Monthly Archives: March 2015

The war on drugs

If you’re looking for a good book on drug addiction and the so-called “war on drugs” — or even if you’re not — I highly recommend Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream (2015). Hari details how the war on drugs (criminalization of drug use and sales) began in the US in 1914 and eventually spread worldwide, thanks to pressure from our government. He also describes, using vivid and poignant stories of actual people, the horrific effects of these policies, and their utter failure.

One of the most obvious of these effects is the increase in crime and violence, as individuals and gangs (like the Mafia in the US and the infamous Zetas in Mexico) compete for selling rights (turf) and profits. The most tragic victims of the violence are innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire, but drug users are also victimized by being labeled as poor excuses for human beings, jailed for years for the possession of small amounts of drugs, and made unable to vote or get work or housing after their release. Because whites, particularly wealthy and middle-class whites (who sell and use drugs at the same rates as non-whites) would raise holy hell if it were otherwise, drug policing/persecution occurs mainly in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, making the drug war both classist and racist. (In fact, as Hari points out, the war on drugs began as a war on minorities, with Mexican immigrant and black musician drug users the first targets.) “At any given time, 40-50% of black men between the ages of 15 and 35 are in jail, on probation, or have a warrant out for their arrest, overwhelmingly for drug offenses.” (Read Michelle Alexander’s excellent The New Jim Crow to see how this all adds up to our country’s newest system of racial segregation, after slavery and Jim Crow.)

Hari also points out that drugs become more concentrated with the need to smuggle them across borders, thus exacerbating addiction problems. At the same time, contrary to popular belief, the addictive properties of drugs across the board, including meth and crack cocaine, account for only 17% of addiction. The rest, as Hari points out using the example of Vietnam vets, is a result of loss of safety, meaning, and emotional support — the very things we currently deprive addicts of. (In the Vietnam example, Hari says that 20% of American soldiers in Vietnam became addicted to heroin, but all but a few recovered naturally after returning home. Apparently, the biggest risk factor for serious drug addiction — as distinct from more temporary drug dependence — is childhood trauma, including neglect and abuse.

I was interested to learn that the urge to seek out mind-altering substances is inherent in many species of animals, not just humans. Hari gives many examples of this, the most affecting being Vietnamese water buffalo breaking into opium fields under the stress of heavy American bombing, then giving up the practice when the bombing stopped. Similarly, experiments showed that individual rats that became addicted to morphine when placed by themselves in cages without toys or other comforts lost interest in the drug when returned to cages with other mice and interesting things to do.

Hari notes that we live in a time of widespread addictions, not just to substances but to ultimately unfulfilling and often destructive behaviors like shopping and workaholism, because our society’s characterized by lack of connection with others and provides few opportunities for meaningful work. Drug use and addiction increases during hard times — for example, meth and oxycontin “epidemics”  have erupted in various areas of the country since the economic crisis of 2008.

Hari says that drug use increases slightly when drugs are legalized, but only if alcohol isn’t counted as a drug (meaning that when penalties are removed some alcohol users switch to other substances). And all of the drug “harms” are vastly reduced. It’s also easier to control drug use by minors, as we do with alcohol. To quote: “The culture of terror that currently dominates whole neighborhoods and countries — from Brownsville, Brooklyn to Ciudad Juárez — will gradually abate. The murder rate will fall. And police time will be freed up to investigate other crimes. Trust in the police will begin to come back to poor communities…Shaming addicts will be replaced by caring for addicts [treating them as fellow human beings]…

Professor David Nutt, the former chief scientific advisor to the British government on drugs, published a study in The Lancet, Britain’s leading medical journal, going through every recreational drug and calculating how likely it was to harm you, and to cause you to harm other people. He found that one drug, with a score of 72, was quite far ahead of the others. The next most harmful drug was heroin, with a harm factor of 55, just ahead of crack at 54 and methamphetamine at 32. It wasn’t even close. The most harmful drug was alcohol.”

It’s all about the numbers and challenging popular beliefs. We can have a better, safer, more humane society. Remember, though, a lot of very powerful people and groups have a vested interest in the global trade in currently illegal drugs. In fact, that trade may be propping up our eventually-doomed-to-fail capitalist economy.