There’s a dangerous myth in sections of the public that the war on drugs is coming to an end. It’s an idea that as cannabis legalization sweeps across the U.S. and many other nations around the world, legal prohibitions against drug use and abuse will soon be reduced or removed entirely.
In reality, the drug war has never been more ferocious, targeting minorities and the most vulnerable in the U.S. and abroad. In the U.S. in 2018, there were more arrests for marijuana than in 2017, despite 11 states now allowing legal cannabis for citizens over 21 years of age. The FBI released figures that detailed 663,367 marijuana arrests in the country in 2018. The majority of Americans, according to a number of polls in the last years, now support marijuana legalization.
“Americans should be outraged that police departments across the country continue to waste tax dollars and limited law enforcement resources on arresting otherwise law-abiding citizens for simple marijuana possession,” National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Executive Director Erik Altieri said.
Cannabis is just the tip of the drug war iceberg. Although President Donald Trump has spoken regularly about escalating the war on drugs, blaming Mexico and drug cartels on the huge amounts of illicit substances entering the U.S., including heroin, cocaine, opioids and fentanyl, he ignores the elephant in the room: Millions of Americans want and need illegal drugs and illegality won’t stop them. According to a recent report from the RAND corporation, in 2016 alone U.S. citizens spent $150 billion on cannabis, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines.
The opioid epidemic is the worst drug crisis in the country’s history, killing hundreds of thousands of people and costing trillions of dollars. It was partly caused by pharmaceutical companies that saw an opportunity to make a fortune. Some of the biggest players, such as the Sackler family, are set to walk away from multibillion dollar settlements with billions of dollars still in their bank accounts.
I’ve spent the last five years investigating the drug war around the world, and what I’ve seen shocked me. Think of Honduras, a nation wracked by extreme violence and gang warfare. Much of the cocaine flowing into the U.S. from South America transits through Honduras, and the effect is a narco-state fully backed by the Trump administration (and the Obama White House before them). I witnessed what hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military support has created in the Central American state, a population that’s fleeing its borders in huge numbers. Honduras is a failed state, partly destroyed by the immense power of drug cartels and criminal gangs to control the huge cocaine trade. The President Donald Trump era is seeing many vulnerable Honduran refugees being sent back to Honduras where they face threats and death.
Guinea-Bissau in West Africa is a key cocaine transit hub between South America and Europe. Labelled a “narco-state” by the UN, last year saw the country’s biggest ever drug bust, nearly two tonnes of cocaine. Although the nation doesn’t suffer the same debilitating violence experienced by Honduras, ongoing political instability ensures that drug cartels view Guinea-Bissau as ripe for abuse.
In the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, at least 30,000 mostly poor civilians have been murdered in the last three and a half years. Duterte remains a popular leader, able to convince a fearful population that his deadly approach on methamphetamine users will bring societal renewal. The Philippines is what happens when a war on drugs becomes quasi-genocidal.
In the UK, conservative governments have continued to punish the most vulnerable people with drug dependence. While drug use and abuse is soaring in the UK, the so-called “Uberisation” of the drug trade in Britain has made it the cocaine capital of Europe, vast parts of the country are being lost to devastating austerity policies. These harsh economic cuts are directly tied to unhealthy use and abuse of cocaine, heroin and other illicit substances. The newly elected Boris Johnson government is deaf to the need for radical changes around drug prohibition.
A range of solutions
Despite the ugliness that exists around the drug war, there are encouraging signs of hope. Most of the Democratic candidates for President in 2020 have drug policies that were unimaginable just four years ago. Tulsi Gabbard wants to decriminalize drugs like cocaine and heroin. Bernie Sanders advocates federal cannabis legalisation by executive order, ending the war on drugs, eliminating private prisons and reparations for communities disproportionately affected by the drug war (largely minorities and people of color).
Joe Biden’s position on cannabis appears to be that he doesn’t support full legalization (making him an outlier in the Democratic field). Elizabeth Warren has been vocal in her opposition to the war on drugs, backs legalised cannabis and safe injecting centres (a practice that already exists successfully in Europe and Australia).
One of the more exciting aspects of future U.S. drug policy revolves around the medical use of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, ecstasy and psilocybin (magic mushrooms). Last year, Oakland became the second U.S. city (after Denver) to decriminalise magic mushrooms. The potential use of these drugs to treat mental health issues, PTSD, addictions and end-of-life trauma are profound, and scientific studies concur. Ecstasy could be legally available through a registered doctor by the beginning of next decade.
Of course, drug legalization is only one aspect of changing societal attitudes towards drugs. The stigmas and stereotypes around drug use and abuse, pushed by many in the media for decades, must change. How we think, write and talk about drugs has contributed to politicians believing that they could prosecute a racialized drug war for over 100 years. For example, racial bias is endemic within the management of the opioid crisis in the U.S.; white sufferers are benefitting from doctors prescribing drugs to treat their problems while black sufferers are either ignored or denied appropriate medication.
Ending the drug war is more imaginable now than at any time in the last half century. It won’t happen overnight, nor with President Donald Trump in the White House, but the appeal of harsh prohibition is dwindling. While the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) continues to receive obscenely huge amounts of government largesse, so many Americans now use and abuse drugs that it’s the height of futility to try and stop it. Punishing individuals who make the personal choice to consume an illicit substance has no place in the 21st century.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based Australian journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, the BBC, The Washington Post, The Nation, Huffington Post, Haaretz, and many others. His latest book is Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs. He's the author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe; the writer/co-producer of the associated documentary, Disaster Capitalism; and the co-director of an Al-Jazeera English film on the opioid drug tramadol. His other books include My Israel Question, The Blogging Revolution, and Profits of Doom, and he is the co-editor of the books Left Turn and After Zionism, and is a contributor to For God’s Sake.
Correction: The amount the U.S. spent in 2016 on cannabis, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines has been corrected.