drugLawsWhy are drugs still illegal? I wrote a while ago about the success of Portugal, where all drugs were legalized, and the money previously used to enforce drug laws were instead used to fund social programs to help those with drug problems. Not only was Portugal’s drug abuse problem significantly reduced, but HIV and crime rates plummeted as well. It has been almost 15 years since Portugal started their non-prohibition experiment, with revolutionary results, and yet other countries still refuse to let go of their self-defeating War on Drugs.

I have recently read a fantastic interview with Johann Hari, on Sam Harris’ blog.  Hari is a highly experienced and accredited journalist who has travelled the globe researching and writing a book on the War on Drugs, its history, and it’s effects on societies. While a good portion of the interview elaborated many of the points I was already familiar with, there was a massive amount of information that I had no previous notion of. For instance, while it is quite apparent that racism plays a big role in drugs issues today, I had no idea that racism played such a huge part in the War on Drugs’ inception. There are further insights that extend far beyond drug addiction as well. Hari also focuses quite a bit on individual stories, bringing a painfully absent human element to the discussion. It certainly provides a lot to think about. Here are a few excerpts, but I highly recommend reading the entire interview.

“Harry Anslinger was probably the most influential person that no one’s ever heard of. He took over the Department of Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition was ending … he was driven by two intense hatreds: One was a hatred of addicts, and the other was a hatred of African Americans…He was regarded as an extreme racist by the racists of the 1930s. This is a guy who used the “N” word in official memos so often that his own senator said he should have to resign.”

“But if you had said to me four years ago, “What causes, say, heroin addiction?” I would have looked at you as if you were a bit simpleminded, and I would have said, “Heroin causes heroin addiction.”

For 100 years we’ve been told a story about addiction that’s just become part of our common sense. It’s obvious to us. We think that if you, I, and the first 20 people to read this on your site all used heroin together for 20 days, on day 21 we would be heroin addicts, because there are chemical hooks in heroin that our bodies would start to physically need, and that’s what addiction is.

The first thing that alerted me to what’s not right about this story is when I learned that if you step out onto the street and are hit by a car and break your hip, you’ll be taken to a hospital where it’s quite likely that you’ll be given a lot of diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin. It’s much more potent than what you get on the street, because it’s medically pure, not f***ed up by dealers. You’ll be given that diamorphine for quite a long period of time. Anywhere in the developed world, people near you are being giving loads of heroin in hospitals now.

If what we think about addiction is right, what will happen? Some of those people will leave the hospital as heroin addicts. That doesn’t happen.”

“You and I have probably got enough money in the bank that we could spend the next year drinking vodka and never stop. We could just be drunk all the time. But we don’t. And the reason we don’t is not because someone’s stopping us but because we want to be present in our lives. We’ve got relationships. We’ve got friends. We’ve got people we love. We’ve got books we want to read. We’ve got books we want to write. We’ve got things we want to do. Most of addiction is about not wanting to be present in your life.

And by the way, that’s true not just of drug addiction. If you’ve ever known a gambling addict, you see that the pleasure he’s getting is not the pleasure of the specific bet. It’s the pleasure of not being present in his own life. It’s the pleasure of being taken out of himself, even to what I regard as a very squalid and depressing world. It’s the same with sex addiction. There’s a continuity between drug addictions and other addictions that I think tells you something fundamental.”

“We need to create a society where people are less isolated and distressed. There are places in the world where that exists: Addiction is very low in Sweden, because it’s a very connected society with very low levels of insecurity. We can learn from that.”

The War on Drugs is society shooting itself in the foot. The U.S has escalated the war to shooting itself in the kneecaps and Canada is looking to follow suit. We need to stop this before we end up aiming even higher.