Why we need to end the War on Drugs

[Transcript of a TED talk by Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.]

What has the War on Drugs done to the world? Look at the murder and mayhem in Mexico, Central America, so many other parts of the planet, the global black market estimated at 300 billion dollars a year, prisons packed in the United States and elsewhere, police and military drawn into an unwinnable war that violates basic rights, and ordinary citizens just hope they don’t get caught in the crossfire, and meanwhile, more people using more drugs than ever. It’s my country’s history with alcohol prohibitionand Al Capone, times 50.

Which is why it’s particularly galling to me as an American that we’ve been the driving force behind this global drug war. Ask why so many countries criminalize drugs they’d never heard of, why the U.N. drug treaties emphasize criminalization over health, even why most of the money worldwide for dealing with drug abuse goes not to helping agencies but those that punish, and you’ll find the good old U.S. of A.

Why did we do this? Some people, especially in Latin America, think it’s not really about drugs. It’s just a subterfuge for advancing the realpolitik interests of the U.S. But by and large, that’s not it. We don’t want gangsters and guerrillas funded with illegal drug money terrorizing and taking over other nations. No, the fact is, America really is crazy when it comes to drugs. I mean, don’t forget, we’re the ones who thoughtthat we could prohibit alcohol. So think about our global drug war not as any sort of rational policy, but as the international projection of a domestic psychosis.

But here’s the good news. Now it’s the Russians leading the Drug War and not us. Most politicians in my country want to roll back the Drug War now, put fewer people behind bars, not more, and I’m proud to say as an American that we now lead the world in reforming marijuana policies. It’s now legal for medical purposes in almost half our 50 states, millions of people can purchase their marijuana, their medicine, in government- licensed dispensaries, and over half my fellow citizens now say it’s time to legally regulate and tax marijuana more or less like alcohol. That’s what Colorado and Washington are doing, and Uruguay, and others are sure to follow.

So that’s what I do: work to end the Drug War. I think it all started growing up in a fairly religious, moral family, eldest son of a rabbi, going off to university where I smoked some marijuana and I liked it. And I liked drinking too, but it was obvious that alcohol was really the more dangerous of the two, but my friends and I could get busted for smoking a joint.

Now, that hypocrisy kept bugging me, so I wrote my Ph.D dissertation on international drug control. I talked my way into the State Department. I got a security clearance. I interviewed hundreds of DEA and other law enforcement agents all around Europe and the Americas, and I’d ask them, “What do you think the answer is?” Well, in Latin America, they’d say to me, “You can’t really cut off the supply. The answer lies back in the U.S., in cutting off the demand.” So then I go back home and I talk to people involved in anti-drug efforts there, and they’d say, “You know, Ethan, you can’t really cut off the demand. The answer lies over there. You’ve got to cut off the supply.” Then I’d go and talk to the guys in customs trying to stop drugs at the borders, and they’d say, “You’re not going to stop it here. The answer lies over there, in cutting off supply and demand.” And it hit me: Everybody involved in this thought the answer lay in that area about which they knew the least.

So that’s when I started reading everything I could about psychoactive drugs: the history, the science,the politics, all of it, and the more one read, the more it hit you how a thoughtful, enlightened, intelligent approach took you over here, whereas the politics and laws of my country were taking you over here. And that disparity struck me as this incredible intellectual and moral puzzle.

There’s probably never been a drug-free society. Virtually every society has ingested psychoactive substances to deal with pain, increase our energy, socialize, even commune with God. Our desire to alter our consciousness may be as fundamental as our desires for food, companionship and sex. So our true challenge is to learn how to live with drugs so they cause the least possible harm and in some cases the greatest possible benefit.

I’ll tell you something else I learned, that the reason some drugs are legal and others not has almost nothing to do with science or health or the relative risk of drugs, and almost everything to do with who uses and who is perceived to use particular drugs. In the late 19th century, when most of the drugs that are now illegal were legal, the principal consumers of opiates in my country and others were middle-aged white women, using them to alleviate aches and pains when few other analgesics were available. And nobody thought about criminalizing it back then because nobody wanted to put Grandma behind bars.

But when hundreds of thousands of Chinese started showing up in my country, working hard on the railroads and the mines and then kicking back in the evening just like they had in the old country with a few puffs on that opium pipe, that’s when you saw the first drug prohibition laws in California and Nevada, driven by racist fears of Chinese transforming white women into opium-addicted sex slaves. The first cocaine prohibition laws, similarly prompted by racist fears of black men sniffing that white powderand forgetting their proper place in Southern society. And the first marijuana prohibition laws, all about fears of Mexican migrants in the West and the Southwest. And what was true in my country, is true in so many others as well, with both the origins of these laws and their implementation. Put it this way, and I exaggerate only slightly: If the principal smokers of cocaine were affluent older white men and the principal consumers of Viagra were poor young black men, then smokable cocaine would be easy to get with a prescription from your doctor and selling Viagra would get you five to 10 years behind bars.

I used to be a professor teaching about this. Now I’m an activist, a human rights activist, and what drives me is my shame at living in an otherwise great nation that has less than five percent of the world’s population but almost 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. It’s the people I meet who have lost someone they love to drug-related violence or prison or overdose or AIDS because our drug policies emphasize criminalization over health. It’s good people who have lost their jobs, their homes, their freedom, even their children to the state, not because they hurt anyone but solely because they chose to use one drug instead of another.

So is legalization the answer? On that, I’m torn: three days a week I think yes, three days a week I think no, and on Sundays I’m agnostic. But since today is Tuesday, let me just say that legally regulating and taxing most of the drugs that are now criminalized would radically reduce the crime, violence, corruption and black markets, and the problems of adulterated and unregulated drugs, and improve public safety,and allow taxpayer resources to be developed to more useful purposes. I mean, look, the markets in marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine are global commodities markets just like the global markets in alcohol, tobacco, coffee, sugar, and so many other things. Where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Knock out one source and another inevitably emerges. People tend to think of prohibition as the ultimate form of regulation when in fact it represents the abdication of regulation with criminals filling the void. Which is why putting criminal laws and police front and center in trying to control a dynamic global commodities market is a recipe for disaster. And what we really need to do is to bring the underground drug markets as much as possible aboveground and regulate them as intelligently as we can to minimize both the harms of drugs and the harms of prohibitionist policies.

Now, with marijuana, that obviously means legally regulating and taxing it like alcohol. The benefits of doing so are enormous, the risks minimal. Will more people use marijuana? Maybe, but it’s not going to be young people, because it’s not going to be legalized for them, and quite frankly, they already have the best access to marijuana. I think it’s going to be older people. It’s going to be people in their 40s and 60sand 80s who find they prefer a little marijuana to that drink in the evening or the sleeping pill or that it helps with their arthritis or diabetes or maybe helps spice up a long-term marriage. And that just might be a net public health benefit.

As for the other drugs, look at Portugal, where nobody goes to jail for possessing drugs, and the government’s made a serious commitment to treating addiction as a health issue. Look at Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, England, where people who have been addicted to heroin for many years and repeatedly tried to quit and failed can get pharmaceutical heroin and helping services in medical clinics, and the results are in: Illegal drug abuse and disease and overdoses and crime and arrests all go down, health and well-being improve, taxpayers benefit, and many drug users even put their addictions behind them.

Look at New Zealand, which recently enacted a law allowing certain recreational drugs to be sold legallyprovided their safety had been established. Look here in Brazil, and some other countries, where a remarkable psychoactive substance, ayahuasca, can be legally bought and consumed provided it’s done so within a religious context. Look in Bolivia and Peru, where all sorts of products made from the coca leaf, the source of cocaine, are sold legally over the counter with no apparent harm to people’s public health. I mean, don’t forget, Coca-Cola had cocaine in it until 1900, and so far as we know was no more addictive than Coca-Cola is today.

Conversely, think about cigarettes: Nothing can both hook you and kill you like cigarettes. When researchers ask heroin addicts what’s the toughest drug to quit, most say cigarettes. Yet in my country and many others, half of all the people who were ever addicted to cigarettes have quit without anyone being arrested or put in jail or sent to a “treatment program” by a prosecutor or a judge. What did it were higher taxes and time and place restrictions on sale and use and effective anti-smoking campaigns. Now, could we reduce smoking even more by making it totally illegal? Probably. But just imagine the drug war nightmare that would result.

So the challenges we face today are twofold. The first is the policy challenge of designing and implementing alternatives to ineffective prohibitionist policies, even as we need to get better at regulatingand living with the drugs that are now legal. But the second challenge is tougher, because it’s about us.The obstacles to reform lie not just out there in the power of the prison industrial complex or other vested interests that want to keep things the way they are, but within each and every one of us. It’s our fears and our lack of knowledge and imagination that stands in the way of real reform. And ultimately, I think that boils down to the kids, and to every parent’s desire to put our baby in a bubble, and the fear that somehow drugs will pierce that bubble and put our young ones at risk. In fact, sometimes it seems like the entire War on Drugs gets justified as one great big child protection act, which any young person can tell you it’s not.

So here’s what I say to teenagers. First, don’t do drugs. Second, don’t do drugs. Third, if you do do drugs, there’s some things I want you to know, because my bottom line as your parent is, come home safely at the end of the night and grow up and lead a healthy and good adulthood. That’s my drug education mantra: Safety first.

So this is what I’ve dedicated my life to, to building an organization and a movement of people who believe we need to turn our backs on the failed prohibitions of the past and embrace new drug policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights, where people who come from across the political spectrum and every other spectrum as well, where people who love our drugs, people who hate drugs, and people who don’t give a damn about drugs, but every one of us believes that this War on Drugs, this backward, heartless, disastrous War on Drugs, has got to end.

Thank you.

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