The war on drugs has become a war against us

published on March 23, 2010

Vancouver Sun - The war on drugs has become a war against us

By Peter McKnight

When former U.S. president Richard Nixon first used the term “war on drugs” in 1969, it was a mere metaphor. While the term referred to a number of measures ostensibly designed to combat illicit drug use, it in no way signified a real war.

It does now. From Colombia to British Columbia, with stops in Mexico and the United States, the war on drugs has become indistinguishable from a real war, replete with military campaigns, insurgent groups, countless combat deaths and collateral damage.

In 2008, British Columbia experienced a record 140 homicides, 30 per cent of which police believe are the result of gang activity. Mexico’s drug war claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people in 2008, and in the first two months of 2009, another 1,000 people had died. As the escalating violence and consequent destabilization of countries like Mexico and Colombia demonstrate, this once metaphorical war has become a literal one.

This is a curious result since governments have long maintained that drug prohibition is necessary to combat drug use, that law enforcement forms an essential part of reducing the harms associated with illicit drugs. But given the anecdotal evidence, many critics have charged that the drug war is causing the very problems it was meant to solve.

Now the evidence is no longer merely anecdotal: Researchers with the Urban Health Research Initiative of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/ AIDS recently conducted a systematic review of all English-language scientific literature that evaluated the association between drug prohibition and violence. And in a paper released today, the researchers note that 13 out of 15 studies found that drug law enforcement was associated with increasing levels of drug-market violence.

The authors offer a simple theory to explain these studies’ observations: Prohibition creates a massive and lucrative illicit market for drugs, one estimated to be worth as much as $320 billion US globally, and $7 billion Cdn in BC This creates enormous financial opportunities for organized crime, and where organized crime dares to tread, violence inevitably follows.

What’s worse, there is little evidence that drug prohibition has achieved its primary goal of reducing drug supply and use. On the contrary, illicit drugs “have become cheaper, their purity has increased, and rates of use have not markedly changed.”

In the face of this evidence, one would expect politicians and policy-makers to search for alternatives to the criminalization of illicit drugs. The British Columbia Health Officers Council has, for example, recently encouraged the federal government to revise the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and “create regulatory frameworks for drugs.”

Yet the federal Conservatives, with little opposition from the Liberals and NDP, are forging ahead with increasing criminalization in the form of Bill C-15, which will impose mandatory prison sentences for certain drug crimes.

The impact of such measures is predictable: We will not likely see a decrease in drug use, but we will see an increase in prison populations, which will place an additional burden on taxpayers. And worst of all, there’s reason to believe we will also see an increase in drug-related violence.

Consequently, report co-author Evan Wood, who was recently named Junior Doctor of the Year by the British Medical Journal, comments, “The willingness of our current government to push blindly forward with a war on drugs approach without considering the likely community impacts and the impact on the taxpayer is very alarming.”

This is a view that evidently cuts across the political spectrum. Indeed, reviewers who hold a conservative or libertarian outlook, such as Harvard University’s Jeffrey Miron, the Fraser Institute’s Steve Easton and Conservative Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, have endorsed the report.

One would think the government would listen to these Conservative voices even if it wishes to remain wilfully blind to the scientific evidence. But if not, it will be up to taxpayers to voice their alarm with the government’s current course. For as the literature demonstrates, the war on drugs is a war on us. More >>

Content reproduced with permission of the Vancouver Sun.