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


Let’s now turn to the question of alternatives to the existing regime of
 drug prohibition. “Legalization,” “decriminalization,” and “harm reduction”
 are some of the dominant schools of thought among drug policy reform
 advocates, while others argue that the present system simply needs a little
 tinkering, and not a radical makeover. If you were appointed Drug Czar
 tomorrow, and could declare by fiat the new U.S. policy on drugs, what
 would your program look like? Describe your reform model, with special
 consideration to some of the following questions. How does the policy
 differ from the alternative models? What are its benefits and its costs?
 Are there versions of the policy in operation in the United States?
 Internationally? If so, is it considered to be effective? What is its legal
 status? What population(s) does it serve? Is it economically viable?


Imani Woods: Poor Lee Brown, just another example of an African American put in front of folks to legitimize the racist actions and outcomes of our current drug
  policy. Now you would think after his experiences as chief of police in
  major cities he would recognize what he was dealing with.

  Anyway — now I am the Drug Czar and I must say it is about time. First
  thing I would do is a public education campaign to get folks up to speed on
  the facts about drugs. Americans need to stop saying drugs are bad and
  start realizing the unregulated crap you get on the street is the problem.
  I would use analogies like cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, and sex.

  Next move — decriminalization as well as the development and
  implementation of “user” clinics which will supply drug users with safe and
  regulated drugs. The U.S. Public Health Service would have, among its
  tasks, the monitoring and review of harm reduction strategies. All health
  care providers would be required to obtain adequate training regarding harm
  reduction.

  The forms of decriminalization I feel most clear about at this time are
  limited to efforts which keep users out of jail. I’m not clear yet on
  decriminalization for drug dealers.

  There would be alternative forms of services provided for drug users. I
  would eliminate the term “drug treatment” and would replace it with “drug
  services.” This would broaden the spectrum of services offered and allow
  for persons to choose the services they feel most interested in and
  committed to.

Ethan Nadelmann: Make harm reduction precepts the guiding framework of the new policy. That Ethan Nadelmann: means focus on reducing drug and prohibition-related crime, disease and
  death, even among people who continue to use drugs. It means applying the
Kleimansame moral, and eventually legal judgments to heroin, cocaine, psychedelic
  and other illicit drug users as we do to alcohol, tobacco and caffeine
  users — i.e., no legal or significant social disapproval for responsible
  use, significant social disapproval for irresponsible use, and criminal
  sanctions for those who commit violent or predatory crimes (without
  allowing addiction to serve as a legal excuse).

  I’ll assume that it may be best to move forward gradually rather than go
  directly to legal availability of most of the drugs that are now illegal.

  Next, legalize possession of any drug in small amounts intended only for
  personal consumption. Make that a federal policy that the states cannot
  reverse. States and localities can still control or prohibit time and
  place of sale, restrict public consumption, etc., just like with cigs and
  booze. The police won’t especially like this since it will make their
  efforts to police drug using groups that much harder, but it’s a necessary
  anchor of any decent drug policy. Make the policy retroactive, so anyone
  incarcerated now for drug possession is released.

  Remove all restrictions on availability on sterile syringes — including
  prescription requirements and drug paraphernalia laws — and do whatever is
  necessary to maximize exchange of used syringes. (Here I and the National
  Academy of Science are more or less in agreement.)

  Give doctors broader discretion in prescribing methadone and other drugs to
  addicts. This is the essence of the “British system” — high levels of
  medical discretion in prescribing. It’s got problems when some doctors
  try to take advantage of the system or impose their moralistic views about
  drugs on their patients — but the advantages are substantial in terms of
  getting addicts away from illicit markets and reducing overdoses,
  poisonings, etc. Require training in harm reduction approaches to drug
  control and treatment in all medical and nursing schools.

  Follow in the footsteps of the Swiss and others in establishing heroin
  prescription experiments, public health rooms for drug injectors, and so
  on.

  Allow for the legal sale of cannabis, low dose cocaine-based products, and
  other now-prohibited drugs in low dose forms. Allow states and localities
  to experiment with different control options, as happened after the repeal
  of alcohol Prohibition.

  Change federal, and ideally state, sentencing practices to reduce criminal
  sanctions for non-violent drug crimes such as manufacture and distribution
  of drugs to about the same as those now applied to people who produce and
  sell alcohol without a license.

  Repeal asset forfeiture laws that reward criminal justice agencies.
  Provide for any forfeited assets to go to the general treasury.

  Re: drug education, repeal the federal law that censors drug education
  classes. If drug education is to be provided in the schools, it should be
  truthful, informed and realistic. That means allowing discussion of
  responsible use in drug education classes. It means using Andrew Weil’s
  Chocolate to Morphine as a basic text. It also means ensuring that efforts
  to prevent kids from using drugs to not evolve into campaigns of
  intolerance against those who do use drugs.

  Severely restrict drug testing by both private and government employers.

  Re: cigarettes, substantially increase federal tax, bringing the price in
  line with what it is in much of Europe and Canada. Nothing is as effective
  in reducing cigarette smoking among youth.

  Re: prescription drugs, start moving in the direction of placing greater
  decision making power in the hands of pharmacists and consumers. The
  notion of empowering consumers in their decisions about drugs is crucially
  important to ultimately moving toward a drug control regime based upon
  legal availability.

  Re: psychedelics, encourage experimentation with allowing legal access in
  different ways.

  All of these steps may ultimately lead to a drug control regime that
  provides legal access to most of the drugs that are now prohibited or
  strictly regulated. I set out a model for such a regime in my article in
  Daedalus in 1992. It essentially builds a control regime around a basic
  right to possess any drug together with a legal capacity to obtain most
  drugs from a legally regulated, civilly liable, source.

John Perry Barlow: Well, there’s what I *would* do, given my head, and what I *could* do,  given the political realities. While I’m willing to await Question 3 for my
  rant on political mess we’ve created for ourselves, it’s very difficult for
  me to imagine any program that could somehow abstract itself from that
  mess.

  The War on Some Drugs – and the drugs themselves, as they were used in such
  “wartime conditions” – has so warped the political, legal, and social
  frameworks of America that no one can see straight. The lies and denial,
  the bifurcation between public and private realities, the hypocrisy and
  cant, have thoroughly distorted social discourse, both national and
  familial.

KleimanGiven that, I’d still do as they did at the end of Prohibition and
  legalize, adhering as much as possible to the model which has worked so
  well in Holland and increasingly in other parts of Europe.

  In Holland, one can’t buy marijuana cigarettes at the tobacco shop, but you
  can buy grass in any coffee shop, and psychedelic mushroom tea is openly
  served at public events. They take a dimmer view of the truly destructive
  drugs, such as cocaine, but they’re at least honest enough to draw no
  racist distinction between powder and crack, and they are hardly as
  draconian as we are in either instance.

  Somehow, despite all this license and latitude, Dutch society has failed to
  disintegrate. Indeed, it seems far more civil and safe than our own. And it
  is certainly more honest.

  Even under less distorted circumstances, such a goal might be difficult to
  achieve in the US. We are a culture of imposed control while the Dutch have
  a culture of embedded control. Our controls are based on laws and physical
  force. Theirs are based on ethics and silent rebukes.

  Generally, I would assume that it is in the nature of people, especially
  young people, to alter consciousness and I would try to create policies
  which would direct them toward the least destructive methods and contexts
  for doing so rather than the most destructive, as seems our present bent.

  I would focus on anti-social actions rather than possessions or ingestions.
  For example, I would impose harsher sanctions on driving while intoxicated,
  whether by alcohol or drugs. The presence of intoxicants during the
  commission of a violent act would be regarded as aggravating rather than
  mitigating, as is presently the case with weapons.

  Finally, I would try to address the fact that America’s obsession with
  drugs and alcohol is a merely a symptom of a much deeper spiritual
  disorder, the loss of community and human connection. Until we’ve started
  to create a society which encourages visible emotions, we will continue
  trying to uncover them with chemicals.

Peter Cohen: My response is that alternatives to present drug control are not the same  for all countries. The reason is not that basic principles -should-differ,
  although they may. Reason is that the economic and cultural context of drug
Kleimancontrol is so important for the concrete forms it takes. In Europe drug
  control laws are pretty similar on main points, but day to day drug control
  is pretty diverse.

  However, taking such differences into account I think a reasonable entry
  into turning away from Prohibition would be decriminalization. One may
  think of decriminalization. of personal use and small scale dealing as is
  now already the case in the Netherlands. The police no longer considers it
  important to interfere into the personal or micro sphere. In Spain this is
  so to a lesser degree, and in North Germany this is growing, certainly for
  cannabis. (In the UK the bulk of drug arrests still is for possession of
  cannabis, can you imagine?)

  The second step could be to decriminalization larger scale selling , buying
  and production, although the players might be constricted to all kinds of
  rules, more or less like the rules one presently applies for food, or
  alcohol. Dealing with the consequences of such policies would have
  different forms in different countries. Countries with large estranged
  urban underclasses would suddenly face deterioration of these classes
  because an important part of economic activity would be lost. However,
  these classes would quickly find other income sources, drug use would not
Kleimanchange much after a possible initial upsurge — although I am not at all
  sure of this.

  The benefits of such a policy would be political: an increase in freedom
  and a decrease of police terror. The down side would be that drug use would
  need time to find its ways to enculturate, which may go easily for some
  parts of the population and maybe with a lot of problems (of excess? ask
  Harry Levine, he might know more) in others. But for me the most important
  part of decriminalization would have to be played by serious advances of
  social safety and security systems. More or less along models of social
  democracy. Drug policy, like any other ‘policy’ is never something on its
  own but will be effective or ineffective according to the systems by which
  it is surrounded. The reason that the Netherlands or Denmark, or Italy have
  limited drug problems when compared to the States is that these countries
  have more developed social welfare systems in place than the US. Drug
  problems are often seen as something on their own, problems that
  deteriorate or improve by policy measures in the field of drug control.
  This is only partly true. Okay, needle exchange programs will limit your
  HIV sero conversions or other disease that stems from IV drug use. But, the
  basic situation of your IV drug users is most often not determined by drugs
  or their prices but by the general social situation of the user. The heavy
  alcoholic living in a slum has a legal drug to comfort herself with but her
  situation will be very similar to the heavy cocaine user or what else one
Kleimancan use heavily to fight the slum-pains. Raising the life quality of large
  segments of the population will usually lessen drug problems because it
  helps change the function the drug has.

  In Germany we have seen incredible misery of junkies, in a situation where
  a social democracy with many advantages is in full swing. Only lately
  junkies in Germany are allowed to use those social democratic services, and
  other services designed for them and now their situation is improving
  slowly. The Netherlands never had levels of junkie marginalization the
  Germans had-heavy opiate or alcohol users had the same right to basic
  income any other Dutch has, the same right to get help to find housing and
  the same access to health care. And when institutions refused junkies into
  their health care, new institutions were build up .[ Note that the system
  needs laws that enable funds to be freed for such institutions]

  I hope I am clear in this view that drug control policy is only one among
  many that all together determine the potential of a drug control system.
  The drug problem in the US in very much a problem of high intensity
  marginalization of (some parts of) the drug using population. This
  marginalization not only has the form of high police pressure, and
  imprisonment, but also keeping these people out of decent social survival
  systems.

  The answer here can not be anything else but radical decriminalization
  first, and then we talk further.

Here’s the latest soundbite from our readers’ responses, courtesy of Jeremy McMillan ([email protected]):

“The War on (some) Drugs is a cultural war. There is no doubt that supporters and detractors differ in a basic value system. The supporters are aligned with the Traditional American Work Ethic (TAWE), which grew out of the protestant work ethic. The detractors of the WoSD are aligned with the American Libertarian Democratic (ALD) value system. Most are also post-materialists (PM) of the 50s and 60s variety.”

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!