Drug prohibition has been an awful flop, at least if you judge it by the standard of reducing the social harms caused by drug use and not by that of nourishing a massive prison-industrial complex. In the 50 years since the U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs treaty outlawed cocaine, heroin and marijuana worldwide, the illegal-drug trade has become a multibillion-dollar global business, dominating the economy of Afghanistan and spawning spates of grisly murders in Mexico.
In the United States, since President Richard Nixon declared “war on drugs” 40 years ago, the price of cocaine and heroin has actually dropped. Despite the imprisonment of millions of drug offenders (mostly black and Latino), the escalated drug war failed to prevent the crack epidemic of the 1980s, the spread of methamphetamine, or the persistence of street-dealing drug gangs in poor neighborhoods. (It did drive up the price of marijuana, which rarely went for more than $20 an ounce in 1971.)
Yet if prohibition were ended, how could drug use and distribution be managed to ensure that the harm caused by intoxication did not exceed what’s caused by prohibition?
“We believe there’ll be less drug use if they legalize drugs,” responds Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a former New Jersey narcotics officer. After Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001, he notes — it now lets adult users keep a 10-day supply — use among teenagers declined by more than 20 percent, overdose deaths dropped by half, and new HIV infections among needle users fell by more than 70 percent.
If the U.S. legalized marijuana, Cole claims, teenage use would drop because there would be age restrictions on buying it. (According to a 2010 University of Michigan survey funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), slightly more than one-fifth of high-school seniors had used pot in the previous month, while slightly less had smoked cigarettes.) As for heroin and cocaine, he says, providing a legal supply to heavy users would cut out the street drug trade.
Legalization would also eliminate the violence from the drug trade, Cole argues. “The opposite of regulation is disaster,” he says. Prohibition “creates an underground market which is instantly filled with criminals.”
The goals of legal regulation would be to manage addiction, eliminate the criminal trade, and minimize the public disorder and health risks caused by drug use, says Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Yet any such regime must take into account the differences among drugs and the psychology of drug users.
“As the drugs become more dangerous, the regulations would be stricter,” says Cole.
Marijuana, the most widely used illegal drug, would certainly be the easiest one to handle. NIDA’s 2009 survey estimated that 16.7 million Americans, 8.7 percent of the population 12 or over, had used it in the past month. It also said that 7 million people had used prescription drugs to get high, 1.6 million cocaine, 1.3 million hallucinogens (mostly Ecstasy), 500,000 methamphetamine, and 200,000 heroin. (As these figures are based on a government survey, they may be low, but the proportions roughly parallel the quantities seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration.)
Some libertarians and evangelistic stoners argue that pot should be as unregulated as strawberries, but the alcohol model “could easily be almost perfectly adopted for cannabis,” says Sterling.
That would involve age limits, a ban on driving while intoxicated, and regulations on distribution, sales and public use. One obvious model is the Dutch “coffeeshop” system. Cannabis coffeeshops operate openly, and any adult can go in and buy up to five grams, either to smoke on the premises or take home.
“Zoning” would determine how this would work here, says Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. With alcohol, he notes, local options range from dry counties to the public drinking allowed in New Orleans’s French Quarter. Some cities might permit bud bars wherever alcohol bars operate; others might relegate them to isolated areas, as New York does with strip clubs. Local anti-smoking ordinances would also affect them.
The system would also have to consider the thousands of small growers who produce most of the domestic crop and form a major part of the stoner subculture. Many of them fear that if pot were legal, they would be squeezed out by corporations.
“The right to grow one’s own is crucial,” says St. Pierre. He predicts that the legal marijuana market would resemble that for beer, with both large mass-market brands and microbreweries.
Matt Scott and Kristin Nevedal, board members of the Humboldt Growers Association in California, agree. Nevedal envisions that large operations would be like the vineyards in California’s Central Valley that provide cheap jug wine, while the “Emerald Triangle” — Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties, the nation’s most renowned herb-cultivation area — would produce top-quality cannabis, as the nearby Napa Valley does with wine.
Small farmers would likely benefit from legalization, they argue, as they could grow ganja outdoors without the fear of police helicopters. “Outdoor cannabis is a superior product,” says Nevedal.
Large indoor operations, they say, use so much electricity that they are neither economically nor environmentally sustainable. A 100-square-foot indoor growroom uses six 1,000-watt lights to simulate the sun. A 10,000-square-foot facility would need 600,000 watts just for the lights, and more for the fans.
“We don’t do that with any other plant,” says Scott. “Many vegetables and fruits are started under lights, but they’re never taken to full term.”
While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, 16 states and Washington, D.C., allow medical use. In those with looser laws, such as California and Colorado, this has enabled adults with valid medical complaints to obtain it semi-legally, and prices have dropped by half. (It does not seem to have affected teenage use.)
On June 23, seven Congressmembers — a mix of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans, headed by Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) — introduced a bill to let states tax and regulate cannabis production and sales, limiting federal enforcement to smuggling and interstate transport. The bill is not likely to pass, but if it did, St. Pierre says, it would result in “a rocket ride to the Supreme Court.”
For heroin, says Eric Sterling, the conundrum is how much use would spread if “the price goes down and the ease of acquisition goes up,” but if a legal scheme set the price too high or made the restrictions too inconvenient, users would go back to the illegal market.
He posits a system in which “addiction management” specialists would supply enough drugs to keep addicts from getting sick, but would not tolerate criminal behavior. Rehab and counseling would be available, and addicts might also be required to work or go to school.
Switzerland, which had close to the highest rate of heroin addiction in Europe in the mid-’90s — with an estimated 30,000 addicts out of about 7 million people — has had some success with heroin maintenance. In 1994, it set up clinics where addicts could shoot up three times a day. By 2007, the number of drug-related deaths had fallen by half, the number of new addicts dropped dramatically, the number of drug-related HIV infections declined, and the open-air drug markets had disappeared, according to a study by Peter Reuter and Robert MacCoun, public-policy professors at the University of Maryland and the University of California at Berkeley respectively.
“Safe injection facilities to use should be part of every public health system,” says Joyce Rivera, executive director of St. Ann’s Harm Reduction Corner in the Bronx. In her experience, heroin users with jobs can manage work and social responsibilities, adapting their drug use “to their available time to self-sedate.”
IF YOU WANNA GET DOWN
Cocaine poses the most complex issues. Occasional users can do it relatively safely, but hardcore users often tend toward extreme binges rather than regular-dose addiction. That would make maintenance impractical.
“There is no treatment for crack/cocaine,” says Rivera. “In fact, there is no maintenance other than meds (licit and illicit), acupuncture, or some form of stress reduction to counter the dysphoria associated with over-depletion of dopamine receptors.”
But, she adds, “Dysfunctional crack and cocaine use dramatically declined from the ’90s without treatment.”
The British group Transform UK, in its 2009 study “After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation,” suggests trying to move the cocaine market to milder forms such as coca energy drinks and tea.
That’s not necessarily wishful thinking. A general principle of prohibition is that it makes the most potent forms of a drug the most value-for-weight profitable for dealers. For users, that makes it more cost-effective to shoot heroin instead of smoking opium, to smoke crack instead of chewing coca leaves, and to drink whiskey instead of beer.
Others are more skeptical. “Can people be satisfied with less of a rush?” asks Sterling. “I don’t think so.”
Any country that legalized drugs would run afoul of a network of international treaties. The 1961 Single Convention requires prohibition, and a followup, the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, requires signatories to ban possession.
The loopholes available in this framework are limited. The Dutch coffeeshops are “not legal, but tolerated,” St. Pierre points out. They can sell cannabis openly, but they still have to buy it from illegal growers or smugglers. (The far-right Dutch government is trying to limit coffeeshops to residents only; Amsterdam’s mayor opposes that proposal.)
Ending prohibition would also mean downsizing its enforcement apparatus. Federal, state, and local governments spend somewhere between $40 billion and $70 billion a year to interdict drugs and arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate offenders. That money funds both police departments and the economies of rural towns where prisons are the biggest employers.
“I’m of the opinion that moving out of drug prohibition is less about drugs and the ideal regulatory apparatus than it is about what to do with the lucrative economy of prohibition — is dismantling it even an option?” says Joyce Rivera. “Discussions around models of regulation avoid the core question of, in whose interest? If you can punish the poor [user] for the pain of the middle class, then why would you change a system that is working pretty well for the profiteers?”
The other side of that coin is the illegal drug trade. Statistics about it are speculative and often inflated — estimates of annual U.S. marijuana sales range from $10.5 billion to more than $110 billion — but it certainly pumps up the economy in several parts of the country, from the ghetto crack and heroin markets of Baltimore to the marijuana-growing areas of the Emerald Triangle and Appalachia.
Clifford Thornton of Efficacy, a Connecticut-based drug-policy group, supports ending prohibition, but says it would do more harm than good without a “Marshall Plan” to employ the people who now work in the drug trade.
“How are we going to replace the illegal market created by Prohibition?” he asks. “We’re probably talking about hundreds of thousands of people.”
This could conceivably be funded by taxes combined with the savings on law enforcement. California NORML estimates that a $2-a-gram tax on marijuana would bring in $6 billion to $13 billion a year nationally.
Any legalization system must also balance harm reduction and regulation with the nature of drug use. Heavy drug use often comes from a place more dionysiac than responsible —at best, a desire for sensory and emotional extremes; at worst, self-destructive patterns.
Eric Sterling suggests that psychedelic drugs, for example, could be handled like wilderness canoe trips or skydiving—permitted with a trained, licensed, insured guide. Many people seek danger and adventure, he says, but “you can’t make it foolproof.”
Policy elements that reduce harm, says Rivera, would include “educate, educate, educate, as in ‘drug, set, and setting’; develop, regulate, and enforce quality standards; and tax foreign and domestic production, sale, and consumption.”
Legalization would be a major social experiment, says Sterling, so it would have to allow for testing different approaches.
“I am certain that I don’t know what model will work,” he says. “I don’t have the answer and I don’t know anybody who does. It would be nice if all of these were neat soluble packages. Unfortunately, they’re not.”
Drugs Are the Love I'm Thinking Of
Life So Divine
When I mention I’ve done whippets, faces blanch. You have no idea, I say. There is a learning curve with nearly all drugs, where it takes a few sessions for your body and mind to get the hang of the ritual and effects. With whippets, when I discovered how to properly suckle that big beautiful balloon, I was rewarded with full-body waves of orgiastic pleasure. Except it only lasted 20 seconds.
Coke was fun, but different. Focused, calm and sharp if it was good rock and you didn’t hoover every line in sight. But it’s less stimulating than kind bud, hard on the body and the post-rush crash can push you into a pit of despair. Opiates are happy, happy, joy, joy, but the gnawing claws at you even after just a few days of play.
My favorite is hallucinogens. It’s not about the hedonic delights; a good shroom or acid trip propels you along a polychromatic mindsurf. Once, listening to Beethoven’s 9th as I was peaking, the music morphed into an exponentially expanding hyper-dimensional polygon. I was actually grasping infinity, the sacred apple. Another time, floating down a river in West Virginia, I could see the cellular structure in a leaf, each current in the water shimmered like fireworks on an inky canvas. And for hours I frolicked in the river, a human otter with no care but the aquatic joy of the iridescent present.
— Aldous K.
Letter from Burning Man, 2002
In August I went to Burning Man festival. We drove on a sun-cracked jigsaw puzzle, a city of thousands rising on a flatland of dust. People unloaded work-benches and power tools, lugged water and tents, erected steel scaffolding and draped it with miles of cloth.
I walked through the streets, fed by strangers, given free drinks, massaged. But 9/11 was in my hair, my skin, my sleep. My body was coiled tight from the year of living in the shadow of absent towers. Rummaging in my bag, I pulled out black clothes and a white rope, tied it around my neck. People’s eyes flinched when they saw me walking like a shadow caught in a noose.
I met Tony. He asked me where I was from. “New York.” He said “Me too.” Quiet moments fell between us like ash. “How are you holding up?” I rubbed my chest, “Feel tight. Can’t do this Burning Man thing, be open, love everyone.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tab and a pill.
“Shamans used drugs to heal,” he said. A few hours later I gulped them down and glided out to the desert as my body floated around me.
Strangers kissed and dancers spun. I walked toward the dark horizon, past techno tents where DJ’s pushed fast beats, past a blue lake of light and audiences howling at a movie with Woody Allen’s voice coming out of a samurai.
I hopped into the wasteland wanting to be lost. No one to speak to. No one to answer me. I was mumbling and it melted into a long scream, then hysterical laughter then silence. I fell and punched the desert, grabbed fistfuls of dust, seeing Towers, planes, people white like mimes, the rubble I walked past each day to work. My eyes flooded and I wept, slowly stood up and folded hands on my chest, felt the thump of my heart. I thanked my body.
Plumes of fire twisted in the distance and each step back to the city I heard yells, Techno-House-Funk bellowing, the grunts of sex. Ahead of me was a fire, a circle of drums and faces shiny with sweat as hands pounded a heart-beat for the city.
I felt clean and empty. My friends were tripping. Needing something more than words, we danced around and then into each other. We became a knot of warmth in the cold of night, then loosened and ran off, each a wild human flame.
— Nicholas Powers
One night I woke up with unimaginable pain. I thought I was dying or my appendix had burst or both. I drove to the hospital, doubting that I could do it or that I would live that long. It was the longest 15 minutes of my life.
They figured it out pretty quick in the ER; I don’t think I had heard of kidney stones before. My doctor was an attractive redhead about my age at the time, late twenties.
The moment Doctor Linda plugged the morphine drip into my arm, I was completely and eternally in love with her. Not only did that indescribable pain vanish, but I was happier than I had ever been. It was like being smacked by a freight train of happiness.
I effusively told Linda – my lover, my life – of my plans to build a honeymoon cottage for the two of us, where we would live with birds, flowers, and honeybees, happily ever after. I have always been shy with strangers, but I was no longer, not with Linda. My wife.
I poured out my heart, bursting with joy. She was the one true source of peace, love, and understanding in this world. Our meeting was fated to be. My pain was nothing, if it brought me to her. Linda and her magic IV drip!
Our marriage seemed as certain to me as it must have been bemusing and far-fetched to her, and everyone else within earshot. But I was serious.
She took it all in stride; in fact, I like to think that I made her day. I was weaned off the morphine when the kidney stone passed, too soon.
— Henri Cervantes