My mother works for the defense department and just got back from a trip to Singapore for my little brother’s debate tournament. While she was in the airport she noticed a sign like this:
She brought it up in conversation the next time we talked, mentioning what a great idea it would be for getting rid of drug users. We proceeded to argue, and most of her points circled back to either 1. how clean it was in that city! Or 2. How drug addicts were such a terrible strain on society that any intrusion by the government was justified if it got those ruined people off the streets.
This is precisely the sort of argument I started this blog to deal with. There are between fifteen and twenty million users of illegal drugs here in the United States. My mom isn’t the first conservative I’ve heard advocate something like this and, to her credit, I don’t believe she actually thinks all those people should be killed. She just comes from a generation and political orientation that believes you have to “get tough” in order to make serious change. If you kill a few of the worse eggs, everyone else will jump in line.
“The War on Drugs” sounds like just another hyperbolic euphemism, but there’s a whole mess of people who take it literally. American police departments have their own armored special forces teams, tanks and helicopters. Even beat cops in suburban neighborhoods are likely to carry enormous assault rifles in their squad cars. So what has all this heavy-handed justice won us?
Nothing. Back in 2008 the World Health Organization released a massive study of drug use in 17 countries and found that the people in the U.S. use illegal drugs with more frequency than people anywhere else in the world. This is in spite of the fact that we have some of the harshest drug laws on earth. But hey, maybe we aren’t being harsh enough. There are plenty of hippy states like Colorado and California where those dastardly drug users can peddle their wares in peace. That must be inflating the numbers.
So we’ll look at Singapore. If their drug laws are successful, it would stand to reason that drug use is at an all-time low, and probably getting lower. It wouldn’t make much sense if the death penalty for drug trafficking lead to an increase in drug trafficking. If that were the case, the law would be completely ineffective and needlessly bloodthirsty..
Which…it is. Despite being the world’s top executioner, Amnesty International has found “no convincing evidence” that the state’s drug laws have had an effect. In 2002, Singapore’s rate of new drug offenders increased by 16%. Heroin has been on the rise consistently since 2006 and Methamphetamine is also on a steady rise. While it’s true that Singapore recently reported a 5% drop in drug arrests, they later recanted and admitted a 5% increase in arrests.
And these aren’t long-time addicts who just can’t quit the smack. Singapore’s percent of first-time drug offenders has increased every year on record, to a new high of 46% in 2010.
For comparison, we’ll look at nation’s with comparatively more lenient drug laws. Spain and Portugal have both decriminalized possession of all narcotics. Critics will note that Marijunana and Cocaine use have both increased in Spain. But frequent use in these drugs has decreased, with more experimental users and far fewer regular users. Frequent heroin use also saw a decline, along with the use of ecstasy, amphetamines, sedatives and psychedelics.
Portugal has seen their number of deaths from street overdoses plummet from 400 to 290 annually over the last five years. The number of HIV infections from dirty needles has also dropped, from 1400 per year to just 400. Proponents of a tough stance on drug users claim to be doing it for the children- well, Portugal’s rate of teen drug use is on the decline. There’s no evidence of the same decline in Singapore.
But if you really want to reduce the rates of dangerous addiction and cut down on the cost to the country, you might consider just giving free drugs to addicts. The Netherlands provides heroin to their worst junkies, and they’ve seen the cost to the state of each junkie decrease by around 13,000 euros per person per year. Safe, high-quality drugs taken in a clean setting means no overdoses, no infections, and no people stealing stereos for cash. There’s a reason the Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of problem drug users in the entire world.
It’s crucial to make that distinction between “problem” and “non-problem” drug users. Only about a third of drug users in America are considered serious addicts, and no amount of law enforcement seems to make that total number bulge. But decriminalization- which, at its fundamental level is a separation between drug users and the drug business, decreases the number of problem users in every case we’ve seen. The fact that it causes a spike in the experimental use of some substances shouldn’t be of concern. Studies have shown that casual drug use has no negative impact on job performance or earnings.
The consequences of drug use are heavily publicized in our country, and it’s easy to see why any parent would fear for their child’s safety. But we can’t let that fear lead us to blindly smite a huge segment of our population. Most of the arguments in favor of the war on drugs are rooted in emotion, keeping the kids safe and cleaning up the streets. “We should threaten all the drug dealers with death!” is the kind of thing that feels good to say. So good that many people never bother to look at the numbers to see if that approach has ever helped.
It’d be nice if we could just let the frightened parents of the world go on holding to their opinions. But this isn’t the kind of thing we can chalk up to a difference of opinions. When people go on believing that a tough, militaristic approach is the best way to combat drug addiction, they make the world a worse place with every election cycle. People like my mom are wrong on this one, and they have to know it.