David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 4/26/02
Earlier this week, a member of the British Parliament made a very bold statement. Jenny Tonge, a prominent member of the Liberal Democrat party, called for the legalization of cocaine.
Even in the UK, where the drug policy debate has advanced dramatically further than in most places, Tonge's statement is cutting edge, going further than the already forward-looking position of the party itself. The Liberal Democrats have called for legalization of marijuana but mere decriminalization of possession for other drugs.
By US standards, Tonge's comments come across as even bolder, of course. A measure of that is the fact that even in this newsletter, where we have openly called for repeal of prohibition across the board for years, focusing in an editorial on the legalization and regulation of cocaine in particular is not something that we find especially comfortable.
But when an elected official willingly takes on the risk that Tonge has taken, it deserves support, so here we are. As scary as cocaine can be, as damaging as it often proves to individuals and the people around them, Jenny Tonge is nevertheless right on target. Cocaine, for all its perils, should not be prohibited.
Why? Because prohibition does more harm than good and is wrong in and of itself. If democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms, prohibition is a system worse than all other conceivable drug policies. Far from protecting the vulnerable from the harms of addiction, prohibition increases those harms dramatically, causing untold suffering to the unfortunate who become addicted despite the laws. The crime of the illegal drug trade devastates whole neighborhoods and exposes large segments of the population to the corrosive effects of the underground economy. And even if none of that were true, adults would still have the right to make their own decisions, even if those decisions sometimes lead them to harm.
A conversation I had some years back at a dinner gathering points to the heart of the cocaine conundrum. An individual seated at my table told me that he agreed with me about marijuana legalization, strongly in fact, as well as progressive drug policies overall, but considered drugs like heroin and cocaine to be too dangerous to allow widespread, legal sales. My point that sales are already widespread under prohibition and vastly more hazardous than they would be under a legal distribution regime didn't sway him. He recounted a wedding he had attended where the groom was clearly under cocaine's influence, causing a highly uncomfortable and unfortunate situation for all involved.
It certainly sounds like a disturbing experience. Addiction isn't pretty, and no one involved in drug policy reform should forget that. But it's not hard to imagine a turn of events at the wedding that would have been even worse. It would have been worse if the groom had died. The groom could have unknowingly obtained a tainted batch and gotten poisoned, or too pure a batch and had an overdose. Clearly this would have been even worse.
But the point is that such tragedies do happen, and happen all the time. Prohibition ensures a lack of quality control that increases the overall harmfulness of drugs and causes tens of thousands of preventable deaths every year. And while it is routinely assumed that others are prevented by the drug laws from becoming addicted, that assumption has never been tested, and the arguments to the reverse are just as strong -- "forbidden fruit" can be very alluring to the young and inexperienced, exactly the kind of people most at risk of taking a drug experience too far.
By prohibiting drugs, then, society decides to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of people every year, to protect a group of people who may or may not exist, from themselves. Offering help to people with drug problems is one thing, but killing or imprisoning others to help them is quite another. And those whose lives are lost are by definition the people we claimed we wished most to protect. The system is incoherent from the public health and the moral perspectives alike.
Anti-prohibitionists are often characterized by opponents or skeptics as not in touch with the realities facing the poorest or most vulnerable members of society. This cannot be said of Tonge, though, who recently toured Colombia, where she spoke with villagers terrorized by the drug wars. Far from being out of touch, our movement draws on the real-world experiences of allies from the mountains of the Andes to the hospitals and the street corners of our cities here in the US. Over the next year or so, DRCNet, in partnership with a range of organizations in this country and others, is organizing a series of anti-prohibition conferences in different parts of the world that will elevate those authentic voices to relate the terrible impact of prohibition and the drug war on their communities.
If I have one difference with Tonge, it is that she called only for medical prescription availability of heroin, as opposed to the over-the-counter sales that she suggested for cocaine. While it's true that heroin is in some ways more addictive than cocaine, it's also true that cocaine is more physically damaging than heroin and that the harms flowing from drug prohibition are just as real for heroin as for cocaine. Some form of legalization or regulation is therefore just as necessary for that drug as for the others, though prescription heroin would certainly be a vast improvement over the total prohibition in place today.
Overall, though, Jenny Tonge has demonstrated that even in politics, reason in drug policy can prevail. Since she has put it on the line, so should we. Those of us who understand the dark truth of prohibition must speak out in solidarity. After all, if we don't, who will? It's time for opponents of the drug war to join hands across the oceans and work together for peace and freedom around the globe.