We are told that the “war on drugs” is being waged, on our behalf, by our governments and their armed bureaucracies and police forces, to save us from ourselves. “Potential for abuse and harm” are supposed to be the criteria by which the use of drugs is suppressed – the greater a drug’s potential for abuse and harm, the greater and more vigorous the degree of suppression, and the more draconian the penalties applied against its users.
In line with this scheme drugs are typically ranked into a hierarchy, Schedule I, II and III in the US, Class A, B and C in the UK, and so on and so forth all around the world. Thus to be arrested for possession of a Schedule I or Class A drug results in heavier penalties than possession of a Schedule III or Class C drug. Generally if a drug is deemed to have some currently accepted medical use it is likely to be placed in a lower schedule than if it has none, notwithstanding the fact that it may have potential for abuse or harm. In the absence of any recognised therapeutic effects drugs that are highly addictive, such as heroin or crack cocaine, or drugs that are profoundly psychotropic, e.g. hallucinogens such as LSD, psilocybin or DMT, are almost universally placed in the highest schedules and their use attracts the heaviest penalties.
The notable exceptions to this system of ranking according to perceived “harms” are, of course, alcohol and tobacco, both highly addictive and harmful drugs – far more so than cannabis or psilocybin for example – but yet socially accepted on the grounds of long customary use and thus not placed in any schedule at all.
The failed war
When we look at the history of the “war on drugs” over approximately the last forty years it must be asked whether the criminalisation of the use of any of the prohibited substances has in any way been effective in terms of the stated goals that this “war” was supposedly mounted to achieve? Specifically, has there been a marked reduction in the use of illegal drugs over the past forty years – as one would expect with billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money having been spent over such a long period on their suppression – and has there been a reduction in the harms that these drugs supposedly cause to the individual and to society?
It is unnecessary here to set down screeds of statistics, facts and figures readily available from published sources to assert that in terms of its own stated objectives the “war on drugs” has been an abject failure and a shameful and scandalous waste of public money. Indeed it is well known, and not disputed, that the very societies that attempt most vigorously to suppress illegal drugs, and in which users are subject to the most stringent penalties, have seen a vast and continuous increase in the per capita consumption of these drugs. This is tacitly admitted by the vast armed bureaucracies set up to persecute drug users in our societies which every year demand more and more public money to fund their suppressive activities; if the suppression were working one would expect their budgets to go down, not up.
Meanwhile the social harms caused by the “war on drugs” itself are manifest and everywhere evident. In the United States for example there have been more than 20 million arrests for the possession of the Schedule I drug marijuana since 1965 and 11 million since 1990. The pace of arrests is increasing year on year bringing us to the astonishing situation where, today, a marijuana smoker is arrested every 38 seconds. The result, as Rob Kampia, director of the Marijuana Policy Project, recently observed, is that marijuana arrests outnumber arrests for “all violent crimes combined,” meaning police are spending inordinate amounts of time chasing nonviolent criminals. And it goes without saying that those who are arrested for the use of marijuana and other illegal drugs do suffer immense harm as a result of the punishments inflicted on them – including, but not limited to, personal trauma, loss of freedom, loss of reputation, loss of employment prospects, and serious, long-lasting financial damage.