The effects of todays drug laws

At any point in time there are ideas that are so taken for granted that we find it difficult to imagine that it could be otherwise. They are so deeply ingrained in us that we are provoked if anyone questions them, even if the questioning is fully rational.

Drug legislation is such an idea. When weighing in all good and all bad that it brings, there is only one reasonable conclusion: the law is foolish. But say that out loud in Sweden today and you will be mocked, booed and threatened. All sense and logic seems to take a vacation whenever the subject comes up, and otherwise seemingly intelligent people suddenly behave like hateful narrow-minded bigots.

But all such ideas eventually collapse. We call it a paradigm shift. There is such a shift on its way right now. The USA, that has been aggressively active in what has become a war on drugs, is changing direction. Right now cannabis is being legalized, and as more and more amazing results in scientific studies of psychedelics are published, it is only a matter of time before substances like psilocybin (mushrooms), LSD and MDMA are also legalized.

This week I will try to show some of the worrying problems with the current situation, give you some users perspectives on certain illegal substances and propose some measures that I think should be taken into consideration in a future legalization.

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When the first steps were taken to create the drug laws we see today, the aim was mainly to minimize addiction problems. The aim was to use the law to steer people away from getting caught up in addiction, destroying their lives and committing other criminal acts. There have been other, more shady reasons also, such as racism, but I want to see the good in people, so let’s say that is the primary reason.

So what has been the outcome of the criminalization of drugs?

Criminal organizations have become immensely rich.

The black market on drugs funds a wide array of criminal organizations, such as terrorist organizations, mafias, paramilitary organizations, biker gangs and suburban gangs. This lucrative market finances other criminal activities, such as acts of terrorism and militarization.

Violence has increased many times over.

In addition to the criminal violence that drug profits are used to finance, there is plenty of violence at all levels of handling drugs, from the producers down to the final consumer. There is an outright war against drugs today, and parts of that war are being waged with military strategy and equipment. The majority of the violence takes place abroad and just as in other wars, many of the victims are innocent civilians. Drug conflicts are destabilizing entire countries and regions.

Police and other resources are being wasted.

'Hard Stop' conducted by the Armed Garda RSU by Secretive Ireland on Flickr
‘Hard Stop’ conducted by the Armed Garda RSU by Secretive Ireland on Flickr

There are vast resources spent on combating drugs, resources that could have been used better. If all those resources that are now being spent on chasing and punishing people who use drugs, were instead spent on helping addicts, we would have the most amazing addiction treatment the world has ever seen. We spend much more on fighting and punishing, than we do on helping or treating addicts.

More criminals are created.

When drugs were outlawed that instantaneously created a large new group of “criminals” whose only crime is that they like certain substances more than others. The vast majority – more than with alcohol or nicotine – don’t have and will never have any problems with the substances they use. The only contact many of these people will ever have with a criminal underworld is when they buy drugs. Even so, they will be treated as criminals and addicts if they get caught and will get a ticket to the same prison as other criminals. Through the legal system they are stigmatized, forced into debt and are given more criminal contacts, which in the worst case is a gateway to a criminal lifestyle.

The laws are used to harass people.

Drug laws are used by the police to take people with a certain appearance, taste in music, or ethnic background into custody without any realistic suspicion. Many of the drug laws have racist roots, reflected in today’s application of them. People are also indirectly harassed through the exclusion that they are forced into and the stigma they face. The system embedded hypocrisy in all of this is especially noticeable when many of the ones being hunted use significantly less dangerous substances than the legal alternatives.

Addicts are prevented from getting proper care.

No name by Daniel Oines on Flickr
No name by Daniel Oines on Flickr

Addicts are sick, but are treated as criminals, and authorities can at any time deprive them of any security and impose unreasonable demands on them. Even those who voluntarily seek government help to get rid of their addiction are treated as a criminal and are often given late and inadequate assistance, if any at all, because the resources are rather devoted to controlling and punishing the person. This creates a high amount of stress among many addicts, which undermines recovery and triggers relapses, with exclusion and alienation as a result.

Creates a black market that wants people to be addicted.

The criminal organizations that control the black market have an interest in keeping people hooked and to attract them back into using. One result is that the market prefers more addictive drugs such as heroin rather than opium.

The lack of quality control is lethal.

On the black market, there is no quality control. Drugs can be diluted with other dangerous substances. They can also be something quite different from what they are said to be, giving the user an experience that s/he didn’t anticipate. Sometimes the substance is much stronger than what the user is used to, which may lead to severe accidental overdoses. Many deaths that occur on drugs are because of accidental overdoses, combined with a fear to seek help.

Research Chemicals harm and kill.

Another dangerous development is that people who want to avoid breaking the law buy so-called Research Chemicals instead. These are new compounds that have not yet been classified, and are therefore legal, but they can sometimes be deadly. Knowledge about dosage and how they react with other substances (such as alcohol) is often virtually non-existent, which is a very dangerous combination. Thus drug users who want to stay on the right side of the law are steered away from well-known and less hazardous substances, to substances which are unknown and in some cases even fatal.

Alternativetreatments are being prevented.

Ironically many of the substances which are particularly effective to help relieve addiction are classified as drugs without medical value. LSD-assisted therapy for alcoholics had, when it was legal, a far higher efficiency than the 12-step program has ever had. Ibogaine, an incredibly powerful psychedelic substance, has been shown to cure heroin addiction in just a few doses. But rather than give heroin addicts access to Ibogaine, we lock them in other addictions, such as with Subutex/Suboxone or Methadone. In the current situation there is no treatment that comes close to being as effective as psychedelic assisted treatment, but these therapeutic tools have been wrongly classified as drugs.

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Now imagine that you step back in time to just before today’s repressive drug laws were first passed. You are a decision maker and it worries you to see the addiction problems associated with some of the drugs. On the table is a proposal to ban a variety of substances and impose severe penalties.

On the table there is also an analysis on what other impact the law would have. Among the consequences you read are: criminal organizations will become immensely rich, violence will increase and even lead to war in several countries, the drug profits will fund terror crimes and wars, police resources will be wasted, more criminals will be created, addicts will get worse care, drug users will be exposed to more addictive substances, the lack of quality control will lead to more deaths, more dangerous substances will be researched and sold in order to circumvent the law and the most promising treatments to cure addiction will be stopped . But despite all this, the number of actual addicts will remain about the same.

Would you vote in favour of such a law?

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This blog post has been inspired by, among other things:
∙ A challenge from a friend who is a politician to show how legalization could work
∙ The TEDx talk by James Leitzel that does just that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_Px4nYbJoQ
∙ Organisations and initiatives such as Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (http://www.maps.org/) and Transform (http://www.tdpf.org.uk/)

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