“Instead of a war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.” – Tupac Shakur
I know I know, I said I don’t want this blog to get political…but…I am in South America. It’s hard to think about the continent without thinking about drugs, so here are my unsolicited thoughts on one of the great government overreaches of our times.
Earlier in one post I said that Colombia was winning the war on drugs. That is not quite true. Pablo Escobar is not gone, it is no longer the terrifying country it once was, and Colombia is no longer the world’s leading exporter of cocaine. It’s come back from the brink. But that doesn’t mean it’s winning, it’s just improving. Drugs are still here. Here, there, and everywhere.
Drugs can be dangerous things, causing addiction, financial loss, promoting dangerous actions and spread disease, and in some cases overdoses are fatal. But they are nowhere near as dangerous as the war on drugs. A war that has skyrocketed the price of illicit drugs, given guerilla and terrorist organisations an easy source of income, driven up crime rates making some neighbourhoods intolerable, raised HIV rates by blocking access to clean needles, caused cancer to farmers from coca fields sprayed with carcinogenic chemicals, created modern day slavery from the incarcerated population, lowered product purity as there is no oversight, and caused countless deaths from cartels waging war with one another and the police and bad reactions to contaminated drugs that have no controls to pass.
And who suffers? The taxpayer, and more importantly, the end user. The very people this war is designed to protect become the collateral damage. It is a weird kind of protection. Imagine you love pizza and the government declares war on pizza due to it’s high salt and fat content just to protect you. And if you are caught with any pizza, maybe just a few slices, to protect you even further the government will fine you and maybe send you to jail where you can work for a private corporation for $0.5 cents per hour and never vote again. If that happened, you might well think the government had overstepped it’s bounds. Well it has happened, only with drugs and not pizza.
Every place that has questionned this philosophy has had huge success. Colorado has earned massive tax income by legalising just one drug. The Netherlands tolerant stance towards drugs has been pulling in large tourist benefits for years, and drug use among the Dutch is one of the lowest in the world. Since decriminalising all drugs, rates of heroin use in Portugal have gone down, after an initial rise, and clean needles are preventing blood transmitted diseases from being spread as rapidly. Here in South America almost every country tolerates personal possession of drugs and may confiscate them, but won’t do more than that, apart from maybe Chile and one or two others.
But what about the kids? What about how easy it is to get addicted? Well, any kids that could get access to these drugs if they were legal find it even easier now when they don’t need an ID to buy them. And how easy it is to get addicted is a massively overblown. A friend, a smart guy, told me he tried heroin once and his conclusion was “it was boring”. Many conclusions about drugs come from animal experiments. And as has been pointed out, these animals are kept in tiny cages in solitary confinement with nothing to do all day except get high. Of course it’s easy to get them hooked on anything.
One brave scientist called Dr Bruce Alexander questionned this approach and created an experiment where the rats were treated far better, with a control group of isolated rats, and morphine (heroin’s cousin) was far less addictive for the free rats than the isolated ones. For a brilliant free and easy read about Dr Alexander’s Rat Park Experiment, Stuart McMillan has created a comic easily explaining it all here – http://www.stuartmcmillen.com/comics_en/rat-park/ – I thoroughly recommend reading it all the way through, but here I will quote it and spoil the ending, if you don’t want it spoiled skip the next sentence. “What if the difference between not being addicted and being addicted…was the difference between seeing the world as your park…and seeing the world as your cage?”
If the government took that view, maybe they would work harder to help people see the world as an easy place to live, instead of targeting a symptom rather than the cause of the disease itself.