The War on Drugs is a Public Health Crisis


Anti-drug warriors have proclaimed, for many years, that they were somehow protecting and promoting public health by fighting 'illegal' drugs. That argument has always been hollow. It ignores the public health problems caused by organized crime. Organized crime is naturally drawn to the easy profits made available by prohibition. This has caused untold death and tragedy, primarily in the developing world and inner cities.

The public health argument also ignores the fact that most overdoses and other negative health consequences are caused by poorly made or contaminated drugs, or by simple ignorance on the part of the user. It is also worth noting the public health, fiscal and societal problems caused by the mass incarceration of low level drug dealers, producers and even users. Legally approved drugs (alcohol for example) leave no market for organized crime, do not require mass incarceration, are free of dangerous contaminants and come with dosage instructions and poison control information.

Setting all of that aside though, the problem has the potential to become much, much worse. According to the BBC a total of 122 new legal drugs have been introduced to the European market in the last two years. These drugs are not legal in the sense that they have been approved, they are legal in the sense that they have not been banned yet. That means that experimental chemists are coming up with one new drug every 6 days. The rate at which those drugs are being introduce is also accelerating. In 2011 49 new drugs appeared (one every 7.4 days) and 73 appeared in 2012 (one every 5 days). The potential side effects and purity of these drugs is largely unknown and regulatory bodies simply cannot move fast enough to ban them all, or teach law enforcement agencies what to look for.

So, the anti-drug warriors are creating a situation where there are scores of 'legal' drugs on the market, all sold by completely unregulated manufacturers with no controls in place over the contents of those drugs. Public health and medical officials have no idea what the side effects or long term consequences of those drugs might be or how to deal with overdoses and other health problems caused by them.

The 'War on Drugs' is completely un-winnable. Even in rare cases where isolated communities managed to rid themselves of drugs and alcohol, residents have turned to other intoxicants such as gasoline and paint thinner. For the money wasted on the war on drugs, governments could have waged and won a global war on poverty and illiteracy.

There is no way to get rid of drugs, but what can realistically be done is to make safe (or at least safer) drugs legally available. Marijuana is a good place to start, but other drugs could conceivably be made available under much safer conditions than exist currently. If handed over to legitimate pharmaceutical manufacturers many "street" drugs could be made much safer than they are now, with the active ingredients isolated and unnecessary  dangerous elements removed.

With, at least some, drugs legally available users would have an alternative to street drugs, overdoses would be reduced, and the profit margin for street drugs would shrink to almost nothing. Newly legal drugs would be far less expensive and less dangerous to acquire and use. What's more the taxes raised from legitimate drug sales would go a long way toward paying for drug education, rehabilitation and treatment and the money saved by law enforcement and the prison system could be used elsewhere.

The war on drugs was never going to succeed but the new wave of mystery chemicals being pumped into the market, with another new one arriving weekly mean that the war is officially lost. The only question remaining is how many billions of dollars governments want to throw away before they admit it.

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