In the world of drug policy reform, Ethan Nadelmann is the man, so to speak. He is a go-to person, both well informed and well connected in his capacities as an academic and activist.As an active member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and as an American citizen who has long felt concerned and perplexed about the manner in which we “fight” the drug war, I am well acquainted with Nadelmann’s initiatives as a leader of the reform movement. But as I listened to his lecture “Building a Movement to End the War on Drugs,” Tuesday evening here at Brown University, I was struck by new realizations about the illegitimacy of current U.S. drug policy, specifically considering the manner in which the drug war violates any notion of the sanctity of personal sovereignty over mind and body. In question-ing our need to utilize the criminal justice system to protect ourselves from the evils of drugs, Nadelmann articulated the fundamental problems with global drug prohibition: Why do we rely upon criminalization, as opposed to implementing a system of strict regulations, treatment and education? And what is it about the prohibited drugs that distinguishes them from the drugs that we use and abuse every day? We allow Anheuser-Busch to televise ads that directly link alcohol with glamorized visions of youth and sex, but launch propaganda crusades relating marijuana with terrorism, teenage pregnancy, negligence and violence. Why are we so quick to accept the misinformation campaigns and drug demonization efforts facilitated by organizations like D.A.R.E. and the Office of National Drug Control Policy?
This pattern of thinking opens up the possibility of castigating drug use not only within a legal framework but also on a moral axis. According to Nadelmann, somewhere along the way Americans arrived at the “conviction that there was something viscerally, morally and biblically wrong” with the use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD, mushrooms, crack and other illegal drugs.
I often wonder about the origins of the deeply imbedded belief in the evil menace of drugs. I don’t presume that the aforementioned substances are harmless and should be legalized and distributed on every street corner. On the contrary, I am acutely aware of the potential hazards associated with drug use. But why do some drugs elicit an almost irrational panic and not others?
My question is this: Does the government have the authority to intercede between citizens, as potential drug users, and specific drugs they may choose to put into their bodies?
If the government chooses to apply the model of regulation and not criminalization to alcohol and tobacco, there is no legitimate basis (medical, scientific, moral, religious or otherwise) for discrimination between drugs in terms of the legality of use. We impose rules about driving under the influence, and punish acts of violence and the destruction of property in an attempt to discourage behavior that is harmful to society. But laws that explicitly attempt to control the intake and possession of drugs are not sustainable, enforceable or legitimate.
The alcohol prohibition efforts of the early 20th century failed for the same reasons that the attempt to globally prohibit drugs has been entirely unsuccessful. People will not respond to state mandates about what they can or cannot put into their bodies, especially when these mandates assume the universality of a given moral code. According to the United Nations International Drug Control Program, the international drug trade generates as much as $400 billion annually, reflecting eight percent of all international trade. Clearly, people are still using drugs.
Instead of criminalizing and imprisoning drug users, we need to focus our resources and energy on minimizing the harms of drug use through education and treatment programs. The dangers of drug addiction cannot be overlooked, and real information about these dangers not the scare tactics of recent anti-marijuana commercials needs to be available to citizens of all ages.
The War on Drugs poses far more of a threat to the safety and well-being of the American populace than the terrors of “Reefer Madness” ever did. Our drug-war policies have resulted in the propagation of innumerable social crises: the spread of infectious diseases (through needle sharing), the disenfranchisement of nearly two million people criminalized for drug use or trafficking, racially dis-proportionate incarceration rates, unlawful civil asset forfeitures and exorbitant budget deficits.
To date, federal and state spending on the drug war amounts to $8.5 billion, a large portion of which is allocated to the incarceration of over 1.5 million people every year. In 2002, Drug Enforcement Administration agents armed with automatic weapons raided a Santa Cruz, Calif., hospice because it grew and distributed marijuana to its patients. When a paraplegic patient suffering from post-polio syndrome could not comply with officers’ demands to stand up, she was handcuffed in bed. Is the arrest of an invalid, or the greater numbers of arrests and incarcerations of drug users and traffickers appropriate usage of our tax dollars? I certainly hope not.
Katherine Cummings is a student at Brown University.