Wed, 05 Apr 2000

It's high time for the U.S. to stop war against drugs

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON (JP): On March 30, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main Marxist rebel force in the country that supplies 80 percent of the world's cocaine, responded to the U.S. Congress's recent approval of US$1.7 billion in military aid to help the Colombian army fight the drug lords with a radical proposal of its own. Why not just cut the ground out from under the cocaine mafia by legalizing the drugs?

Ending the legal prohibition of drug use would "eliminate the root cause of the high profits produced by the illegality of this business," the FARC spokesman pointed out.

That $1.7 billion could then be spent on more useful things like offering treatment (not imprisonment) to American drug users who wanted to quit, and subsidizing crop-replacement programs for peasant farmers in Colombia and other drug-exporting countries. It was all so sane and reasonable that it had to come from a non- American source.

Back in the United States, by contrast, last week's news from the front line of the "War on Drugs" was the revelation by Rolling Stone magazine that major U.S. publications like Seventeen, Family Circle, and US News and World Report have secretly been taking government money to run anti-drug propaganda disguised as fiction or straight reporting.

In most democracies, official perversion of the media on this scale would have caused a huge public outcry, but not in America.

So deeply inured have Americans become to the fanatical "War on Drugs" mind-set that neither the magazines nor the White House seemed embarrassed by this abuse of public trust.

"There's another anti-drug feature in May or June," chirped Jackie O'Hare, in charge of ad sales at Seventeen. "I'm sure (the White House) will be happy about that."

One month before, in February 2000, the United States jail population passed two million. With 5 percent of the world's population, the United States now has 25 percent of its prison population, and probably has a higher proportion of its citizens in jail than any other country in history.

Over half a million of those imprisoned Americans, including about 60 percent of all prisoners in federal institutions, are in jail for non-violent drug offenses (i.e. just having some banned substances in their possession).

Probably half of the rest are imprisoned for theft or violent offenses that are connected in one way or another with the enormous trade in illegal drugs.

If the "War on Drugs" had been shut down ten years ago, the number of people in U.S. prisons would probably not be much higher than in the rest of the world -- and neither would the U.S. crime rate. Yet no responsible American politician ever suggests abandoning this futile and destructive crusade, because to do so would be political suicide.

Unfortunately, ideology and moralism have completely driven out pragmatism and humanitarian considerations in the United States when it comes to "drugs".

The propaganda has also driven out most of the plain facts about drug addiction. So here are a few facts that ought to be obvious, but aren't.

First, illegal drugs, including the so-called "hard drugs" like heroin, are no more addictive than alcohol or nicotine. Whether the drug in question is alcohol, marijuana or heroin, it is those with addictive personalities who are vulnerable (in varying degrees). Most consumers can remain casual users, and may even drift away in time.

Second, consuming most illegal drugs is less dangerous to the individual's health than consuming the most popular legal drugs in Western culture, alcohol and nicotine. Smoking can kill you; heroin, except in a massive overdose, cannot.

The main health hazard in using marijuana (cannabis) is that it is usually smoked in combination with tobacco. Cocaine is hard on the nasal membranes, but pure heroin, consumed regularly in moderate quantities, has no known health costs. Nor does it cause the kind of violent personality changes that often accompany alcohol addiction.

All this sounds like stark heresy after half a century of propaganda, but ask any doctor. It's preferable not to be addicted to any chemical substance, but the huge difference between the way Americans treat alcohol or nicotine addiction and addiction to other chemicals is purely a cultural reflex.

Because of American power in the world, this puritanical approach to psychotropic drugs has been exported to the entire world, with other governments being strong-armed into adopting the prohibitionist U.S. approach -- thus filling their prisons and raising their crime rates as well.

And it is not likely that a proposal from a source as tainted as FARC, whose commanders derive much of their income by imposing a 15 percent "war tax" on coca producers and drug laboratories in the parts of Colombia they control, will change many American minds.

Many more millions of lives will have to be ruined before the U.S. re-thinks its drug policies, especially since the hugely lucrative industry of building and staffing jails to hold the victims of the "War on Drugs" has created a powerful new prohibitionist lobby in Washington. (The prison industry now employs over 520,000 people, more than any other employer except General Motors.)

But in the long run, such manifest insanity cannot prevail.