A War Well Lost

Sam Harris and Johann Hari discuss the “war on drugs”: http://www.samharris.org/

So I think things are absolutely ripe for ordinary democratic citizens to demand this thing. The polling shows overwhelmingly that people know the drug war has failed. They know it doesn’t work. What they need is for our voices to be louder than the voices of the forces who support the drug war, like the private prison industry; the alcohol industry, which doesn’t want competitors; the prison guard unions, and so on and so on. We also need to persuade people that their totally legitimate fears about the alternatives are in fact not matched by the evidence in societies that have actually tried the alternatives.

S. Harris: Perhaps we should speak about that. What about Portugal? When we pass through the looking glass and invert all our drug laws, where do we arrive?

J. Hari: I think one of the most important things to say about this is that it’s not an abstract conversation. Too often when we talk about the alternatives to the drug war, people start using this slightly weird and arid philosophical tone of voice, where it’s all kind of hypothetical. There’s no excuse for hypothetical conversations on this subject. The alternatives have been tried, they are being tried across the world, and the results are in, and they are unambiguous.

So I could talk about a few places, and Portugal is one. In 2000 Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, which is kind of extraordinary. Every year they tried the American way more and more: They arrested and imprisoned more people, and every year the problem got worse. One day the prime minister and the leader of the opposition got together and in effect said, “We can’t go on like this. We can’t have more and more people becoming heroin addicts. Let’s figure out what would genuinely solve the problem.”

They convened a panel of scientists and doctors and said to them (again I’m paraphrasing), “Go away and figure out what would solve this problem, and we will agree in advance to do whatever you recommend.” They just took it out of politics. It was very smart. It was as if Obama and Boehner agreed in advance to abide by whatever the panel on drug reform said. It’s hard to imagine Obama and Boehner agreeing on the time of day, but grant that thought for a moment.

The panel went away for a year and a half and came back and said: “Decriminalize everything from cannabis to crack. But”—and this is the crucial next stage—“take all the money we used to spend on arresting and harassing and imprisoning drug users, and spend it on reconnecting them with society and turning their lives around.”

Some of it was what we think of as treatment in America and Britain—they do do residential rehab, and they do therapy—but actually most of it wasn’t that. Most of it, the most successful part, was really very simple. It was making sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning. It consisted of subsidized jobs and microloans to set up small businesses.

Say you used to be a mechanic. When you’re ready, they’ll go to a garage and they’ll say, “If you employ Sam for a year, we’ll pay half his wages.” The microloans had extremely low interest rates, and many businesses were set up by addicts.

It’s been nearly 15 years since this experiment began, and the results are in. Drug use by injection is down by 50%, broader addiction is down, overdose is massively down, and HIV transmission among addicts is massively down.

Compare that with the results in the United States over the past few years. In Portugal I interviewed a guy named Joao Figueira, who was the leader of the opposition to decriminalization at the time—the country’s top drug cop. He said a lot of the things a lot of people reading this will totally reasonably be thinking. Surely if you decriminalize all drugs, you’ll have all sorts of disasters? Figueira told me that everything he had predicted would happen didn’t happen—and everything the other side predicted came to pass. And he talked about how ashamed he felt that he’d spent 20 years arresting and harassing drug users, and he hoped the whole world would follow Portugal’s example.

J. Hari:

And yet I just realized there were many basic questions I didn’t know the answer to, including exactly the one you’re asking: Why were drugs banned 100 years ago? Why do we continue banning them? What are the actual alternatives in practice? And what really causes drug use and drug addiction?

To find the answers, I went on this long journey—across nine countries, 30,000 miles—and I learned that almost everything I thought at the start was basically wrong. Drugs aren’t what we think they are. The drug war isn’t what we think it is. Drug addiction isn’t what we think it is. And the alternatives aren’t what we think they are.

There is no necessity to go on the long journey: it is much simpler if you learn the simple basic principles. Change basically the education system: teach children to understand and manage their mind (see Dan Siegel’s book ‘Mindsight’). Teach all people to understand and manage their lives: to create smart and powerful balance between inherited instinct demands and happy, balanced, harmonious, conscious and organized life. Or, on a bigger scale – balance between instinct’s demands and our survival.  It is not so complicated as it sounds but if we don’t do it we will perish.  I.V. 


About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence.
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