Jazz conjures up something fiercely American. The haunting tone of Miles Davis’ trumpet, Jimmy Cobb’s swinging hi hat’s, and the quartal voicings of Bill Evans invoke a mirage of America’s past. There exist apparitions of men and women, smoking cigarettes, holding a glass of whiskey, dressed up like Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. This is an undeniably familiar image despite the fact that we occupy a different point in history. In a similar vein, the consequences of the war on drugs harken us back to the era of Al Capone, Harry Anslinger, Arnold Rothstein, and Billie Holiday — and the lessons we learned from the failures of Prohibition.

The national prohibition of alcohol lasted from 1920-1933. According to the conservative think tank, the Cato Institute, Prohibition was an absolute failure[1]:

“National prohibition of alcohol (1920-33)–the “noble experiment”–was undertaken to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America. The results of that experiment clearly indicate that it was a miserable failure on all accounts… Repeal of Prohibition dramatically reduced crime, including organized crime, and corruption. Jobs were created, and new voluntary efforts, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which was begun in 1934, succeeded in helping alcoholics.”

Much of the same can be said about the War on Drugs as demonstrated in my previous essay:

“… murder rates skyrocketed first from 1920-1933 and 1970-1990 when the prohibition of drugs dramatically escalated… statistical analysis shows that more police enforcement causes more homicides. Officer Leigh Maddox found that arresting 80% of the street dealers did nothing to the flow of drugs — there are hundreds of others willing to take part in this billion-dollar industry. In fact, she found that arresting dealers increased homicide: take out the head and now the gangs battle to see who’s going to be in charge. Milton Friedman calculated that 10,000 murders a year was caused by the drug war in the United States. Miron argues that Friedman underestimated the casualties. He claims that homicide rate would drop by 25-75% if we took the drug trade away from criminals.” (The War on Drugs: Casualties)

By this point of the essay, there are bound to be skeptics. They most likely will revile the prospects of legalizing drugs so powerful that, according to experiments in the 20th century,  they turn nearly every rat into an addict. (155) Many of these skeptics will be sympathetic to the casualties of the war, but reluctant to arrive at the conclusion that we must legalize these drugs as we did for alcohol in the early 20th century. They will cite the difference of addictive potency as reasons for such reluctance. Before I move onto how countries like Portugal and Switzerland drastically reduced the casualties of the war, I wish to, once again, dispel the specter of Harry Anslinger —that drugs are the sole and primary cause of addiction.

Let’s begin with the rat experiment. Why do rats become addicted to drugs? Is it solely because of the chemical hook? It feels intuitive that this would be the case for drugs like heroin or cocaine. We have to stay away from them, or as Nancy Reagan once commanded: “Just Say No.” Nevertheless, there exists a counter-narrative. Bruce Alexander, a psychologist from Vancouver, found that the rats in these experiments were all alone — this led him to study whether the social environment of the rats had any effects on addiction.[2] He gave one group the same conditions — empty cages, solitude, and so on. The other group was provided good food, toys, and other rats; he named this group the Rat Park. The first group used 25mg of morphine a day; the second, less than 5mg. (172) He continued to give morphine to the rats from the first group for 57 days. After 57 days, he placed them in Rat Park and, unsurprisingly, they stopped using. (172) This seems counter-intuitive to many and the reality might not be so fine and dandy as attempts to replicate the experiment have failed[3]. Nonetheless, let’s take into consideration other facts: childhood trauma is strongly linked to causing substance addiction in the future,[4] anxious attachment is related to substance abuse[5], and insecure attachment among college students was associated both with alcohol consumption in order to cope with stress[6]. Thus, even if social connection alone were not a panacea for substance addiction, it is certainly wrong to vilify drug addicts the way we have as criminals and enemies of health and prosperity.

One might argue that punishment is the most effective way to prevent drug addiction. However, I have shown in my previous essays that prohibition creates black markets, worsens gang violence, spreads racism, promotes the prison industrial complex, and punishes addicts rather than giving them the necessary treatments. Would legalization and a compassionate approach make worse such deadly consequences? In order to answer this question, we need to travel to a few countries.

In Vancouver, a group of former addicts created an organization called VANDU that helped push the public conversation on drug in the right direction. Their efforts paid off as the mayor of Vancouver began to implement policies that allow doctors to prescribe heroin to addicts in a safe space. Such compassionate policies for a decade led to the rise of life expectancy by ten years; drug-related fatalities down by 80%. (203) Due to such results the Canadian Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that drug addicts have a right to life, and that safe injecting rooms are inherent parts of that right and can never be legally shutdown. (203) How were they able to achieve such results? Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, explains it as so: “People overdose because they don’t know if heroine is 1% or 40%… Just imagine if every time you picked up a bottle of wine, you didn’t know whether it was 8% alcohol or 80% alcohol [or] if every time you took an aspirin, you didn’t know if it was 5mg or 500mg.” (195) All doctors agree that medically pure heroin, injected using clean needles, does not produce abscesses, diseases, and death. Under prohibition, criminals cut drugs with similar looking powder to sell more. (209)

In Liverpool, Dr. John Marks ran a clinic where he prescribed heroin to addicts. His program initially started with around 12 people but later expanded more than four hundred. The local police first noticed the effects of his clinic. “Inspector Michael Lofts studied 142 heroin and cocaine addicts and he found that in the eighteen months before getting a prescription Dr. Marks, they received, on average, 6.88 criminal convictions, mostly for theft and robbery. In the eighteen months afterward, that figure fell to an average of 0.44 criminal convictions.” (210-211) The neighboring drug gangs also started to recede; Marks cut their supply and they couldn’t do business as usual anymore. (211) Henry Smith Williams was convinced that addicts would need drugs forever; Marks believed otherwise.

A psychologist named Charles Winick, who set up a free clinic for addicted musicians in New York in the 1950s, found that “Heroine use was concentrated in the 25 to 49 group, after which it tapered to very little.” Most addicts, he noticed, “mature out of addiction… possibly because the stresses and strains of life are becoming stabilized for them and because the major challenges of adulthood have passed.” (212) Accordingly, drug use fell. “Research published by John in the Proceedings of the royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh compared Widnes, which had a heroin clinic, to the very similar Liverpool borough of Bootle, which didn’t. In Bootle, there were 207.54 drug users per hundred thousand people; in Widnes it was just 15.84 — a twelvefold decrease.” (213) Marks later set up a bigger clinic at the Metropolitan Centre in Liverpool, and then it was decided that every health district in the region from Southport in the north to Macclesfield in the east would have a prescribing clinic of its own. Unsurprisingly, “there was a drop in shoplifting so massive that the department store chain Marks and Spencer’s publicly praised the policy and decided to sponsor the first World Conference on Harm Reduction and Drug-Taking in Liverpool in 1990.” Between 1992- 1995 when his clinics were open, he did not have a single death from his patients. However, the British government intervened and opposed prescription on principle. After the government intervention, 20 of Marks’ 450 patients died in 6 months, 41 in 2 years. (215)

In Switzerland, addicts are provided a social network, a job, and prescriptions to heroin. On average, users come to this program for 3 years, and at the end of that time only 15% are still using everyday. People who receive heroin prescriptions from these programs carry out 55% fewer vehicle thefts and 80% fewer muggings and burglaries. This fall in crime was almost immediate[7]. Furthermore, the HIV epidemic stopped. In 1985, 68% of HIV caused by injection drug by 2009 was down to 5%. (221) The number of addicts dying every year went down drastically; the percentage of those with permanent jobs tripled and every single one had a home. A third of addicts on welfare came off it. People on these programs were 94.7 % less likely to sell drugs than before their treatment. The whole program cost 35 Swiss francs per patient per drug, but it spares the taxpayer 45 francs a day arresting, trying, and convicting the user. (222)

In Portugal, João Gulão was put in charge of the treatment of addicts for the whole country. They knew that most drug users were not addicts, so they didn’t concern themselves with them. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drugs. They didn’t legalize them because it would go against the UN conventions authored by Harry Anslinger. It could have triggered sanctions and crackdowns from other countries. (239) Nonetheless, the percentage of those who contract HIV through drug use fell from 52% to 20%. Children aged 15-16 in Portugal also reported one of the lowest lifetime prevalence of cannabis in Western Europe; Cocaine use was almost half the EU average; Heroine went down from 2.5 – 1.8 % after 6 years of decriminalization from 1999- 2005. Crimes related to drugs — robbery — are now close to zero thanks to decriminalization. (250) However, decriminalization still doesn’t stop the gangs from running their billion-dollar industry. Only legalization can eliminate such black markets.

Prohibition has had no positive effects. It began as a racist and anti-scientific endeavor, and it continues to be disproportionately harmful to minorities, impervious to facts and reason. The time is now for us to start treating addiction as a health issue. It is time to eliminate the black markets that produce so much violence, overdoses, and corruption. It is time to extinguish such flames that disproportionately harm minorities. We, as a nation, have repealed prohibition before. Thanks to such efforts, we no longer see Al Capone and his rival gangs fighting over the supply of alcohol. I hope that we can soon do the same for heroin, marijuana, cocaine, LSD, and every drug that produce so much violence and misery in the hands of Prohibition.


Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari

[1] https://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-157.html#9

[2] DeGrandpre, Cult of Pharmacology, 29. See also “The Effect of Housing and Gender on Morphine Self-Administration in Rats,” Psychopharmacology 58, 175-179

[3] Petrie, B. (1996). Environment is not the most important variable in determining oral morphine consumption in Wistar rats. Psychological Reports, 78, 391-400.

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3051362/

[5] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-choice/201411/addiction-disease-isolation

[6] Ibid.

[7] Denis Ribeaud, “Long-term Impacts of the Swiss Heroin Prescription Trials on Crime of Treated Heroin Users,” Journal of Drug Issues 34: 163 (2004), 173, doi: 10.1177/002204260403400108, http://jod.sagepub.com/content/34/1/163.

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