Time to decriminalise drugs

Norm Stamper, October 15, 2009 12:01am

OF ALL the noteworthy reasons offered for putting an end to the “War on Drugs”, the one that surely gets the least play is this: people like their drugs and don’t appreciate the Government telling them they can’t have them.

Only a tiny fraction of drug-policy reformers trot that one out at conferences or in opinion pieces. Even some doctrinaire libertarians choke on the sentiment. We have to draw the line somewhere, they say. What message does adult drug use send our youth?

An important question, to be sure. But we might want to ask ourselves what message we’re already transmitting to young, impressionable minds.

We’ve told our kids that cannabis is a “gateway” drug. Smoke it and you’ll surely wind up face down in a urine-soaked alley, a needle sticking out of the collapsed vein in your arm.

We’ve told them, by the very act of repealing alcohol prohibition in the United States 76 years ago, that booze is safer than pot. We’ve told them that those who use drugs are criminals, and those who become addicted are “junkies” or “dope fiends”. We’ve told them to “just say no”, surely inoculating them and their friends against any foreseeable drug use.

The problem is that so much of what we’ve told our children is a lie. And they know it.

Are drugs dangerous to kids? You bet they are, starting with the certifiably authentic “gateway” drug of nicotine.

Mind and mood-altering drugs can cause serious damage to adolescents’ normal development. So can lies.

Misleading young people subtracts from our credibility. It diminishes our authority, and makes it difficult to convey legitimate concerns about drug use.

A growing number of reformers are challenging the duplicity of drug war proponents – even as we work just as hard as they to keep dangerous drugs, including alcohol, out of the lives of our kids.

I’m a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (www.leap.cc), an organisation of 13,000 present and former criminal justice practitioners and allies. We’ve concluded that the drug war, prosecuted with bogus claims and shrill propaganda, has made the world much less safe for all, especially our youth.

Our agenda? End the drug war; replace prohibition with a regulatory model; reverse the 7:1 ratio of funding for enforcement over prevention and treatment, thereby reducing death, disease, crime, and addiction; and support solid educational programs that help all people, young and old, make informed judgments about what they choose to put into their bodies.

Defenders of the status quo believe that ending prohibition would cause hordes of drug-free people to line up to smoke crack or shoot smack. An October 2007 Zogby poll of voter-age Americans debunks that myth. More than 99 per cent of non-users answered “no” when asked if they would try hard drugs “such as heroin or cocaine” if such were made legal (0.6 per cent said yes, 0.4 per cent weren’t sure).

What would happen if the government no longer ordered adults not to use drugs? My guess is that a small number of the uninitiated would experiment with cannabis (100 million Americans have already tried it at least once), and that overall drug use would drop – the result of a shift in public policy that puts our money on prevention and treatment.

* Dr Norm Stamper was a police officer in the United States for 34 years, including six years as Seattle’s police chief. He is visiting Australia with support from the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.

Published in the Courier Mail, 15 October 2009