Rethinking Drug Prohibition:
      Don't Look for U.S. Govt. Leadership

    Peter Webster

    Drug Prohibition is today too important a tool for U.S. political institutions, and too critical an issue for certain economic interests, to expect that significant drug-law reform will be initiated in the United States. One certain indicator that significant reform in the U.S. is still remote is that at present it is rarely (if ever) suggested in political discourse, and only occasionally in the national media that current drug policy is a Prohibition analogous in every respect to America's infamous "noble experiment" of National Alcohol Prohibition. As a harbinger of and catalyst for drug-law reform, popular recognition of the history of a long series of failed Prohibitions and the close parallels between former Prohibitionist efforts and current drug policy would provide the example and imperative for necessary change. That U.S. political institutions and economic interests avoid discussing the obvious can only be intentional, for it is not logical.
    But the realization that reform will not originate in Washington is not to say that the growing reform movement within the United States is doomed to failure. On the contrary, it has become the model for similarly-minded groups elsewhere and, in its combat against Drug Prohibition at home, will force the U.S. Government into increasingly absurd positions which the governments of other nations will simply refuse to emulate. Although such a development has only begun to show early signs and may seem a fanciful hope to many reformers, it will almost certainly be the eventual scenario which defeats Drug Prohibition.
    Pressure for reform is certainly growing in the U.S. and it is forcing the government into a spiraling and ugly obduracy. U.S. reform groups are becoming well-organized, highly visible and frequently reported in the press, and they have convinced a great many former Prohibitionists that present policy is simply untenable, extremely wasteful, and aggravates the very problems it purports to solve. While the Prohibitionists pompously insist they occupy the moral high ground—the last refuge when truth has evaporated from one's position—the reformers seem lately to have the facts squarely on their side, to such an extent that the Prohibitionists, even the vaunted Drug Czar, refuse to enter into public debate with them. Instead, Prohibitionists content themselves in issuing inflammatory propaganda from the safety of their inner sanctums, and sponsoring bogus "research" while denying the efforts of legitimate investigators.
    A further certain indicator that the U.S. government fully intends carrying through to the bitter end is its reaction to the passage of Medical Marijuana Initiatives in California and Arizona in November of 1996. This development, its success an indicator of the growing influence of the reform movement, was perhaps the best and last opportunity for honorable retreat, for the U.S. Government to gradually back away from total Drug Prohibition. Instead, it appears that the resolve for yet further hardening of position has been the result: medical doctors have been threatened with prosecution if they would even recommend marijuana as a possible therapeutic remedy according to Initiative guidelines, and ways are being discussed in the various legislatures, governors' mansions and drug enforcement agencies to nullify the will of the people. The media have widely reported accusations by the Prohibitionists about the voters being "stupid" and "duped" for having overwhelmingly approved the Initiatives. The latest moves by federal and state government Prohibitionists in recommending yet further "research" on medical marijuana are certainly tactical, and aimed at delaying and diluting the successes of the reform movement. The tardiness of these latest moves argues the case.
    Abroad, the United States has been attempting to squelch or discredit any moves in other nations toward modest efforts at drug law reform or efforts aimed at harm reduction or decriminalization. In U.S. publications and speeches to Congress, for instance, we constantly hear about the "disaster of Holland's lenient drug policies", especially the de facto legalization of cannabis, available in "coffeeshops" throughout the country. Even a casual glance at Dutch government and international studies of the situation, however, reveals that the disaster is that other nations do not forthwith establish similar measures: the Dutch approach has, in fact, been highly effective at reducing consumption, especially of hard drugs by the young, has saved enormous sums from enforcement efforts, justice system and prison costs, it has brought a far higher proportion of hard drug addicts into pubic health care than in other countries, reduced the spread of AIDS, and produced other undeniable benefits as well.
    Recently an Associated Press newswire story recounted the success in Switzerland of a trial program supplying heroin to addicts. Very few U.S. newspapers, and none of consequence, carried the story. Instead, the news that made the headlines was a typically exaggerated interpretation of the latest NIDA sponsored research: many media reports suggested the results had proved once and for all that marijuana was addictive and a certain gateway to the "harder stuff". Yet close examination of the research showed no such thing. As a result of the Swiss success, Holland, Australia, and other nations are seriously considering pilot programs and certainly many key medical and government figures outside the U.S. are realizing that the "drug problem" is far more the result of Drug Prohibition than drug use.
    But the U.S. government is not about to let such realizations and reforms gather momentum without a fight, and it looks to be one involving low blows and dirty tricks, rather than above-board international debate—another sure sign that truth has long evaporated from the U.S. Prohibitionist position. In a very revealing report in an Australian newspaper, we read of the covert pressure used by the U.S. and its "narcotics-control" agencies to ensure that Australia does not give in to increasing public demands for drug law reform. The story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald of July 19, 1997, a major Australian national newspaper, and was titled, "The real drug war: Why the US won't let Australia reform its drug laws." The article noted that
    "Wherever a nation seems about to break ranks, the US will be there, cajoling or threatening. As a result, the UN and US between them have achieved a remarkable international consensus, the more astonishing for surviving the almost universal verdict that the strategy of drug prohibition has failed."
    America is in the throes of an addiction, to be sure. But it is to Drug Prohibition far more than to drug use. A great tolerance has now developed, just like the classic, if somewhat mythological tolerance to heroin: Enormous and wildly increasing budgets are squandered on ever-increasing doses of the Drug Prohibition habit, and vehement denials that the Prohibition habit is the problem are heard frequently along with pronouncements that with one more big fix of "enforcement and interdiction" the drug problem will be resolved. And in great irrational fear of the imagined rigors of withdrawal, the addict is ready to commit any disgrace, deception, crime or doublethink whatsoever to get his fix. Let us examine some of the reasons for this addiction to Drug Prohibition. There are many current imperatives for Prohibition, although most, if not all of these reasons have only recently become important. Neither is it necessary that present reality reflect original intent: In politics, any tool at hand is used, and misused.
    Quite the contrary to Prohibitionist propaganda, the drug war is not about preventing the harms associated with people using illegal substances, it is not even about protecting young people from discovering their use, and it is certainly not about improving the conditions of life in inner cities. It is about:
"The urine test—along with mandatory sentencing and other severe behavioral controls central to the drug war—is a power strategy that mirrors the "personal is political" radicalism of the 1960s.It takes seriously the proposition that those who resist the dictates of power, whether or not such resistance is framed as "political" in the conventional sense, are enemies and are undermining production, public order, and rationality. Like the loyalty oath and the "naming of names," the policing of everyday life—which in schools, for example, focuses on behaviors such as smoking, speech, and sexuality—requires Americans, from an early age on, to comply with the norms of the powerful without asking questions, and to accept the right of the state and corporate power to hold their bodies captive. Ultimately, it is not important whether drug testing finds traces of a drug in a student's urine or if locker searches turn up cigarettes or guns or pornographic literature. Rather, it is the policing itself that makes the point about who is in control."

    In view of such considerations it is more than obvious that a political consensus to back away from Drug Prohibition, even one driven by popular demand, will not be forthcoming in the United States of America. The more that European and other interested governments can band together to resist the U.S. lead in Drug Prohibition, the sooner we can expect some repudiation, timid and cautious at first, but angry and definitive eventually, of that great 20th Century drug trip on which the United States and its Puritan zealots have taken us. It has been a bumpy, and certainly not a fun ride, and a deplorable number of innocents have fallen victim to the Drug Prohibition Blitzkrieg.
    As I pointed out above, Drug Prohibition is now preponderantly about the Prohibition of marijuana, so the logical first step for Europe and the rest of the world will begin with not just the decriminalization of marijuana use which will leave the black market intact, and thus the "reform" open to legitimate criticism, but the repeal of Marijuana Prohibition itself. Nothing less will do, and there is simply no other alternative for nations espousing liberty and personal freedoms than a continuing and increasingly radical reorientation of policy concerning all drugs and drug issues. Only a timely and confident move in such a direction can avoid future defacto world domination through the mechanisms enabled by U.S. Prohibitionism. The politics of the War on Drugs is a politics of creeping totalitarianism: it will most certainly lead to the end of free societies as we know them.

Peter Webster     email:

This article previously appeared on the website of the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, This website is currently unavailable due to the prohibitive cost of bandwidth. Anyone wishing to help restore it may contact Cliff Schaffer at

Prohibition: The So-Called "War on Drugs"
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