Every day, somewhere in the world, time is being wasted in TV studios and legislatures alike both attacking and defending modern day drug policy. Little legal or social progress has been made on this most pressing of issues in recent years, mainly because the public perspective on drugs is still mostly shaped by personal values and individual experiences instead of statistical data. Whether it is a recovered addict speaking on behalf of decriminalization or a veteran police officer defending drug raids, both opinions are as rich in bias as they are in perspective.
The Addict and the Officer
Most of us out there are neither drug addicts nor police officers, but we generally choose to empathize with only one of these two demographics. This is naïve. Would it not be better to look at the data that informs these two perspectives instead of mandating that only one of them can be right? What policy could be crafted from that?
An addict has every reason to advocate for drug decriminalization and regulation, not just for moral reasons, but also because of their own experience with the matter. Hard evidence shows that prison sentences do not disincentivize drug use for addicts. People are often sent to jail instead of rehab for doing drugs, then get out, do drugs again, and go back to jail. Criminal records then make these people less attractive to employers. That goes on to increase the likelihood that addicts will reoffend instead of reintegrate. The result is that the same disenfranchised people are trapped in a cyclical hell of poverty and prison, never getting the support they need to beat the habit. Law officials fail to recognize that punitive measures do not help the people who are most impacted by the plight of drugs.
But a police officer too is correct in pointing out that drug addicts are frequently thrown in jail for criminal offenses that have nothing to do with drug possession, but with violent crimes committed in order to acquire or sell drugs. Drug addicts clearly require rehabilitative care that prisons are not organized to provide, but if someone is already very addicted to drugs and committing violent acts as a result, there is also a critical civic need to protect people from the immediate danger of volatile behavior. It’s also worth noting that keeping drugs illegal does to some extent disincentivize people who are not addicted to drugs from trying them.
Most people agree that the social damage created by drugs could be combatted in a much better fashion than it currently is. The unfortunate thing is that societies can’t agree on what should replace what we have today. There is no doubt that decriminalization could lead to certain people becoming addicted to drugs who otherwise might not be. There is also no doubt that keeping drugs illegal has stigmatized addiction, impeded access to rehabilitative care for the poor, and spawned violent organized crime syndicates with enough money to wage regional wars from Afghanistan to Mexico.
Getting people off of drugs is a long and difficult process that requires a great deal of time, but the neutralization of the violence created by both drug addicts and their suppliers ideally needs to happen as swiftly as possible. Even though this as a whole is not a controversial statement, it’s rarely how we see drug policy portrayed. We do others and ourselves great harm by perpetuating the false notion that the “War on Drugs” as it’s called, must either continue or end.
How can we evolve?
Drug policy is complex, and its evolution requires the kind of support that only public openness and strong political coalitions can provide. Don’t ask, “What is the solution?” because there isn’t just one. America’s War on Drugs is certainly in need of reform, but since its launch under Richard Nixon, drug possession charges have been employed to reduce both violent crime and police corruption in major US cities. Modern day New York has a crime rate far lower than it did in the 70s, partly because organized crime syndicates selling drugs had their supply lines cut off.
Conversely, in places like Portugal or the Netherlands where many drugs are decriminalized and regulated, we see lower addiction rates, lower incarceration rates, and fewer instances of HIV. Stroll through Amsterdam and you’ll find that most of the drug users aren’t Dutch, but tourists from countries where drugs are illegal. Some US states have also had success with the full-on legalization of soft drugs like cannabis, both raising tax revenue and disrupting cartels in the process.
Does this mean that drugs should be legal in Amsterdam but illegal in New York? Of course not. What it means is that drug policies have to be able to change as societies change. There is no ultimate solution for drug addiction or drugs. Different practices and policies work better for different places and people. Policies need to diversify and not just reinforce dichotomies. We need to have more empathy for people that suffer from addiction, as well as more appreciation for the people who do the dirty work of enforcing drug laws, both old and new.
When it comes to our addict and our officer, we don’t have to side with one or the other, because they are both right. What we need now more than ever isn’t an ultimatum, but the openness to take new approaches based on data instead of personal bias. Drug policy is complicated. Let’s treat it that way.