|Week Online: Can you
briefly summarize for our readers the argument you are making about the
ubiquity of drug prohibition?
Harry Levine: Not easily,
but I'll try. The article makes three main points. First, every
country in the world has drug prohibition, but few people know this.
Drug prohibition is a global system held together by a series of UN treaties,
the most important being the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
Second, it is helpful to
see drug prohibition as a continuum. Heavily criminalized and punitive
policies like the US crack cocaine laws are at one end. The Netherlands'
cannabis policy is currently at the other end. Drug policy reform
seeks to move laws and policies away from criminalization and punishment
and toward decriminalization, tolerance and public health.
Third, the article offers
a series of reasons why in the 20th century drug prohibition was adopted
by every country in the world and supported by politicians from one end
of the political spectrum to the other. Let me just list the reasons
I give for why drug prohibition has spread so successfully around the world.
One, because of the influence
and power of the US.
Two, governments of all stripes
have found that the military and police resources marshaled for drug prohibition
can be used for all sorts of purposes.
Three, politicians and the
media find that drug demonization and anti-drug crusades can be politically,
rhetorically and even economically useful for them.
Four, drug prohibition has
benefited from the greater acceptance of the use of coercive state power
in the 20th Century.
Fifth, drug prohibition has
gained legitimacy because it is a project of the UN.
WOL: You have some
interesting things to say about harm reduction. You write that harm
reduction tolerates drug prohibition just as it tolerates drug use, and
that it seeks to reduce the harm of both. What are the political
implications of the harm reduction approach for ending prohibition?
Levine: Harm reduction
is a very good thing. Harm reduction is probably the most important
public health movement to emerge in the last twenty years or more years,
and it is the first international movement to challenge the more criminalized
forms of drug prohibition. Its effect, if not always its intent,
is to move drug policies toward the decriminalized, regulated end of the
spectrum. Some harm reductionists don't consider themselves drug
reformers, but in the course of pursuing improvements in public health,
harm reduction often requires changes in policy that reduce the punitiveness
of drug prohibition.
Interestingly, harm reduction's
approach to drug prohibition is the same as its approach to drug use.
It seeks to reduce the harmful effects of drug use without requiring that
users be drug-free; harm reduction also seeks to reduce the harmful effects
of drug prohibition without requiring that countries be prohibition-free.
Harm reduction offers a radically tolerant and pragmatic approach to both
drug use and drug prohibition: It assumes neither are going away
any time soon and suggests therefore that reasonable and responsible people
try to persuade both those who use drugs, and those who use drug prohibition,
to minimize the harms that their activities produce.
WOL: Do you consider
such phenomenon as drug courts or the "treatment not jail" initiatives
to fall within the realm of harm reduction?
Levine: Coerced treatment,
mandatory treatment, drug courts, whatever you want to call this, is not
harm reduction, at least as I understand it. Drug courts and the
like are a change within criminalized drug prohibition; they are not a
shift toward decriminalized prohibition. I believe that most leaders
of the drug court movement, however well intentioned, are supporters of
criminalized drug prohibition -- they want drug users arrested and threatened
with criminal sanctions. This is important to understand.
I personally think that offering
voluntary drug treatment as part of a range of services for people who
want it is a very good thing. But drug courts and coerced treatment
still send to jail the many people who fail in treatment, and especially
in drug-free treatment, to jail. As Lynn Zimmer has taught me, the
only effective way of reducing the number of people in jail and prison
on drug charges is by arresting fewer people for possessing and using drugs.
This is what they have been doing in Europe, and it works.
Look at the case of Robert
Downey, Jr. The man called the best actor of his generation spent
a year in jail because he flunked drug tests. It started with a DWI,
an unloaded gun and a small quantity of heroin. If it were only drunk
driving with a gun, he would not have gone to jail. But Downey went
to a drug court and "treatment," flunked drug tests and was sent to prison.
He didn't give or sell drugs; he was a threat to nobody. He had friends,
family, doctors and more work than he could do, and yet he was forced into
jail and treatment simply for possessing small quantities of drugs and
for flunking drug tests. His case is important because the same thing
has happened to hundreds of thousands of other young people -- mainly black
and Latino -- who nobody knows about.
WOL: One critic accused
you of conjuring up a "secret cabal" that creates and enforces drug prohibition.
How do you respond to suggestions that you are positing a sort of conspiracy
Levine: I'm a sociologist
and historian. I don't believe in conspiracy theories, it's a silly
point. If anyone knows of a secret cabal, please have them contact
me. I think that many things that develop for one reason have all
kinds of other unintended effects. That's not a conspiracy theory.
WOL: You write about
the "romantic view of the coercive state," which sounds like a libertarian
argument for less state power. Are you a libertarian, and if so what
I am absolutely a civil libertarian.
I am a member of the ACLU and a graduate of Brandeis University, named
after Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who was the Supreme Court's
first great modern champion of civil liberties. He would be appalled
by urine drug tests and much else done in the name of the war on drugs.
Brandeis was also a defender of ordinary people against corporate power
as well as government power. He was called "the people's lawyer,"
and he campaigned for consumer protection, women's rights and against monopolistic
business practices. He was also the first lawyer and judge to passionately
argue that the Constitution gave the right to privacy.
Nowadays many people learn
of the civil liberties movement from The Libertarian Party and related
organizations which, I believe, mainly articulate what is called a "free-market"
or "right-wing" libertarian perspective. This movement has grown
remarkably since the 1970s, and they have done excellent work on many civil
liberties issues, including repeatedly pointing out the awfulness and repressiveness
of the war on drugs. William F. Buckley Jr., the economist Milton
Friedman, the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz and the Cato Institute are well
known free-market or right-wing libertarians. My article on "World-Wide
Drug Prohibition" has just come out in the Independent Review, which is
certainly sympathetic to free-market libertarian perspectives.
However, I myself come from
a more left-wing libertarian tradition that includes Justice Brandeis,
the founders of the ACLU and much of the early civil rights movement.
Ira Glasser has called such people "social justice libertarians," and I
think it's a good name. Both of my parents -- one Irish from the
mid-west, the other Jewish from New York -- were staunch civil libertarians,
and they just as strongly supported social and economic justice for ordinary
men, women and their families. On both sides of my family, I am actually
a third generation social justice libertarian.
Social justice libertarians
see the battle for civil liberties and civil rights as linked with the
struggles of working people, and of the poor, exploited and discriminated
against. The modern civil liberties movement was created after World
War I by social justice or left-wing libertarians, and most of the 20th
century court cases over freedom of speech, press, civil rights, and more
were won by them.
I think nearly everyone who
strongly supports drug policy reform, decriminalization, and harm reduction
policies is probably a libertarian of some sort. They just may not
know it yet. I suspect that among the most active drug policy reformers,
more people are likely social-justice libertarians than free-market libertarians.
My sense is that right-wing libertarians have been courageous, fierce,
articulate critics of drug prohibition laws and policies, but they have
not thus far been strong supporters of harm reduction programs or even
of much drug decriminalization. I think that harm reduction has been
created and developed by people who are essentially left libertarians.
I also suspect that the people working on the medical marijuana campaigns
have been disproportionately what I call social justice libertarians.
Unfortunately, there is no
formal organization or movement of social justice libertarians. Many
of the people who do work for the ACLU may themselves be social justice
libertarians, but the ACLU itself is not a think tank devoted to developing
political thought like Cato or the Independent Institute. Rather,
the ACLU is primarily the most important activist organization dedicated
to fighting against suppression of anybody's civil liberties, including
Nazis and Klu Klux Klanners.
I hope one consequence of
the growing opposition to criminalized drug prohibition will be a strengthened
movement for civil liberties in America and other countries. I also
hope that we left-wing libertarians will soon get our act together and
openly stand with right-wing libertarians -- as libertarians -- against
punitive drug prohibition, against the US drug war, and for the civil liberties
and civil rights of people who use the currently illegal drugs.
WOL: You write that
global drug prohibition is in crisis. Do you foresee an end to the
global prohibition regime anytime soon?
Levine: In the long
run, the more punitive forms of drug prohibition are doomed. And
in the very long run, it seems to me that the whole system of global prohibition
is likewise doomed. It is important to understand that the end of
global drug prohibition will formally happen when the Single Convention
and its related treaties are modified or repealed. These UN anti-drug
treaties are to the global prohibition system what the 18th Amendment and
the Volstead Act were to US alcohol Prohibition. Once the 18th Amendment
was repealed, states and some localities were free to pursue their own
alcohol control policies. Once the Single Convention is modified
or repealed, countries throughout the world will be free to adopt their
own drug policies -- including prohibition if they so desire.
Until recently European drug
reformers had concluded that it was politically too difficult to modify
or repeal the Single Convention. So policy makers and reformers have
pursued their own drug reforms, largely ignoring the treaties. But
now there is some discussion about changing the conventions, and that is
a very important development. The Drugs and Democracy Project at
the Transnational Institute in the Netherlands has put up some very good
materials about this on their web site (http://www.tni.org/drugs/).
WOL: What is currently
happening with cannabis prohibition?
Global cannabis prohibition
is coming apart as we speak. The DEA chief, Asa Hutchinson, says
that decriminalization of cannabis in Canada will make it harder to fight
the drug war in the US, and he is absolutely right. This has happened
in the last 20 years in Europe with the Netherlands. It also happened
in the 1920s when the US tried to maintain alcohol prohibition after Canada
had established legal production and sale. In both cases, many visitors
and even ordinary tourists saw a real world alternative to ineffective
prohibition policies. Many visitors also returned home with the currently
forbidden substance. The US drug czar and DEA head appear to understand
this, and so they are openly warning Canada and openly worrying about what
will happen. Nonetheless, Canada is likely to make more steps toward
WOL: What else have
you studied or written about besides drugs?
Levine: A number of
things, especially alcohol prohibition, the anti-alcohol or temperance
movement, and the history of ideas about alcohol. I also study the
history and anthropology of food, and I wrote a piece about why New York
Jews love Chinese food and eat so much of it. Recently I learned
that students at Hong Kong University read it.
I now think that drink, drugs
and food are really all part of one large topic. In the beginning
there was only food. Then human beings separated some plants as medicines.
Finally, about 200 years ago, they created the category of intoxicants
or drugs. Drug demonization first happened in a large way in the
early 1800s with the creation of the anti-alcohol or temperance movement
in the US. Drug prohibition and the war on drugs are, in fact, the
direct continuation of the 19th century's war on alcohol. I think
that eventually more and more people will understand that. Someday
people will look back on drug prohibition and the crusade for a drug-free
America the way we today view alcohol prohibition and the campaign for
an alcohol-free society. Both were repressive government systems
in the service of an impossible and historically bizarre goal.
I have a personal web site
-- where I have put up some of my writings, along with jokes and various
other things. When this interview comes out, I'll put it up there