The prohibition of drugs is blamed for creating the problem of drug abuse, but is that entirely fair? Before the 1960s, despite longstanding legislation in most countries prohibiting dangerous narcotics, drugs were not a major world issue.
Is the real problem the harm caused to those who abuse drugs, or the growth of international organized crime that has turned drugs into a hugely profitable industry? Was it the 'pop culture' and the much-publicized use of drugs in the 60s that created the demand? Prohibition by itself did not create the increased availability of drugs; that came from criminals who followed the capitalist model of supplying to a demand.
Compounding the problem is the lack of international agreement on what should be done, and in such a legal and moral vacuum, crime wins because it has no real or moral opposition. The continuing use of the phrase, 'war on drugs' is a sound bite, to gain populist support rather than assist in the formation of sound, considered and practical policymaking. The latter is the mark of the statesmen who formulate long-term strategic campaigns that advocate and often require unpopular approaches. Unfortunately, the world has few statesmen any more.
Instead what is promised is more draconian enforcement of the law. Law enforcement agencies receive ever more challenging targets,which are never evaluated and change often. Metrics are developed by 'bean-counters', budgets are set aside for 'combating drugs', and those who wish to see outcomefocused approaches, with a rational mix of health care and countering organized crime are perpetually frustrated.
In reality, either society prohibits the supply and use of drugs because its considered view is that drugs are harmful, or it has a managed or regulated system, which invariably means that it must accept the risk to users.
In both cases, drugs will still be abused and therefore more should be spent on health and rehabilitation regimes. Some might argue that taxation of a regulated market might help. As with tobacco and alcohol now, organized criminals will see opportunities for evasion and counterfeiting, undercutting 'legitimate' supply channels, and corrupting public officials and private enterprises.
A move towards decriminalization of currently illicit drugs would create an instability from which it may prove impossible to recover. There are a significant number of people with disposable income who want to abuse drugs. The demand remains and would grow.
In a regulated market how would drugs be sourced, when the sources are almost all controlled by organized crime? Surely deals with Afghan drug lords or the Columbian FARC guerrillas would be unacceptable? Would the private sector invest and compete in the production of drugs for non-medicinal purposes as with tobacco and alcohol? Given their experience of class actions for causing death and illness with tobacco, they may be reluctant to do so with another proven health risk. Elsewhere, society seeks to limit the availability of tobacco and alcohol, so why increase the availability of other harmful drugs?
It is easy to criticize and easy to propose schemes that seem attractive to those who have to be seen to be 'doing something'. It is far more difficult to consider the consequences of any proposed action, which cannot be unilateral, and therefore seek to get international agreement for controversial policies that carry the risk of grave unintended consequences. That should not stop consideration of alternatives, but it should stop the seeking to lay blame, or fooling ourselves or others that there are any easy answers.
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(c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.