The War on Drugs has proved to be an epic failure. More than four decades of enforced prohibition have bred widespread gang violence, hyper-aggressive tactics by militarized police forces, racist enforcement records, mass incarceration, and shattered communities. But forty-five years after Richard Nixon declared open hostilities against a diverse roster of substances crammed under the government’s umbrella definition of drugs, the tides are finally starting to shift.
Now, top medical practitioners are joining a growing chorus of voices to say enough is enough. In a report published recently by Johns Hopkins University and The Lancet, a panel of experts calls for a shift in national and international drug policies toward decriminalization, legalization, and harm reduction. The ground-breaking report is an effort to influence the United Nations General Assembly to take a more rational stance during its special session on drugs this April — the first major meeting on the subject since 1998. Currently, the organization’s position comes down strongly on the side of eradication and prohibition.
However, years of evidence has shown that current policies are not only ineffective, they are counterproductive. In addition to the violence perpetrated by cartels and law enforcement alike that accompanies the illegal drug trade, prohibition also contributes to other public health problems, such as the spread of HIV/ AIDS and hepatitis among people addicted to heroin who are forced to live on the margins of society and have no access to clean needles.
The Lancet report also points out that substance use does not necessarily equate to substance abuse — in fact, millions of Americans safely use marijuana and psychedelic substances for recreational, spiritual, and medical purposes without becoming dependent or placing any burden on society. In fact, only about 11 percent of people who used drugs last year experienced dependence or a disorder, according to research highlighted by The Lancet.
“The idea that all drug use is dangerous and evil has led to enforcement-heavy policies and has made it difficult to see potentially dangerous drugs in the same light as potentially dangerous foods, tobacco and alcohol, for which the goal of social policy is to reduce potential harms,” the report states.
The announcement comes days after one of President Nixon’s top aides was quoted in a Harper’s story admitting what many insightful observers knew all along: the War on Drugs was concocted not as a public health or safety measure at all but as a political maneuver to attack black activists and the antiwar left.
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” former Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs John Ehrlichman told writer Dan Baum.
Laws in the United States are already starting to shift, with medical, decriminalized, and even legal marijuana now available in many states, and a growing push to legalize the use of psychedelics for therapeutic purposes. However, federal law and international treaties still prohibit many substances, and decades of anti-drug propaganda have made it difficult to get policies rolled back.
If the UN decides to soften its own stance, countries around the world could follow suit.
“The evidence suggests that [anti-drug laws] have contributed directly and indirectly to lethal violence, communicable-disease transmission, discrimination, forced displacement, unnecessary physical pain, and the undermining of people’s right to health,” The Lancet report states. “Drug policy that is dismissive of extensive evidence of its own negative impact and of approaches that could improve health outcomes is bad for all concerned.”