Montreal, October 21, 2007 • No 238




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.




by Bradley Doucet

          There's an old saying: nothing is certain in life but death, taxes, and the war on drugs. Okay, I added that last bit, but the drug war sure does seem to have become a permanent fixture in our lives – a war that's never won, but never abandoned either.

          Take, for instance, Canadian Prime Minister Harper's recently announced $64-million drug strategy. Admittedly, the plan could have been worse. Only a third of the money, after all, will be used to beef up enforcement of drug laws. If all of it had been slated for this purpose, the government could potentially have interfered with three times as many voluntary exchanges. Instead, the bulk of the money will be used for prevention and treatment: about a sixth of the total will go to 'education' programs, which are merely ineffective and wasteful instead of downright harmful, and fully half of it will go to treatment for addicts, which could actually do some good. The government also announced that it would extend funding to Vancouver's safe injection site, but only for six months so that it can be studied further.


          But the plan could have been a whole lot better, too. Twenty-one million dollars to crack down on drug crimes is still twenty-one million too many. And of course, things are much, much worse in the United States, which sets the hysterical tone of the global prohibitionist agenda. Still, as the drug war rages on in spite of its dismal failures, there are some hopeful signs that opposition to prohibition is gaining traction. It may have been a long time coming, but opposition to the drug war is finally going mainstream.

Exhibit A: Foreign Policy Cover Story

          It's one thing for me to call for drug legalization in a libertarian magazine like Le Quιbιcois Libre; it is quite another for someone to do so in a mainstream publication like Foreign Policy. Yet that is just what Ethan Nadelmann has done in the magazine's September/October 2007 issue, and with an attention-grabbing cover visual no less, accompanied by the following headline in bold: "Legalize It: Why it's time to just say no to prohibition." And just in case the cover visual and headline leave any room for doubt, the editorial on page 1 of the magazine shows that the editors of Foreign Policy also firmly believe "it is time we gave legalization a chance."

          Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, pens a 5-page installment of the publication's regular "Think Again" feature. Though his arguments will be largely familiar to staunch opponents of prohibition, getting those arguments out to the wider audience that reads this popular magazine is a coup. And Nadelmann is no slouch when it comes to pithy formulations of those arguments either. For instance, he writes, "Politicians still talk of eliminating drugs from the Earth as though their use is a plague on humanity. But drug control is not like disease control, for the simple reason that there's no popular demand for smallpox or polio." He also points out that "[m]ost people who use drugs are like the responsible alcohol consumer, causing no harm to themselves or anyone else." With an end to prohibition, "[t]hey would no longer be the state's business." Here, here.

          What we supporters of legalization might not realize – and will be pleased to learn – is that "now, for the first time, U.S. hegemony in drug control is being challenged." All over the world, apparently, governments are becoming more and more reluctant to toe the American drug-war line. The European Union, Latin America, China and Southeast Asia are all increasingly following their own, less prohibitionist paths. Even in repressive Iran, Nadelmann writes, the ayatollah in charge of the Ministry of Justice has declared that methadone maintenance and syringe-exchange programs are compatible with sharia law. Then he quips, "One only wishes his American counterpart were comparably enlightened."

          Supporters of prohibition sometimes claim that drug users help support terrorism. Nadelmann explains that on the contrary, by driving out legitimate businessmen and driving up prices, it is prohibition that helps criminals, terrorists, and corrupt government officials. By way of illustration, he asks who would benefit if the United States and NATO were somehow to succeed in their Quixotic quest to eliminate opium production in Afghanistan. He answers, "Only the Taliban, warlords, and other black-market entrepreneurs whose stockpiles of opium would skyrocket in value." This points to one specific intellectual battle that needs to be won if we are to bring about an end to drug prohibition:

          "The global war on drugs persists in part because so many people fail to distinguish between the harms of drug abuse and the harms of prohibition. Legalization forces that distinction to the forefront. The opium problem in Afghanistan is primarily a prohibition problem, not a drug problem. The same is true of the narcoviolence and corruption that has afflicted Latin America and the Caribbean for almost three decades – and that now threatens Africa."


"Supporters of prohibition sometimes claim that drug users help support terrorism. Nadelmann explains that on the contrary, by driving out legitimate businessmen and driving up prices, it is prohibition that helps criminals, terrorists, and corrupt government officials."


Exhibit B: LEAP

          The second significant ray of hope I see on the drug legalization horizon is Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Founded in 2002 by five police officers, the group's website states that their membership has since risen to over five thousand, and now includes "parole, probation and corrections officers, judges, and prosecutors. We even have prison wardens, FBI and DEA agents who help make up our bureau of over 100 speakers." These speakers make a point of addressing influential conservative groups who support the war on drugs, including law-enforcement groups and policy makers. They have made over 2000 presentations, and have found that once participants have heard what they have to say, the "vast majority" agree with them about the need to legalize drugs – all drugs.

          I found out about this group in an ad that ran in the June 2007 issue of Reason magazine encouraging readers to view LEAP's 12 minute promotional video End Prohibition Now, available on their website. It's well worth the small time investment to see why these former drug warriors are having such a profound effect. They express regret for the harm they have done in the past, and they pull no punches in their efforts to atone. Here are just a few choice bits from the short video:

          "We didn't have an illegal drug in this country [i.e., the USA] until 1914, when we passed the Harrison Anti-Drug Act. Just before 1914, the government said, 'We have 1.3% of the people in this country addicted to drugs.' We can't have that, right? So they passed this law. Now you fast forward 56 years to 1970: the beginning of the war on drugs. In 1970, the government said, '1.3% of the population is addicted to drugs.' You can't have it; you gotta start a war on drugs. Thirty-six years later and a trillion dollars and all these lives lost, 1.3% of the population is addicted to drugs." – Lt. Jack Cole, New Jersey State Police Dept. (ret.), 12 years undercover narcotics

          "South Africa in 1993, under Apartheid, they incarcerated 851 black males per 100,000. In the United States in 2004, under prohibition, we incarcerate at the rate of 4,919 black males per 100,000. Now how anybody could look at this and not see institutionalized racism, I don't know." – Lt. Jack Cole

          "I think the drug war has been arguably the single most devastating, dysfunctional, harmful social policy since slavery." – Chief Norm Stamper, Seattle Police Dept. (ret.)

          "Drug legalization is not to be construed as an approach to our drug problem; drug legalization is about our crime and violence problem. Once we legalize drugs, we gotta then buckle down and start dealing with our drug problem. And that's not gonna be easy, but it's something we can do." – Capt. Peter Christ, Tonawanda NY Police Dept. (ret.)


Drugs Don't Kill People - People Kill People

          In the spirit of addressing conservative supporters of the drug war, I would like to end by proposing two reasons – one principled, the other practical – why every NRA member should support an end to prohibition. The principled reason the NRA should support drug legalization is to be found in the group's oft-quoted, and oft-ridiculed, slogan: "Guns Don't Kill People – People Kill People." The commendable sentiment behind this slogan is a commitment to individual responsibility. Individuals who commit murder using guns should be held accountable for their actions. Those individuals represent a tiny minority of gun owners, and their actions should not be used as an excuse to interfere with the rights of the vast majority of upstanding gun owners. Well, individuals who abuse drugs should also be held accountable for their actions, insofar as their actions on occasion do involve harm to the persons or property of others. But individuals who abuse drugs (similarly to those who misuse guns) represent a tiny minority of drug users, and their actions should not be used as an excuse to interfere with the rights of the vast majority of upstanding drug users.

          If this principled argument by itself is not sufficient to convince those who champion the right to bear arms also to respect the rights of drug users, perhaps my second, practical argument will tip the scales. Simply put, legalizing drugs will drastically reduce violent crime by taking the inflated profits from illegal drug sales out of the hands of criminals. As the above quotation from retired Captain Peter Christ puts it, drug legalization is not about dealing with America's drug problem; it is about dealing with America's crime and violence problem. If crime and violence are drastically reduced, one of the pillars supporting opposition to gun ownership will have crumbled. This will be true not only in America, but elsewhere in the world as well, since other countries will no longer be able to hold up the United States as an exemplar of the supposed correlation between elevated levels of gun ownership and elevated levels of violent crime.

          Of course, you don't have to be a gun owner to praise the drastic reduction in violent crime that would accompany drug legalization. As Nadelmann writes, "Virtually everyone, except those who profit or gain politically from the current system, would benefit." A better world is possible, and is perhaps closer than we might have dared hope, thanks to the courage and vision of the editors at Foreign Policy and the members of LEAP who are addressing themselves to the wider audience out there, and speaking out so eloquently for an end, at long last, to prohibition.


P.S. With conservative gun owners on board, the drug war should be all wrapped up in time for the holidays. But in case my prediction is off by an order of magnitude or two, please visit Cannabis Culture's website to find out what you can do to keep the Canadian Government from extraditing Canadians Marc Emery, Michelle Rainey, and Greg Williams (the BC3) to the United States to face life in prison in what can only be seen as a politically-motivated witch hunt.