A commission made up of some big names, though not really any names of addiction or drug researchers I noticed, just released a report that’s making a lot of noise throughout every news channel including NPR (see here, and here for stories) and others (see CNN). They want the debate about the current state of drug regulation expanded, and since I’ve written on the issue before, I figured it’s time for another stab at this.The commission’s report, which is very pretty by academic standards makes some good points and ignores some other obvious ones in its quest to make a splash in the old “should we legalize drugs?” argument. To be fair, the report itself makes a whole slew of recommendations, only some of which are specific, while saying that we need to seriously re-examine our current stance in the fight against drug addiction and abuse. I certainly agree with this last point.
The thing is that the report decides to focus almost solely on the arguments in favor of drug legalization or decriminalization, which makes it lose some credibility. Still, when you get people like Richard Branson, Kofi Annan, and Thorvald Stoltenberg involved you get a lot of people to notice and I’m guessing that was the point to some extent.
A little summary of the commission’s report – objectivity compromised
Opening up with a bold sentence claiming that “the global war on drugs has failed,” the report continues to show ways in which the criminalization of drugs has caused harm without producing much in the way of tangible results. I have written before about the horrible results of throwing non-violent drug offenders into prison en mass, but to say that there have been no results from the criminalization of drugs is to ignore the fact the some of the world’s most devastating public-health issues are the direct result of legal drug use. Alcohol use and tobacco smoking are the underlying causes for more deaths than anything else on earth including pollution, automobile accidents, or anything else people seem so afraid of. No, drinking alcohol moderately is not bad and might even be beneficial, but that’s exactly why trying to nail this argument down as landing on the “good” or “bad” side is too simplistic and makes the report seem like a propaganda piece rather than a balanced, thoughtful… report.
For example, when they show the difference in the number of users of different drugs between 1998 and 2008, the authors fail to mention that the U.S. population grew by 10% during that time, which would mean that marijuana use actually went down. This obviously hurts their argument at least to some extent. Numbers can be manipulated both ways and these guys surely did their part in that regard. When discussing drug dangerousness, the team forgot to include a recent article by Dr. Nutt that claims alcohol is world’s the most dangerous drug. I don’t particularly agree with that piece but it seemed an odd oversight in favor of an older citation. Based on the ranking they do present, the authors suggest that our current classification of drugs needs to be re-examined. This might certainly be true for some drugs (like ecstasy) more than others (like GHB which was outlawed in the U.S. because it was being frequently used in sexual assaults) and it seems strange that the authors don’t make any distinctions here. Again, the report’s ambiguity and lack of specifics in these areas left me wanting a little more.
So should we legalize, decriminalize, or do nothing?
I whole-heatedly agree with the authors’ principles of ending the stigmatization of those who abuse drugs and if you’ve read anything I’ve written, you know I support the notion that we should make every addiction treatment available to those who need help. This has to include harm reduction (like replacement medications, syringe exchanges, and more) and other methods that are not abstinence-based but I wouldn’t say that taking all criminal-justice measures off the table is necessary or even warranted. For example, Hawaii’s HOPE program, started in 2004 has been shown to be amazingly effective at reducing arrest and drug use while greatly increasing probation compliance by using frequent drug testing and brief incarceration periods.
I don’t have the final word on what the best final solution is when it comes to legalization or decriminalization, but I’m certainly open to talking about options and it seems to me that the authors of this report are open as well. For that, I commend the report’s authors, but I’d like for the discussion about it to try to be a little less black and white and a little more nuanced. The problem we’re dealing with certainly is.