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Mark McCaw ~ twitter's @bigpicguy

Author of "Insights Inside a Mind" ~ blogging the big picture

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Doing something sensible (for a change)

     How out of touch are we? Very much so it appears, but thanks to the efforts of more and more people tired of this theatre of the absurd, it appears the movement to move drug policies forward into the 21st century could be gaining some traction. Don't get me wrong, I don't for a minute believe victory is imminent, because common sense is so very uncommon and almost no politician actually has the common sense gene.

     What got me thinking about this today is a twitter link to the website of Avaaz, an organization I quite frequently agree with. Especially in the case of this petition to end the "war on drugs" which, when looked at with any degree of critical thought has been an utter failure, has cost taxpayers and the economy untold billions of dollars, and will never be effective. Never.

     Most, if not all of the people who read this will not remember the successful prohibition of alcohol, well, that's because the prohibition on alcohol was a success, in a lesser degree, in the same way the war on drugs is. That is, utter failure with far worse consequences to society than the benefits that may have been gained by some form of orderly success.

     Most of the informal reasearch I've done traces the use of alcohol back to at least 10,000 BC, and the use of marijuana back a minimum of 12,000 years. Who in their right mind would believe that substances that have been in use for millenia would suddenly stop being used because some overly-righteous asshole decided they were bad and should be illegal. The second the penstroke hits the page making things like this illegal, it sets off a chain of events that causes horrific consequenses. If you haven't put much thought into this subject, please read on for a discussion of what these prohibitions do, to individuals and to society.

     The second someone came to the realization that they could ingest or inhale something that made them feel good it was game on. People like to feel good, some get it through adreneline rushes, some bask in accomplishments and accolades, others like to have a drink, or a few, or way too many. Some like to smoke weed, others prefer some other substance. The point is, most human beings crave outside stimulation that makes them feel good, and it is probably more convenient to achieve through 10 bucks worth of grass or a six pack or beer than it is through parachuting off the Eiffel Tower.

     That said, I won't go into any kind of long history lesson on the prohibition of alcohol, most are aware it happened, it was a disasterous failure, it ended, liquor is now sold on a mostly regulated basis and puts billions of dollars of revenue into government coffers every year. Even if they banned it again tomorrow, people would still drink, they would find ways to make or get alcohol, and would share it with like minded people either for camaraderie or for profit. The truth is, people will never stop drinking alcohol.

     Those are history lessons we know. Have you ever thought about what the consequences of the alcohol prohibition were? Worse, it didn't last near as long as the drug prohibition so the damage, while substantial, was nowhere near what the war on drugs has cost societies across the globe. Because these things are rooted in populist ideas, they are widely supported by influential segments of the population who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about and no capacity to think of the far ranging societial consequences of prohibiting anything that is widely used across the global population. From a law enforcement perspective, causes like alcohol prohibition and the war on drugs are popular and are great PR for policing agencies as they always garner headlines and the majority of them heap praise on these organizations for their crime fighting abilities. The unfortunate part is how it takes people and resources away from crimes that really matter. The prohibition of alcohol can clearly be linked to a more than substantial rise in crime and boosting the prominence of the mafia. As it is now with drugs, while prohibited, people still wanted alcohol and were willing to pay a premium to get it. Being entrepreneurs, criminals were interested in cashing in on that premium by providing the product. Greed is also a factor, in that, it will draw in people who otherwise would never have committed a crime in their lives to cash in also. This leads to huge profits for organized criminals who can use it to fund their other, more sinister criminal enterprises, thus the prohibition itself actually creates more powerful criminal orgnizations which contribute to a worsening crime situation by funding other illegal activities with the fortunes they make from selling a product everyone wants but some dumbass got elected by opposing it. Along with this, we create another whole class of criminals, those who use, posess, and minimally distribute the prohibited substance to others. A person who could have lived an entire lifetime without any stain on their reputation could be followed forever by a criminal record for merely catching a buzz. Not to mention how many people died from drinking something they shouldn't have, something they thought was the same as the illegal alcohol they'd been buying but turned out to be something poisonous. This is not great policy. This does not make society better. Prohibiting food will not make people lose weight.

     So now I come to the sustained, yet absolutely useless war on drugs. Think about the consequences of alcohol prohibition as I summarized it above, then multiply it by about 1000. That's probably somewhere close to the havoc the lengthy and continued drug prohibition has caused. Now the "law and order" industry has figured out how to milk this thing like a cow. Billions of dollars annually are pumped into the industry and the result is minimal effect. It doesn't work and never will work. Sure, they orchestrate drug busts to look big and sensational, they'll expend hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars to bring down 15 or 20 small and medium players and it gets headlines and publicity for months on end. The truth is, if they managed to intercept more than 10% of the supply they'd be over the moon. I'll guarantee you I could leave my house right now and go buy anything I want, from weed, to extacy, cocaine, prescription pills, heroin, whatever I want  in a city of about 130,000. I can also find most of that in just about any small community I visit, whether I know anyone or not. That's the reality.

     There is minimal funding for services to help victims of crime. Unlimited funding to stop that guy with a bag of weed. No one can be bothered devoting resources to looking for missing women or children but they'll happily spend thousands of dollars and a ton of man hours doing surveillence on someone who may or may not be trafficking in one one-trillionth of the drugs sold and consumed daily on this planet. There is a whole lot wrong with this picture, and the bigger the picture you look at, the more you can find wrong with it.

     I was born near the end of the baby boom. I was a teen in the 70's. I know a lot of people who tried drugs, a lot who used for a time and have stopped and many who continue to recreationally enjoy putting various substances into their body for the sheer enjoyment of it. Some of these people are regular everyday working stiffs, others are wealthy business people, still others hold esteemed positions in our society. I believe it is their business what they enjoy in their spare time, we are all responsible for our own conduct. I do know some people who have had problems with addiction, however I will qualify that by saying they are pretty much the same people who, if they weren't addicted to drugs, would engage in some other kind of self destructive behaviour. I know many people who have had their lives stained with a criminal record that will follow them forever and cause them to be excluded from working in places they would be an asset, who otherwise are decent, upstanding citizens who wouldn't think of breaking a law. I will also admit, I know a few people who never grew up and I continue to see their name in the paper because they've made a living selling drugs and have no other skills and the occasional stint in jail is just a cost of doing business.

     The worst of the war on drugs is not just the criminal enterprises it has spawned, but the idea that most people do not understand they connection between prohibition and creating powerful criminal organizations. Not the guy down the street who sells a few bags of weed to suppliment his income, these people are ruthless, organized, monetized, and their interests do not stop at drugs. Drugs are a cash cow to fund other operations, and the lengthy prohibition on drugs, their use and possession, has created something that makes the mafia look like a freaking joke in comparison. This has gone on long enough that many of these drug kingpins are richer and more powerful than most countries in the world, many of them have their own private armies, they have important figures in their pockets. These people are not unsophisticated in their operations. If they need to spend a billion dollars on a new way to smuggle more of their overpriced product into a place where millions of people are more than willing to buy it, they will, as a cost of doing business. Just the fact it is illegal and so many people want it raises the stakes, and inevitably, leads to turf wars and violence. With the mafia, it was generally held to mob family on mob family violence. The length of time drugs have been prohibitied have led it to become something else, something far more sinister, where rivals now engage in violence for violence sake, and it's no longer targetted hits but random drive by shootings or bombings or whatever kind of violence they prefer at the time. It's no longer just the serious organized criminals, the idea of the "gangsta" life has been glorified so much so that an entire generation is growing up to the realization even if you don't bother to try hard to be a productive citizen you can have piles of money and piles of fun by engaging in various criminal activities, even if that includes spraying a crowd of your percieved rivals with automatic gunfire at the age of 15, or 13, no different than the child soldiers in countries we condemn for human rights abuses. As long as these substances are prohibited by force of law, yet wanted by such a significant proportion of the population, the situation will continue to worsen.

     The time has come to be sensible about how we deal with intoxicating substances. People are not going to stop using them. Period. Fact. Thousands of years of history teaches us this yet we ignore that because it doesn't conveniently fit the argument for the status quo. Rather than being a massive cost monetarily and societally, sensible regulation will create benefits we should have been taking advantage of for a long time.
First and foremost, it cuts a massive source of funding for criminals off. It also allows the better allocation of resources to the prevention of crime, it frees up police to deal with crimes that are under funded, to purchase better and more modern equipment and advanced training, and allows for more effort to be put into victim services. It takes a huge load off the court system and allows more serious crime to be put through the system in a more expedient fashion, possibly leading to less plea bargains and more convictions for the serious ills of society.

     Economically, the war on drugs makes no sense. I've said before and will say again people are never going to stop using intoxicating substances, so we are continually flushing money down the toilet trying to enforce the unenforcable. Under regulation, producers would become legitimate tax paying businesses in an industry that is instantly worth billions of dollars a year in this country alone. Then there would have to be a retail system, also made up of tax paying business people who would require employees, who would also be tax payers. Add to that the spinoffs available to equipment manufacturers, distribution and transportation networks, packaging designers, and everyone else who would now be doing legitimate business within the legal system. Finally there would be tax revenue, and plenty of it. It would probably be a conservative estimate to say they'd take in a couple of billion dollars a year and the product would still be less expensive at the retail level than it is today on the black market.

     I submit we should stop the madness, it can only get worse if we continue to do what we are doing. The negatives of prohibition are many and varied. This is not an issue of morals. It's an outdated and misguided policy that has no basis in fact or reality. We rightly express outrage at countries that think it is acceptable to allow men to legally rape their wives yet we have no problem with ruining a 19 year old kids life forever because he had a couple of bags of grass in his car. That criminal record will exclude him from work, from travel, from many of the things most people take for granted.

     The time has come for a stop to the damage of the war on drugs. The collateral damage is far too great to accept once someone begins to explain exactly what it is.

    Thanks, comments for and against are most welcome.

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