I was shocked to learn recently how misguided our approach to drug policy is. In a recent article in The Independent, Johann Hari clearly explains how a policy based on prohibition and policing is counterproductive, and how all evidence favors legalizing and regulating the drug trade. For instance, did you know that Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs in 2001, and that drug use has since fallen, with hard drug use falling fastest? Or that the rate of new heroin addictions in Switzerland has fallen 82% since the country started providing centers where addicts can inject heroin safely and for free? (That’s because addicts no longer need to recruit new users to finance their addiction.)
But despite the evidence, political forces are lined up against a sane drug policy. As Hari explains:
In 1998, the Office of National Drug Control Policy was ordered by Congress to stop funding any scientific research that might give the impression that we should redirect funding from anti-trafficking busts into medical treatment of addicts, or that there is any argument to legalise, regulate or medicalise drug use. … So, to give a small example, the ONDCP spent $14bn on anti-cannabis adverts aimed at teenagers, and $43m to find out if the ads worked. They discovered that kids who saw the ads were more likely afterwards to get stoned, so the evidence was suppressed, and the ad campaign marched on.
Ouch. And while the US might be doing particularly poorly on this front, we’re not alone: In the UK, the chair of the Advisory Committe on the Misuse of Drugs (ie. the country’s top advisor on drug policy) was just fired for speaking out in favor of evidence-based drug policy. There’s an article about it in this weekend’s Boston Globe Ideas section, which is also worth a read. Among other things, it mentions that the Obama administration is taking baby steps in the direction of a more evidence-based policy. Still no Portuguese-scale decriminalization on the horizon for the US, but we can at least be supportive of any move to shift resources into addiction prevention and treatment.