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


Now let’s turn to the more pragmatic question of changing the existing
  system. What sort of drug reform policies are feasible given the current
  economic and political climate? What is the best strategy for achieving
  those policies? How do we incorporate such reforms into the mainstream
  debate about drug policy? What can the FEED audience do to help achieve
  your goals? Leaving aside your personal attitudes on drug reform, what is
  your prediction for the state of U.S. drug policy circa 2005?


Ethan Nadelmann: There is a growing harm reduction movement that’s blossomed since the late
Ethan Nadelmann: 1980s, mostly focused around needle exchange, but now expanding. It’s not
  just in the big cities but a growing number of small ones. And there’s
  definitely something revolutionary about it in that it represents —
  especially when legalized — an official or at least tacit acknowledgment
  that the government sometimes has no choice but to deal with drug users on
  their own terms. Needle exchange is a system in which public health
  concerns really do trump the normal criminal justice/war on drugs
  approach. Drug law violators are treated like partners in a campaign to
  reduce the spread of a deadly disease, HIV/AIDS, which they are.

  Needle exchange also provides a setting where all sorts of people — from
  the government, the media, the “community”, etc — get to look junkies in
  the eye and see that they’re real people, often not so strange human
  beings with kids, jobs, trying to survive, who won’t or can’t quit
  sticking a needle in their arm but are otherwise not that different from
  you and me. Nothing helps reverse the demonization of drug users in our
  society so well as a needle exchange. Not everyone’s persuaded, but most
  people who go to a needle exchange have a hard time thereafter arguing
  that all those people really belong in jail.

  What comes after needle exchange? Much depends upon how much we’re able
  to follow in the footsteps of the Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia and a
  few other places. I can well see a heroin prescription experiment
  happening in the US within the next five years. And we’re almost
  certainly going to have a liberalization of methadone and other heroin
  substitute/treatments. There now is a National Alliance of Methadone
  Advocates (NAMA) that’s fighting discrimination against methadone users,
  and it seems to be gaining some ground.

  On marijuana, I’d bet we’ll win on medical marijuana fairly soon. Public
  opinion polls show 75-80% of Americans support it. There’s various
  campaigns and initiatives underway to change laws and policies. It’s a
  clear case of overkill in the war on drugs, and at least some people in
  the government see it as embarrassing. And even with marijuana decrim
  more broadly, the polls look increasingly promising. In 1979, the annual
  survey of college freshmen showed 51% support for marijuana decrim. By
  1989, it was down to 16%. But by 1994, it had almost doubled to 31%. As
  for hemp legalization, I see interesting indications that that’s coming
  too. Like med MJ, the govt finds itself once again in the embarrassing
  position of trying to defend a foolish overextension of the drug war.

  What’s also different now compared to a decade ago is the emergence and
  growth of organizations working for drug law reform, as well as a rapidly
  growing number of talented people willing to work hard, often for little
  or no money, to change drug policy. The Drug Policy Foundation started in
  1987 as the quixotic creation of Arnold Trebach and Kevin Zeese. It now
  has about 15,000 members. Rick Doblin’s Multidisciplinary Association on
  Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has played a role in re-legitimizing research
  and discussion about psychedelic drugs. Julie Stewart’s Families Against
  Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is increasingly influential in trying to reverse
  the more draconian drug laws. And new groups keep sprouting up every year.
  It also helps, of course, that George Soros has committed a few million
  dollars per year to help stimulate and broaden debate over drug policy and
  to support innovative harm reduction initiatives.

  As the drug policy reform movement grows, and is increasingly able to put
  out accurate information, the drug warriors are increasingly obliged to
  contend with us on our terms — which relies much more heavily on
  scientific evidence and common sense as opposed to the fear, ignorance and
  prejudice that sustains the drug war. Any time drug policy gets discussed
  in a calm, dispassionate way, we win.

  But I don’t want to sound too optimistic. The drug war has demonstrated
  amazing staying power. Americans seem enamored of incarceration as the
  apparent solution to most social problems. There’s little interest in
  Wash DC in almost any aspect of drug law reform. I don’t think the entire
  drug prohibition regime is going to crumble like the Berlin Wall. Drug
  testing, hair testing, skin testing and all sorts of other insidious means
  of detection seem to be spreading more or less unchecked in American
  society. Things are definitely bad and getting worse.

  But I can’t help noticing that the drug warriors seem a little scared by
  the small but growing drug policy reform movement. They’re putting out
  silly pamphlets attacking us. My friends in the government tell me
  they’re worried. Every few months, new judges come out against the drug
  war and sometimes even against drug prohibition. Almost every major
  magazine has addressed the issue of legalization, often favorably. The TV
  media is no longer an entirely uncritical ally in the war on drugs. MTV,
  ABC, Walter Cronkite, etc have done programs in the last year on the
  failures of the drug war and the wisdom of alternatives. The reform
  movement is small but gaining ground, and it’s got most of the scientific
  evidence, intellectual legitimacy and common sense on its side: a perfect
  recipe for an old-fashioned American optimist to think things are
  eventually going to change for the better.

Imani Woods: Given the current economic and political climate and the republican’s
gaining momentum not much is feasible within the system. Slow,
  surreptitious change has to happen on a grassroots level. Example,
  currently I am working in a minimum security adult detention facility. For
  the first time I am doing actual hands on drug management counseling, (as
  they say on” Living Color” you aint heard it from me). Actually it’s how
  you frame it that makes it acceptable. Now if I can only get some
  evaluation of this approach I will be able to present this to groups like
  NIDA and begin the dialog on the need for more diversity in drug services.
  The effort has got to come from us. Most people in this country are
  misinformed about the demographics of the drug using community here in the
  U.S. so they believe all users are on skid row. Because our society
  vilifies users it is to no one’s advantage to declare their use publicly,
  therefore we as citizens see no comparisons to the distortion the media
  supplies us with.

  By working on a grassroot level and demonstrating results policy will
  begin to change. Take me for example: I would never use e-mail until this
  project. Now I see how effective it is and you can’t get me off the damn
  thing (I just had to throw that in…thanks Steve and Rory) Drug policy
  debate is very complex right now because the system has so effectively
  denied Americans access to other approaches. We must talk about other
  countries success with alternative programs. People ought to know how out
  of touch American addictionists are with international efforts to reduce
  drug related harm. Where are the big name abstinence based providers at
  the international conferences on Drug related harm and at Drug Policy
  foundation conferences? They think the are untouchable, so they do not
  even bother to seek new information. Americans ought to question this.
  Voters should ask why the representatives are not outraged by the fact
  that so few drug users become drug free abstinence model or not yet that
  is the only system for the delivery of care to this population.

  There are only to options for the state of drug policy by the year 2005. 1)
  Jails will be beyond belief overcrowded, now for the” powers” that be this
  may not be as bad as they try to portray it. Three southern states have
  reinstated chain gangs. This means free labor any way you look at it.
  Since ethnic minorities are over-represented in these statistics, add to
  that the racial tension that still exists here, mix that with the fact that
  they don’t know what to do with us anyway now that everything is so hi
  tech thus less manual labor is required, we may just be getting close to
  reinstituting slavery only the time it will be based on class rather than
  race.

  2) We will be in the experimental stage of drug reform . Other forms of
  maintenance besides methadone will be available. It will no longer be a
  crime to possess drugs for your own use, and anyone will be able to walk
  into a pharmacy or health clinic and pick up a syringe. However, the use
  of drugs will still be unacceptable behavior depending upon how many
  middle class, tax paying, voters like us are willing to openly declare our
  use thus breaking down stereotypes.

  FEED audience!!!! Education is the name of the game here, please support
  this movement by spreading the word to folks about the realities of drug
  use. Society has to have a complete psychic change in regards to the way we
  relate to perceive and regulate mood altering substances.

  Peace Be Unto You All

Peter Cohen: I would like to answer this question from my knowledge of the European
situation. I could also speculate on the US situation but I will leave this
  for you Americans.

  First the cannabis policy future. In Germany we see a very interesting
  situation develop. A few days ago the undersecretary of drug affairs in
  Bonn, Lindner, A conservative CSU politicial from the State of Bavaria,
  gave an interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine scolding the Dutch policies
  and saying that these policies impede the development of a sound German
  drug policy. The interesting fact is that Bonn has very little say in drug
  policies and that the States in Germany are moving more and more into the
  direction of the Dutch policy goals and the Dutch policy solutions. This is
  tooth grindingly terrible for Bonn. The States are even finding out if they
  can mimic the functions coffeeshops have in the Netherlands be taken by the
  pharmacies. This looks crazy (which it probably is) but it defines a phase
  in the development of policies. They want to decrim cannabis totally, and
  even decrim supply (to the pharmacies).

  Once most German States will have done this, one way or another, the
  situation of de facto decrim of cannabis will be far more powerful as a
  policy model in Europe than it is now on the basis of the Dutch situation
  only. This is going to be a major breakthrough although many mischiefs
  might happen on the way there. The European parliament, a symbolic entity
  but nonetheless, will move into the same direction, even faster when
  Germany has come into the cannabis decrim camp. France and Italy will
  follow, as already now very many institutions and voices there plead for de
  facto decrim of cannabis.

  About other drugs: Once cannabis decrim is achieved, we will turn our
  attention to models of other drug decrim, more or less along the lines we
  already have in the Netherlands.

  I continue to say that active support by foreign voices of the best aspects
  of Dutch drug policies against incredible lies about it abroad remains a
  very ESSENTIAL aspect of world wide policy changes. Because, nothing
  works like a live model. This model has to be defended and we can not do it
  alone. As to treatment of drug abusers and users who need treatment, we see
  in Europe a very systematic move into the direction of harm reduction
  policy goals (which may differ per society and culture). Heroin maintenance
  is coming slowly, maybe not all over Europe but in the Netherlands it can
  no longer be upheld. (When I wrote the heroin maintenance plan for the city
  of Amsterdam in 1983, which in amended form was adopted by the city in
  1984, all of medical Holland was shooting at it with canons and nuclear
  rockets. Now the game has been won and opposition is directed at the small
  scale of the proposed pilots!) In Spain it might come next, with Belgium and
  Germany to follow.

  The very big questions will move towards regulation of supply and there we
  are going to meet the global treaties.

  What is the best strategy for achieving those policies? Decrim of personal
  use of cannabis and then of other drugs are the first big policy goals.
  Best strategy is via presentation of the harm reduction effects of such
  decrim measures. FEED audience should ask for personal freedom of drug use,
  to have it given back to them as I already wrote. The second huge and very
  important policy goal is to have the global treaties attacked plus the
  large bureaucracies that live by sucking their life blood out of the
  control and always further refining of these treaties. These treaties
  prevent local drug policies to be adjusted to local situations and are a
  monstrous left over from the puritan early 20th century. Once their
  authority is sufficiently undermined we might have to ask for a blow up of
  these treaties, either by having them allow local policy arrangements that
  are now de jure impossible, or by abolishing them all the way. The last
  goal might be impossible for a long time to come. But once local
  arrangements will be enabled, the treaties will slowly decompose.

Mark Kleiman: My list of key policy reform goals would be:

  1. Reduce the harm done by illicit drugs by shrinking the illicit markets.
  Since the bulk of illicit-market demand comes from a relatively small
  number of heavy users, and since most of those persons are on bail,
  probation, or parole at any one time, use a combination of coercion and
  treatment to reduce their drug consumption. The resulting drop in illicit
  revenues would reduce dealing activity, and thus the number of dealers in
  prison.

  2. Reduce the harm done by licit drugs.

  For nicotine in the form of cigarettes, with few happy moderate users an
  many unhappy addicts, I think that prohibition, or taxes high enough to
  amount to prohibition (say $10/pack) would be justified. In order to
  prevent the development of a black market, maintenance supplies should be
  provided (through current commercial channels) to established users, but
  the tobacco companies should get the message that marketing to teenagers
  doesn’t pay, because today’s teenagers will never be licit-market
  customers. Anti-marketing efforts should be expanded; I’m less
  enthusiastic about bans on promotion. Leave the other forms of nicotine
  alone. Encourage the development of less harmful nicotine-inhalation
  devices.

  Alcohol is a different picture. Most drinkers drink in moderation, doing
  and suffering little harm. But the relatively small proportion of chronic
  heavy drinkers and other problem drinkers do, and suffer, enormous damage.
  Increased taxation — I would go from the current tax of six cents per can
  of beer to a dollar — and the anti-marketing of drunkenness would help
  some, but we need policies aimed squarely at problem drinkers, especially
  those whose drinking is a problem for others. Drunken drivers and drunken
  assailants should lose the right to drink, and that ban should be enforced
  by retail sales outlets. This would require a “drinker’s license,” which
  could simply be the driver’s license. Someone who loses, or voluntarily
  surrenders, drinking privileges would get a license of a different color,
  still good for driving but not for drinking. Since drinking is far more
  dangerous to others, and far less socially necessary under current U.S.
  conditions, than driving, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be equally
  rigorously regulated.

  3. Change the sentencing rules for drug dealing to:

  — Distinguish more clearly among different drugs.

  — Distinguish more clearly among different dealers, not only according to
  volume but especially according to their use of violence.

  — Reduce average sentence length.

  4. Concentrate enforcement attention to dangerous drugs whose price is
  falling, whose availability is increasing, and whose use is starting to
  rise, — right now that would be heroin and flunitrazepam (tradename
  Rohypnol, street name “roofies”) — rather than on drugs whose use has
  peaked — right now that would be cocaine.

  This is only a start. I could write a book about how to change drug
  policy. Come to think of it, I did. It’s called Against Excess: Drug
  Policy for Results. It seriously annoyed legalizers, drug warriors,
  enforcement agents, treatment providers, prevention advocates, and the
  alcohol and tobacco industries. Reading it is hard work, but then this is
  a hard topic. John Kaplan’s The Hardest Drug: Heroin and Public Policy
  is easier to read, extremely sensible, and about to be topical again as the
  next heroin wave washes over us.

  The main thing that FEED readers could do to contribute to better drug
  policies is to learn about the topic in some detail, and indicate in their
  communications with politicians and the media that they care about its
  nuances, and that they are prepared to reward thoughtfulness and punish
  blather on this issue. Good drug policy isn’t easily captured in
  soundbites, whether the bite is “Just say no” or “Damn that prohibition.”


  For those of us who are unconditionally committed to reducing drug- related
  harm — who are prepared to follow the principle of aggregate harm
  minimization wherever it leads, regardless of whether the policy in
  question seems “hawkish” or “dovish” to those engaged in the war about the
  War on Drugs — there is at the moment no mass-membership organization to
  join. The Federation of American Scientists has started a drug-policy
  project; anyone interested in joining that work is welcome to email me at
  [email protected].

John Perry Barlow: The first step on the road to understanding is a willingness to recognize
error and learn from it.

  It seems clear to me that before we can back away from the catastrophe of
  our current drug policies, we need to undertake, as a society, a thorough
  and objective examination of what we are trying to achieve by them and
  whether or not those objectives have been served in any demonstrable way.

  We need to examine the costs of the War on Some Drugs in terms of actual
  dollars spent on law enforcement, prisons, judicial proceedings, military
  and intelligence operations. I think we would find it to be a staggering
  bill. I would guess that exceeds the bill for that other failed war which
  it so closely resembles, Viet Nam. Has any good been won which makes it
  worth the price?

  We also need to examine the less quantifiable costs; the police corruption,
  the criminalization of the otherwise law-abiding, the savaging of the
  Constitution, the misdirection of police resources, the epidemic of fear
  and distrust which has infected our society. How long can we continue on
  this course before government becomes nothing but naked force?

  Only when we have seriously evaluated up the costs and benefits, then we
  can engage in a mainstream debate. But so far, nothing of the sort has
  taken place. Indeed, this is not a generally discussable topic in America.
  Responsible, mainstream people are not permitted to call for legalization.
  Members of he dominant culture are entirely unwilling to engage in such a
  debate, cloaking themselves in such idiocies as “No cost is too great if it
  will spare the life of a single child.”

  Generally, I think the solution is fairly simple and highly personal.
  People must tell the truth.

  If everyone in America who continues to smoke marijuana on a fairly regular
  basis would quit sneaking around and be public about it, the laws would
  change overnight. If every CEO, minister, college president, judge, and
  politician in America who knows in his or her heart that one of the most
  important and positive transformations in their lives arose from the
  psychedelic experience would stand up and say so, American would be a
  different place, and a better place, the next day.

  But most of us are cowards. We are afraid our jobs will be denied us if we
  tell the truth, even though those who would deny them are as often guilty
  of the same secret “crimes” themselves. We are afraid for our reputations
  as though it were more honorable to be liars and cowards than admitted
  recreational drug users.

  I hope FEED readers who use drugs will at least consider the possibility
  that the time has come to be honest about who we are and what we do and how
  we feel about it. They can’t arrest us all.

  I am very optimistic about the future. In the next fifteen or twenty years,
  the last of the World War II generation will finally die and their lackies
  from my own generation, the Dan Quayles and his kind, will start to lose
  their grip on the reins. In their place will rise a generation, most of
  whom are now under 25, who are far more culturally tolerant than the
  Puritans who perpetrated this atrocity.

  My utopian prediction (to be taken with a gram of salt):

  By 2005, all mind-altering chemicals will be legal. An epidemic of cocaine
  use will have swept through society upon its legalization and will have
  passed, much as it passed through the entertainment and music industries.
  Alcoholism will have been greatly reduced owing to the availability of
  other, less destructive methods for altering mood. Addiction will be
  treated, not punished. And America will no longer feel like a police state.

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!