What’s morality got to do with drugs?

Friday, September 13th, 2013

My beliefs about the criminalisation of drug use have changed over the last few months of researching and writing this blog. Although I always supported a health agenda, I spent years working alongside criminal justice agencies and, in essence, being part of the machine that maintained the War On Drugs. Drugs caused harm – that was for sure – and whilst I insisted on working for health services and within a harm reduction agenda, I still had to contribute drug tests and pre-sentence statements to criminal justice organisations on behalf of people I didn’t really think were doing anything wrong. Besides, most of the criminal justice drugs services were part of the NHS. The whole agenda was blurred – and the lines between health and justice disappeared under the weight of morality. As we all know, drugs are bad, kids.

But let’s face it – they’re not. They’re just drugs. If it’s a moral compass we’re using, some of them, such as anaesthetic, are definitely good. But this isn’t the issue I want to discuss here – I want to showcase a couple of the best resources I have found which outline the damage caused by unquestioningly taking this legal and moral standpoint on drug use.

Count The Costs has published an Alternative World Drug Report to coincide with the UN’s Global Commission On Drugs Policy (which I wrote about in The War On Drugs versus livers, and focuses on the public health implications of socially excluding drug users). Instead of relying on self-reporting by international governments, the Alternative Report collates its own data, looking at the unintended negative consequences of the War On Drugs.

It is organised into seven main areas of damage that is caused by the continuing approach taken by drugs policies across the world:

undermining development and security, fuelling conflict
threatening public health, spreading disease and death
undermining human rights
promoting stigma and discrimination
creating crime, enriching criminals
deforestation and pollution
wasting billions on drug law enforcement

For those of you who haven’t considered some of these arguments before, or if there is a particular issue that catches your attention, do have a look at this website. It really is the best, most comprehensive single resource I have seen, and isn’t so arrogant as to presume it has the answers – it merely forces the question.

A more capsule summary of the War On Drugs is available from Peter Watt of Sheffield University, whose recent piece on the upcoming legalisation of cannabis in Uruguay identifies the main motivations behind the problems in South America, the continent most damaged by the US-driven criminalisation agenda. Uruguay is an experiment worth watching – and it seems that the countries most crippled but the War On Drugs are starting to take matters into their own hands and make some interesting moves when it comes to drug policy (as previously discussed in Santos speaks out).

A specialist in the South American drug wars, Peter also identifies the value to the US economy of perpetuating the War On Drugs, by generating the private prison industry. Quoting journalist Chris Hedges, “Poor people, especially those of colour, are worth nothing to corporations and private contractors if they are on the street. In jails and prisons, however, they each can generate corporate revenues of $30,000 to $40,000 a year”.

This sentiment is shared in Eugene Jarecki’s excellent documentary, The House I Live In, which looks at the impact of the War On Drugs on the USA’s poorest, predominantly black, communities and asks who this system is benefitting. Despite drug use being proportional across racial groups in the US, almost all those incarcerated for drug offences are black – one in three young black men spend time in prison in the US.

I hope some of you will look at these links, and that, if you find them interesting, you will share them. This is not a small problem – areas of Asia, South America and Africa are being destroyed by this nonsensical battle, where poverty is exploited by organised criminals using fear and violence – and the continents providing the target markets, North America, Australasia and Europe, are also seeing their poorest and most excluded communities injured by the trade. Drug use isn’t bad – whether it is smoking crack or having a quiet pint on a Friday, we all do it to some degree, and until the moral and criminal precursors are removed from the debate, a practical, just solution will remain evasive.

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