Ethics @ Work: Prohibition and drug use – another hangover?

Prestigious international commission recommends an end to the war on drugs as we know it.

mexico city weed rally_311 reuters (photo credit: REUTERS)
mexico city weed rally_311 reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 1920 the United States embarked on a “noble experiment”: a nationwide ban on the production, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The object of the ban, which was passed after being approved overwhelmingly in 36 of the 48 states, was to fight the scourge of alcohol overuse: disease, crime, wasteful spending, family neglect, abuse and so on.
The ban did in fact enjoy some success in reducing drinking, including problem drinking, but the country quickly came to the conclusion that the costs were unbearable.
Alongside the predictable costs of deprivation and inconvenience for responsible drinkers, and the huge loss of revenue to the beverage industry and to the national coffers (prior to prohibition, about a third of federal revenue came from taxes on liquor), Americans saw a greater and unexpected result: a huge increase in the extent, power and violence of organized crime.
It turned out that the demand for liquor could not be legislated away, and the legal industry was overnight replaced by an illegal one – one that enforced its market power through violence rather than contracts, and which supported public officials through bribery rather than through taxes.
The liquor industry was transformed overnight from a huge boon to the public purse to a huge burden on it, as armies of law-enforcement and tax-enforcement agents sought to bring the offenders to justice.
Only 13 years after it was imposed, prohibition was repealed.
This week the distinguished commissioners of the Global Commission on Drug Policy reached the conclusion that the prohibition on recreational drugs is having the same effects and that the lesson should be the same. The commission, which includes Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, former US secretary of state George Schultz, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, and former US Fed chairman Paul Volcker, recommends ending “the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others” and “experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.”
The commission said despite the commendable objectives of the worldwide war on drugs, hindsight and careful examination of the relevant research had led to the conclusion that the benefits of the prohibition have been much less than expected, and in some cases nonexistent, while the costs have been enormously greater than originally anticipated.
Organized crime, financed by the drug trade, threatens the very existence of political stability in many countries, the commission said. And the effect of decriminalization on the amount of drug use has been considerably smaller than what was thought and sometimes feared, it said.
The report points out that while drug use is ultimately a public health concern, its criminalization makes it virtually impossible to deal with the public-health aspects of drug use with the normal tools and agencies – since every patient is simultaneously and automatically a criminal. So even putting the problem of organized crime and law enforcement expenses to the side, criminalization constitutes to a large extent an obstacle to dealing with the very problem it was meant to remedy.
I think the commission’s report is worthy of careful study. It is nearly universally accepted today that prohibition was foolish and counterproductive, and the parallels to the war on drugs deserve a broad public discussion.
One reservation is that research studies done under the current worldwide regime cannot necessarily be easily extrapolated to a different worldwide approach. Local decriminalization could have a larger effect than large-scale, because a small, lenient locale will attract users from around the region or the world. Or it could have a smaller effect; even if drugs are legal in a small region, residents may still find it impossible to obtain drugs because they are illegal in surrounding locales, or because widespread decriminalization would remove the stigma of drug use in a way that regional leniencies would not.
There are no easy answers to the scourge of addictive and mind-altering drugs, but the topic deserves more discussion than it receives.
This new study is a worthy contribution to the public discussion.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).