Prohibition and Its Discontents: Part One of the FEED Dialog on Drug Policy Reform

Let’s start with a diagnosis of the current state of US drug policy, before
 moving onto more prescriptive questions about changing that policy. Since
 its inception in the early eighties, the War On Drugs has been a lightning
 rod for both political and cultural controversy, with critics and
 supporters scattered all across the ideological spectrum. Despite the
 moderations of the Clinton administration, many Americans now believe that
 our drug policies are not working, and that a new approach may be
 necessary. We’d like to know what each of you consider to be the single
 most important flaw in the current US drug policy. All of you agree that
 there are significant problems with the War on Drugs as it stands now; we’d
 like to know what you think the *most* significant problem is, whether it
 lies with the fundamental goals of drug prohibition, or their specific
 implementation in current policy. Let’s try to decide what’s broken here,
 before we start talking about fixing things.

John Perry Barlow: Deciding whether or not the War on *Some* Drugs (as I prefer to call it) is
 broken depends on what you believe it exists to achieve. I believe it
 exists for a set of unacknowledged purposes that it is serving extremely

 The War on Some Drugs is literally a war. Like all wars, it is a condition
Kleimanof hostility between distinct cultures. On one side of this conflict is the
 dominant culture of the industrialized Northern Hemisphere, the culture of
 monotheism, football, war, imposed control…and alcohol. On the other side
 are a group of subordinate cultures, defined loosely by their drugs of
 choice, a central defining factor in any culture, but by no means the only

 In America, these suppressed cultures are the Bohemians, characterized by
 marijuana and psychedelics, and the Blacks, characterized by crack cocaine
 and heroin. These are also the cultures of pantheism, peace, sexuality,
 tribalism, humor, and dance.

 If the objective of this were to stop these cultures from using their drugs
 of choice, then it would have to be judged a failure and could not be
Kleimanotherwise, anymore than Prohibition could have succeeded in stopping
 alcohol use among the dominant culture.

 But that is not the objective. The primary objective is cultural domination
Feedbagand marginalization of the dominated cultures. The other objective is
 hardening institutions of control during a period when they are being
 widely questioned, expanding police powers, reducing civil liberties, and
 extending the authority of the Industrial State.

 In these critical areas, the War on Some Drugs has been a resounding
 success. More than a quarter of the adult black male population is now
 incarcerated, a percentage which is increasing dramatically every day.
 Furthermore, the values of the bohemian class have been so suppressed that
 they lie about their fundamental beliefs to their own children and live in
 a general condition of fear.

 Meanwhile, the Bill of Rights has been largely eliminated and there are
 more than 1.2 million Americans in jail, more than are held prisoner in the
 People’s Republic of China, a notorious police state with 5 times more
 people than we have.

KleimanThe system isn’t broken. It’s working. The white men in suits are winning
 and winning big.

Ethan Nadelmann: The fundamental problem is our reliance upon a drug prohibitionist regime
 that generates more drug-related problems than it solves. There are
 limits to any historical analogy, but the analogy between drug prohibition
 and alcohol Prohibition is a powerful one. Prohibition began in the 2nd
 decade of this century in part because people believed it would
 dramatically reduce alcohol use and abuse. It succeeded at first (between
 1916 and 1922) in significantly reducing alcohol consumption — although
 other factors, like World War I, a powerful temperance movement, etc, were
 also important — but alcohol consumption, and particularly consumption of
 hard liquor, rose from 1922 to 1933. At the same time, Prohibition WAS
 responsible for generating enormously lucrative illicit markets, the
 growth of organized crime, the power of an Al Capone, violence and
 disorder in many parts of the country, crowded courtrooms and jails, an
 atmosphere of lawlessness, the identification of tens of millions of
 Americans as criminals, and even tens, perhaps, hundreds, of thousands of
 poisonings and deaths from illicitly produced alcoholic beverages, i.e.,
 alcohol products that were MORE dangerous because they were produced

 All the same is true today. The prohibition of drugs like cannabis,
 cocaine, heroin and hallucinogens may be successful in keeping rates of
 drug consumption lower than they otherwise would be — although drug
 prohibition has not prevented some eighty million Americans from trying
 illicit drugs. But drug prohibition is certainly responsible for most of
 the ills that Americans commonly identify as part and parcel of the “drug
 problem”: the empowerment of organized crime here and abroad, violence by
 and among drug dealers who have no recourse to legal institutitons to
 resolve their disputes, crowded courtrooms that no longer have time to
 hear civil cases, dramatic increases in our jail and prison populations
 (which have tripled since 1980 from about 500,000 to 1.5 million, of which
 about 500,000 are now incarcerated for drug law violations and other
 prohibition-related offenses), distortion of police priorities by asset
 forfeiture laws that reward law enforcers rather than the general treasury,
 the spread of HIV and other diseases among addicts who have no legal
 access to sterile syringes, the commission of crimes by addicts obliged to
 steal to support drug habits that are dramatically more costly because of
 prohibition, and the promotion of values — such as invasion of privacy,
 informing on family members and neighbors, and the demonization of illicit
 drug users — that are antithetical to basic American values.

KleimanDrug prohibition’s benefits, in sum, are few; its costs, many.

Peter Cohen: The goal of the present world wide system of drug prohibition is to protect
 people from the effects of drugs they can not protect themselves from. The
 assumption about these drugs is that because of their specific
 pharmacological character men is unable to control their use.This
 assumption is different as is made for alcoholics that look for ‘help’ in
 the AA system: alcoholics are a subset of people who can not control their
 alcohol use. In the case of alcohol the problem is inside the particular
 person (who happens to be ‘powerless’) with illicit drugs the problem is in
 the drug (it MAKES all persons powerless = not in control).These
 assumptions are in line within certain explanatory systems of analysis of
 the drug use as a phenomenon.

 Because of the social meaning of prohibition it might be that many
 potential consumers do not use these drugs.If ‘not using’ is interpreted as
 the same as ‘protection against loss of control’ prohibition may have had
 some success.

Mark KleimanBut, we know now very clearly that all drugs are used in a perfectly
 controlled way by most, and that what we define as loss of control may
 simnply be another way than most of other users would like to use drugs.
 Drugs can be used in a controlled way by most and the original assumption
 behind prohibition that some drugs are inherently uncontrollable is false.

 In fact, prohibition makes control more difficult in as far as it endangers
 some of the conditions that people use in order to control: knowledge about
 dosage, quality, social settings that are legitimate for use, etc. Further,
 prohibition costs so much in terms of money and political tools to
 discipline the people, that the effects of a prohibition systemn of drug
 control compete with the WORST effects of drug use itself.

 Non bourgeois ways of drug use are prevalent under conditions of social
 misery. Almost all drugs can be used for diminishing the pain of misery but
 alcohol, opiates and stimulants are the most common. Human reactions to
 misery and pain are many, and heavy drug use is just one of them. We seem
 to think that banning drugs will make an end to the conditions of misery
 that creates conspicuous use but also this false.The idea stems from the
 late 18th century and was developed around alcohol and has never left the
 field since.

Mark Kleiman: The drug problem is as varied as the collection of chemicals that, when
 ingested, can influence the human nervous system in some pleasurable or
 otherwise interesting manner, and as varied as the ways that human beings
 can behave around those chemicals. Anyone who isn’t confused by thinking
 about the drug problem, and how to deal with it publicly and privately,
 simply doesn’t understand the situation.

 If I were to try to boil down my critique of current drug policy, and the
 current policy debates, into “the one big problem,” it would come out as
 something like: “Failure to think seriously, concretely, and
 dispassionately about concrete problems and the likely results of
 alternative courses of actions in dealing with them.” Since that seems
 unhelpful (if only for its lack of concreteness) I’ve assembled a list of
 nine significant weaknesses. These constitute a sample, not a census.

 1. Inadequate distinctions among illicit drugs.

 2. Failure to distinguish use from abuse.

 3. Too sharp a distinction, in speech and in practice, between licit and
 illicit drugs. This means missing good opportunities to reduce the abuse
 of alcohol and nicotine.

 4. Excessive prison terms for minor, nonviolent dealers.

 5. Allowing drug-involved offenders on probation and parole to keep using
 (thus feeding the drug markets) by not subjecting them to testing and

 6. Putting inadequate effort into helping people with drug problems cut
 back or quit, and focusing too much of that effort on people with the most
 florid problems, thus missing good opportunities for early, low-intensity

 7. Running prevention programs that don’t. We need a new approach,
 perhaps one built around the idea of personal maintenance and the avoidance
 of health-risk behaviors, in which drugs would show up as one category of
 such risks.

 8. Failing to adjust policies to the phases of drug epidemics.
 Enforcement and prevention efforts ought to be concentrated on rising
 drugs, and treatment on drugs whose initiation rates have fallen but which
 have large groups of long-term problem users.

Nadelmann9. Wasting time debating the legal-status issue (prohibition v.
 legalization) when all the real action is in the practical details of

Here’s the latest soundbite from our readers’ responses, courtesy of David Borden, Director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network:

“Many people, particularly the young, are excited by the illegal status, and see drug use as a rebellion against authority. And thanks to prohibition, illegal drugs are conveniently available at the locker down the hall, in school! (And the guy selling them packs a six-shooter, too.) Prohibition may well discourage people who are capable of handling drugs from using drugs, while inciting those people to use them who are the most vulnerable to abuse. ”

What do you think about the War on Drugs? What issues would you like the Dialog panel to address? We want to hear *your* thoughts on drug policy reform, and we’ll be hotlinking directly from the Dialog to your comments in the Feedbag. Just click on the icon below and start posting!