public clear messages about the dangers of drugs: “We remain determined to crack down on all illegal substances and minimise their harm to health and society as a whole.” This statement reveals the very irrationality that Nutt was highlighting: the government wants to minimize harm done by illegal substances – which obviously Nutt would agree with – but says nothing about Nutt’s actual point, which is that far more harm is done by legal substances, especially alcohol, and this harm needs to be minimized too.

The minister Alan Johnson said that it is not possible to be an adviser and critic of government policy at the same time – which, to a naive outsider, sounds like a complete denial of the very purpose of getting advice in the first place. Other scientists were shocked and some resigned in protest. Nutt went on to form his own independent committee, which came up with an even more comprehensive study, which now places alcohol at the very top of the list of dangerous drugs. The government responded by removing any legal requirement to have scientific advice in formulating drug classification policy.

Nutt’s study is apparently the most detailed of its kind, and evaluates harm to drugs from a multitude of perspectives. While acknowledging the inadequacy of any ‘objective’ attempt to assess such harm, he nevertheless came up with the following current list of harmful drugs, ranked out of 100 as follows.

Alcohol (72), heroin (55), crack (54), crystal meth (33), cocaine (27), tobacco (26), amphetamine/speed (23), cannabis (20), GHB (18), benzodiazepines (15), ketamine (15), methadone (13), butane (10), qat (9), ecstasy (9), anabolic steroids (9), LSD (7), buprenorphine (6) and magic mushrooms (5).

There are a range of effects to consider, and it is notoriously difficult to isolate the effects of one substance. Drug consumption, in any case, is not a uniform thing, and harm results from a combination of factors: the individual’s own body, the amount consumed, the motivations for taking it, what you do on the drug, what it is combined with, and so on. Typically drug use is associated with different forms of physical and mental harm, both long and short term. One statistic of obvious concern is the deaths that result from usage. In 2008 in England and Wales, there were, according to the Office of National Statistics, 897 recorded deaths from heroin, 235 from cocaine, 378 from methadone, 19 from cannabis, ‘very few’ from LSD, 44 from ecstacy; and by comparison, 8764 from alcohol. Tobacco puts all of these in the shade, with UK deaths at well over 100 000.

Nutt commented on this:

“Our findings lend support to previous work in the UK and the Netherlands, confirming that the present drug classification systems have little relation to the evidence of harm. They also accord with the conclusions of previous expert reports that aggressively targeting alcohol harm is a valid and necessary public health strategy.”

Nutt told the Lancet a new classification system “would depend on what set of harms ‘to self or others’ you are trying to reduce”. He added: “But if you take overall harm, then alcohol, heroin and crack are clearly more harmful than all others, so perhaps drugs with a score of 40 or more could be class A; 39 to 20 class B; 19-10 class C and 10 or under class D.” This would result in tobacco being labelled a class B drug alongside cocaine. Cannabis would also just make class B, rather than class C. Ecstasy and LSD would end up in the lowest drug category, D.

He was not suggesting classification was unnecessary: “We do need a classification system – we do need to regulate the ones that are very harmful to individuals like heroin and crack cocaine.” But he thought the UK could learn from the Portuguese and Dutch: “They have innovative policies which could reduce criminalisation.”

Nutt does not believe in legalizing all drugs, but he has consistently argued that our policy towards drugs should be related with the actual harm they cause. There are serious complexities here, for example, Nutt’s study focuses on the overall harm to society rather than the harm per user. This difference obviously needs to be taken into consideration. Should we spend more efforts on reducing the harm done by an intrinsically dangerous substance that is used by a small number of people, or a less dangerous substance used by many people? There’s no real ‘right’ answer. But surely, for a government that is concerned to put in place a policy that will benefit its people as a whole, it needs to focus on those issues that actually cause the greatest harm. This doesn’t mean, in and of itself, that it should legalize or change policy regarding other drugs, but it does suggest a emphasis when making decisions about how to allocate resources.

Another relevant factor is effectiveness. Something may be a major problem, but if there’s nothing that can be done about it, then there’s no point wasting resources trying. Fortunately, WHO experience shows that appropriate information, education, and enforced regulation can significantly lower alcohol use.

Another problem, noted briefly above, is that the benefits of drug use need to be considered in conjunction with their harms. But whereas drinkers of alcohol will readily claim its benefits – it’s a social lubricant, helps make and bond friendship, make you happy, gives relaxation, and so – and we demand a cost/benefit analysis in the case of medicinal drugs, there is no legitimate dialogue or acknowledgement of the benefits of illicit drug use. To do so is to to ‘send the wrong message’. Which once more assumes that those who control the message have a paternalistic right to deny others the capacity to make an informed ethical decision.

Curiously enough, Nutt’s conclusion, for all that he has been accused of trivializing the dangers of drugs, supports the UK government’s recent raising of  the classification of cannabis from class C to class B. Cannabis was downgraded to class C in 2004. This change had been recommended since 1979; so it took a quarter of a century to act on this advice, but only one year later Blair proposed returning it to its class B status, which happened in 2009. This was prompted by the increasing dominance of very strong ‘skunk’ in the market.

Making cannabis class C effectively meant you can’t be charged for possession. This change freed up an estimated 199 000 police hours in the following year. The reduced burden on the public purse and the improvement in the police’s capacity to deal with other forms of crime – those with actual victims – are significant benefits of a more rational approach to drug policy.

Recent UN data shows that for the period cannabis was downgraded to class C, its use in the UK among people aged 16-24 in Britain actually fell from 28% in 1998 to 18% in 2007-08. Between 2003-2007 there was also a significant decrease in use among schoolchildren aged 15-16. Clearly, then, the decriminalization of cannabis use in the UK did not lead to an increase among young people.

It seems to me that Nutt has been scapegoated for stating the plain fact that alcohol is a far bigger scourge in society than any of the illicit drugs. This perfectly obvious truth is inadmissable. It threatens the values and lifestyles of the lawmakers, who quite like to have a pint or two after a hard day’s work. If alcohol is the real problem, they can no longer dismiss the drug problem as ‘other’.

In his justification for sacking Nutt, Alan Johnson evoked the timeless spectre: ‘There are thousands [of kids] at risk of being sucked into a world of hopeless despair through drug addiction.’ Just like there are thousands of kids ‘at risk’ of being run over by a truck. Or, more to the point, millions ‘at risk’ of becoming alcoholics, of whom there are far, far more than the number of illicit drug addicts. The WHO estimates that there are 140 million alcoholics globally, only  slightly less than the total number of drug users at 185 million, of whom of course only a small percentage are addicts.

The statement that ‘kids’ are ‘at risk’ of becoming addicts is revealing on many levels. It is an emotional ploy, as we expect from politicians. But it suggests that ‘kids’ are incapable of making their own decisions and are mere helpless subjects. This is of course very far from the truth: the ‘kids’ have created and are creating an active, diverse culture in which drugs play a big role, and among themselves have a critique and understanding of drugs and their role. This is not to say that there is no problem, but it is to say that ‘kids’ are not something innocent and impotent, but are active participants and creators of the situation. As long as we think of them as children needing protection we will never understand why they take drugs in the first place – and so they’ll keep on doing it whether we make it illegal or not.

The other hypocrisy in Johnson’s statement is in the very suggestion that drug use is outside us – it is ‘the kids’ we have to worry about: whereas, of course, there are plenty of drug users in Government, in the police, in the businesses, just as there are everywhere else. The types of drugs and patterns of use will vary, but the facts can’t be denied. In every walk of life, in every government building, business center, or mall, there are people right now walking around, talking, making decisions with illicit drugs circulating in their veins. It is the embodied reality of the world we live in.

Look around you now: are you reading this in an office? (Sidebar: the stats for this site typically show increase in hits on weekdays… Just sayin’…) Some of the people you see are users, some of them probably have drugs inside them right now. Look at the people walking down the street, those on television, yes, the kids in the schoolyard – but also their teachers – or the politicians in Question Time. These are the people who we are supposed to be at war with? These are the degraded helpless victims slumped in despair in an alley? Sorry, no. These are ordinary people. For the most part, good people. People who do not deserve to be treated like criminals. Not people like you and me, but people who actually are you and me.

Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (2)

The Cost of Prohibition

Weapons of Mexican Drug Lord

These blinged-out automatic weapons are a telling symbol of our current prohibition based approach to drugs. It gifts vast sums of money into the hands of a tiny circle of crime lords who perpetuate the most horrific crimes imaginable. These guns, with their intense juxtaposition of the fantasies of lunatic wealth and the all too real death they deal out, belonged to drug dealer Oscar Orlando Nave Valencia and were discovered when authorities searched his house after his arrest.

I was planning to post some photos here to show the violence of the drug war in Mexico, but, you’ll be happy to hear, I just can’t bring myself to do it. If you want to see for yourself what’s happening, check out Blog del Narco, perhaps the most astonishing blog on the web. Two young guys tell it exactly how it is, no holds barred, and have somehow stayed alive. Be warned – the images are graphic and disturbing.

The violence associated with the drug cartels of Mexico has spiraled out of control, with 29 000 dead since 2006 when President Calderón came to power on a strong anti-drugs platform. His heavy-handed, military based approach has resulted in major successes.

In November 2007, customs officials in Manzanillo, Colima state, seized 26 tons of cocaine from a Hong Kong-flagged ship that had sailed from Colombia. The seizure was the largest in Mexican history, more than double the previous record of 11 tons recovered that October in Tamaulipas state. In July 2007, the Mexican navy captured a self-propelled, semisubmersible vessel loaded with nearly 5 tons of cocaine off the coast of Oaxaca state, the first such capture by Mexican authorities. Also in July, federal police near Guadalajara, Jalisco state, uncovered the largest synthetic drug production facility ever found in the country, recovering some 8,000 barrels of ephedrine and acetone, two key ingredients in the manufacture of crystal methamphetamine. Source

In addition, important members of nearly all the country’s drug trafficking organizations have been arrested over the last 12 months, although the highest-ranking kingpins continue to evade capture. Rising street prices of cocaine suggest that the policy has succeeded in restricting supply.

But the cartels are ever resilient, and have been actively responding, especially by shifting operations into other Central American countries such as Guatemala, with the result that its homicide rate has seen a steep climb to its current astonishing level of 52/100 000, a rate that is exceeded only by other nations in the region. The cartels have even become bold enough to directly launch violent attacks well over the US border.

The partial success of Calderón’s policy has not led to a decrease of violence in his country.

One apparent paradox for the Calderon administration has been that even while the government has clearly succeeded in damaging the cartels, the country’s security situation continues to deteriorate at what appears to be an unstoppable rate.

The most obvious sign of this deteriorating security situation is that the total number of drug-related homicides continues to climb dramatically. The nearly 2,700 killings that occurred in 2007 made it the deadliest year up to that point in the country’s drug war. However, 2007 has paled in comparison to 2008, when the 2007 total was surpassed in the first seven months. The death toll currently sits at more than 5,000. At this rate, the country may well finish 2008 with twice the number registered in 2007.

In addition to the rise in the number of killings, the violence has escalated in other important ways that are more difficult to measure. First, Mexican drug violence is just as brutal as ever. Beheadings have now become a regular occurrence, with the most noteworthy incident from this past year being the 12 decapitated bodies of alleged drug dealers found outside Merida, Yucatan state. In the past, most beheadings took place after the victim had been killed. Increasingly, however, authorities report that victims are beheaded alive. source

The situation in cities like Juárez has become so bad that analysts describe it as a state of ‘criminal anarchy’. Article after article after article detail the violence and chaos. In such an intractable situation even Calderón himself has called for talks on legalization. It has become painfully clear that the real victims of the ‘War on Drugs’ are the people of Mexico and other countries drawn into this sickening criminal spiral. As always, it is the poor and the ‘other‘ who bear the blame for the appetites of the rich.

I have focussed on the situation in Mexico only because it is easy, as it has received a lot of media coverage recently. But I have no doubt that similar problems, to a greater or lesser degree, will affect all countries that supply our appetite for drugs.

It is worth sparing a thought of compassion for those involved in the drug industry. It is a $5 billion industry in Mexico, employing half a million people. In poor countries, that’s a big deal and it must be hard to resist the attraction. People are drawn into this life, not because they are bad people, but because of the conditions and opportunities that they encounter. This is not to excuse it in any way, just to understand. Nobody starts life as a murderer. The violence takes its toll, not just on the bodies of the victims, but on the souls of the perpetrators.

All this is a direct result of criminalization. Make drugs legal, ensure that clean drugs from legitimate, legal sources are available at a reasonable price, and these problems will go away. Crime will always exist, but if you remove billions of dollars of profits, the extent of crime must fall. In a world where so many problems seem so intractable, it is surely a sign of hope that this is something that has a recognizable cause and an achievable solution.

It is ethically abhorrent for Western countries, or drug-consuming countries generally, to maintain domestic policies that have such a drastic, direct, and harmful effect on peoples in other lands. If we are genuinely concerned to manage and minimize the harm that drug consumption does, we must start with those harms that are real, not just hypothetical, and which can actually be eliminated. An ethical domestic policy must not just consider the situation at home, but should take into account the international implications.

See, if you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel. That’s literally true.

Milton Friedman