My book, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, is out in the UK this week. I’ll be in the UK in early February on a book tour (3 February at Queen Mary University of London and 4 February at the famous Frontline Club).
The London Times has just published a positive review of my book, written by James Bloodworth:
This lucid account shows why the war on drugs is futile, says James Bloodworth
The war on drugs is a crusade that seeks to do the impossible. The backers of this catastrophic battle cite their belief in a “drug-free future” — as Donald Trump put it at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in 2018 — to justify its continuation. The carnage the drug war leaves in its wake is considered a price worth paying.
Pills, Powder and Smoke documents the human cost of this irrational approach. Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs in 1971, calling drug use “public enemy number one”. In 2016 the Global Commission on Drugs reported that the banning of drugs had had “little or no impact” on drug use globally.
As Antony Loewenstein, an Australian journalist, points out, in 2016 in the US there were 1,572,579 drug arrests; one every 20 seconds. Despite that and mass incarceration — the prison population swelled to two million under President Clinton’s “three strikes” mandatory life sentence for repeat offenders — the drug trade booms.
“The drug war has been a convenient justification to ostracise, demonise, imprison, ignore or kill the most marginalised,” Loewenstein writes. Elsewhere in the book he notes: “In early 2018 93 per cent of New Yorkers arrested for cannabis were people of colour.” Undoubtedly, the war on drugs from its beginnings has had a racial and class element to it. For instance, Nixon blamed Jews for the counterculture push to normalise marijuana. “Every one of the bastards that are out for legalising marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews?” he once said.
Over four years Loewenstein travelled to the front lines of the drug war to prove its failure. The huge black market in drugs and the criminal networks that thrive on them exist because of the west’s insatiable appetite for drugs. In Mexico alone there were 33,341 murders in 2018. “The drug war was a leading cause of the carnage,” Loewenstein writes. In Honduras, where 79 per cent of cocaine-trafficking flights leaving South America for the US first land, he finds what the opposition politician Maria Luisa Borjas describes as “narco-mayors, narco-judges, narco-police, narco-magistrates of the Supreme Court and a narco-president”. The Honduran state colludes with the drug barons.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration knows that it cannot win the drug war in its central American backyard, so instead seeks to control it by “working with officials who were complicit in the drug trade but also going after big figures who could be held up as examples of the organisation’s toughness against the trade”. Tens of thousands of civilians get caught in the crossfire. As Loewenstein writes: the war on drugs “will never end until African, South American and Asian lives matter as much as white lives in the Western Heartland”.
For those who still believe that the war on drugs can be won and are willing to take it to its logical conclusion, mass murder has become a legitimate policy option. During the 2016 election in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte promised that he would pack the funeral parlours with drug dealers and users. In office he said: “If you are still into drugs, I am going to kill you. Don’t take this as a joke. I’m not trying to make you laugh. Sons of bitches, I’ll really kill you.” According to human rights groups as many as 27,000 people have been killed since 2016 — murdered effectively — in Duterte’s drug war. To eliminate drugs you have to eliminate a lot of people. No people, no drug problem.
Visiting Guinea-Bissau, Loewenstein finds that “the former Gold Coast is turning into the Coke Coast”. Meanwhile, in Australia, “subservience to Washington” has meant the wholesale import of counterproductive and cruel prohibitionist attitudes. In 2016 the Sydney Daily Telegraph columnist Miranda Devine even called for meth-addicted parents to be sterilised.
Prohibition isn’t working and Loewenstein demonstrates this convincingly. In 2018 the International Drug Policy Consortium issued a report on the progress of the UN’s ten-year plan of action on drugs. It found there had been a 31 per cent global increase in drug taking between 2009 and 2016, and that in 2015 drug-related deaths reached 450,000 worldwide.
A government report leaked in 2005 found that British police needed to seize 60-80 per cent of drugs in the country for there to be a tangible effect on drug flows. They had never achieved a seizure rate higher than 20 per cent.
Why, then, haven’t more nations adopted humane and workable drug policies? Partly because of political cowardice. Those in government who advocate an evidence-based approach to drugs are often hounded out of public life amid a chorus of media hysteria.
David Nutt, the British neuropsychopharmacologist appointed in 2008 to chair the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, was fired soon after by the Labour government for saying that Ecstasy was safer than horse riding and advocating new drug classifications based on order of harm. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had “decided that they had to get the right-wing press onside”, Nutt tells Loewenstein. Politicians usually come to see the futility of the war on drugs only on leaving office; this is what the American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton calls “retirement wisdom”.
Thankfully, public attitudes towards drugs are beginning to shift. Medical marijuana is now widely accepted in Europe and the US. Eleven US states have legalised recreational cannabis; I recently visited Nevada where the desert is dotted with billboards advertising legal marijuana dispensaries. There has been no accompanying increase in lawlessness in any of these states. Moreover, the futility of the war is exposed by the ease with which you can dodge the law online. It is possible on the dark web to buy drugs (of known quantity and potency and bought from reliable sellers who are rated by customers) and have them shipped to your front door.
Loewenstein supports the legalisation of all drugs “so long as that is accompanied by appropriate safeguards”. This would include age restrictions, strict licensing laws and supervised injecting facilities. Others favour decriminalisation accompanied by a prescription-type system for harder drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Either option would be an improvement on the status quo. In Portugal, where the consumption of all drugs was decriminalised in 2001, problem drug use has declined. Overdoses and HIV infections have also dropped significantly.
When it comes to alcohol we recognise that prohibition doesn’t work — despite, according to the World Health Organization, harmful use of alcohol being responsible for three million deaths every year. Few think there is anything wrong with having a drink to relax, and we tax alcohol to pay for the damage it can cause. Yet to smoke a joint or swallow an Ecstasy tablet has been demonised as a “moral abomination”, as Loewenstein writes. This is a recent phenomenon; drugs were widely available and used with little controversy in Britain during the 19th century.
We need to dispense with this pharmacological puritanism. Sensible drug policies begin with the acknowledgment that for the majority who use them drugs are, at least for them, a relatively harmless source of relaxation and escapism. A minority need help to get off drugs, not criminalisation. Humans have been getting high since time immemorial; the war on drugs is unwinnable because it is a war against human nature. And the only thing wars against human nature ever produce, as Loewenstein shows in this lucid and well-researched book, are piles of dead bodies.