Sevareidís Law and the War on Drugs

Illicit recreational drugs - be they hard or soft - are one of the greatest problems of our age. The fight against drug abuse is also a multi-billion dollar industry from policing and prisons to rehabilitation and mentoring of those afflicted, so having an intelligent debate about it is not easy. Fortunately, in recent years, senior police officers and even judges on both sides of the Atlantic have begun to realize that the cure is worse than the disease; this has led to their mooting the decriminalization or even the outright legalization of drugs, something that has been undertaken in various countries, and is currently happening in the United States with cannabis.

Before we go any further I should declare an interest. I have smoked cannabis - and I did inhale - on a handful of occasions, the last time around three decades ago. And I am a long term user of prescription drugs - pain-killers - due primarily to an injury sustained over twenty years ago. Aside from that, I am a non-smoker, and gave up alcohol for purely innocent reasons in 1986. I do not work for nor do I have any financial interest in any drug company.

Cannabis is in the news more often than most others because it is considered a soft drug, and as such is widely used. The current legal status of cannabis (marijuana) in the United States is complicated. Here is an attempt to clarify it from that font of all knowledge Wikipedia. Broadly speaking, cannabis has two user bases: recreational users and medical users. Cannabis seeds can now be bought openly on the Internet (subject to local laws); the active ingredients are cannabinoids, known generically as CBD, a group of around eighty organic compounds. The properties of CBD vary from strain to strain.

Legalizing cannabis or any drug for medical purposes is a different kettle of fish from allowing its recreational use, so let us return to generalities and see what is wrong with the current international set up. Aside from so-called designer drugs which are by definition new, all the drugs that today land people behind bars (or in some countries facing execution), were at one time legal. Cannabis was once grown openly in the UK; heroin was legal in the United States until the 1920s; cocaine was legal in the US before the First World War.

Recreational drugs were outlawed because they were considered harmful to society as a whole. Clearly if a significant percentage of the population became hooked on them, civilization as we know it would break down. The same argument can be made out in spades for any number of substances and pastimes. Over seventeen hundred people were killed on the UKís roads in 2012. How could that figure have been reduced? How about the institution of a 10mph speed limit for all but emergency vehicles? That would be one solution, but does anyone in his right mind advocate it?

Clearly there must be some speed restrictions on public roads, and just as clearly, however horrified we in the UK and worldwide may be about unnecessary road deaths, we are prepared to make the trade off: in order for the nation and the world to run relatively smoothly, some of us must die.

The drug laws have not worked for the same reason Prohibition did not work in the United States; this is the usual analogy, it is also the classic example of Sevareidís Law. This dictum, formulated by the American journalist Eric Sevareid (1912-92) states simply that the principal cause of problems is solutions. We see its operation in many fields, including especially politics. A problem arises or is perceived, lobbyists and campaigners decide it must be eliminated forthwith, and set about doing so without considering the consequences. Most often they fail to consider human nature. In the United States, where the consumption of alcohol was and is regarded as a largely harmless pastime, a sociable act and even a human right, the ban on alcohol undermined the rule of law. Ordinary people flouted it, and public servants - including police officers - were wont either to look the other way or to take "backhanders" from the organized criminals, who took over its production and distribution.

The war on drugs has been far more damaging than Prohibition because it has not only undermined the rule of law but has led to the creation of a de facto police state in the US and elsewhere. And how many lives has it saved?

There are fatalities associated with illegal recreational drugs, but the vast majority of these are attributable to the drug war. If such drugs were legal, the criminal element would disappear from their production and distribution, there would be no turf wars or murders of drug dealers by other dealers, and the quality of the drugs on the street would be increased so that the dangers of using them would be greatly reduced.

In addition to all that, the resources freed up - police, courts, prisons, etc - would mean that other problems including real crimes, could be tackled more effectively. We would also be able to look around for alternatives to drug prohibition. The classical drug pusher is largely a myth; this is a market economy, and as such is demand driven. If prohibition and Draconian punishments are unable to deter especially the young from making these bad choices, then perhaps it is time to look for other deterrents? One is religion: the Christian churches and especially Islam have no truck with recreational drugs. Drug laws work in Islamic countries not because of their deterrent effect but because of the culture.

I am not suggesting we should all run off and join either the Christian crusade or the Islamic jihad, but at the very least the time has come for us to think outside the box. Unless and until we find a solution that can be implemented without creating further and even worse problems, we are simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

[The above article was published originally by Yahoo! Voices, April 17, 2014].

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