Pubdate: 2 Feb 1997
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2000 The Washington Post Company
Contact:  1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: George Soros
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It's Time to Just Say No To Self-Destructive Prohibition

Like many people, I was delighted this past November when voters in 
California and Arizona approved, by substantial margins, two ballot 
initiatives that represent a change in direction in our drug policies. The 
California initiative legalized the cultivation and use of marijuana for 
medicinal purposes. The Arizona initiative went further, allowing doctors 
to prescribe any drug for legitimate medical purposes and mandating 
treatment, not incarceration, for those arrested for illegal drug 
possession. It also stiffened penalties for violent crimes committed under 
the influence of drugs.

These results are significant both in terms of their immediate impact and 
because they suggest that Americans are beginning to recognize both the 
futility of the drug war and the need to think realistically and openly 
about alternatives.

Our drug warriors responded by pushing the panic button. The drug czar, 
Gen. Barry McCaffrey, claimed that "these propositions are not about 
compassion, they are about legalizing dangerous drugs." I was severely 
attacked for having supported the initiatives financially. Joseph Califano 
described me in The Post as the "Daddy Warbucks of drug legalization" and 
accused me of "bamboozling" the voters with misleading advertisements. I 
was denigrated in congressional hearings chaired by Sen. Orrin Hatch 
(R-Utah), and in the New York Times, A.M. Rosenthal went so far as to imply 
that I represent a new kind of "drug money." I must reject these 
accusations. I am not for legalizing hard drugs. I am for a saner drug 
policy. I am just as concerned about keeping drugs away from my children as 
any responsible parent. But I firmly believe that the war on drugs is doing 
more harm to our society than drug abuse itself. Let me explain my 

I became involved in the drug issue because of my commitment to the concept 
of open society. The open society is based on the recognition that we act 
on the basis of imperfect understanding and our actions have unin tended 
consequences. Our mental constructs, as well as our institutions, are all 
flawed in one way or another. Perfection is unattainable but that is no 
reason to despair. On the contrary, our fallibility leaves infinite scope 
for innovation, invention and improvement. An open society that recognizes 
fallibility is a superior form of social organization to a closed society 
that claims to have found all the answers.

I have devoted much of my energies and resources over the past two decades 
to promoting the concept of open society in formerly communist countries. I 
have started to pay more attention to my adopted country, the United 
States, because I feel that the relatively open society we enjoy here is in 
danger. (There is nothing new about this peril; it is a characteristic of 
open societies that they are always endangered.)

Our drug policies offer a prime example of adverse, unintended 
consequences. There is perhaps no other field where our public policies 
have produced an outcome so profoundly at odds with what was intended. But 
those who are waging a "war on drugs" refuse to recognize this fact. They 
consider all criticism subversive. To suggest the possibility that the war 
on drugs may be self-defeating is tantamount to treason in their eyes. This 
was confirmed by their reaction to the approval of the drug policy ballot 
initiatives in California and Arizona.

I should like to set the record straight regarding my role in the ballot 
initiatives. I personally contributed approximately $ 1 million, which 
represents 25 to 30 percent of overall contributions. I was not involved in 
the planning and execution of either campaign or in the drafting of the 
initiatives. Those who are upset about the role money played in these 
campaigns might better focus their attentions on the substantial sums of 
taxpayer dollars spent by government officials who actively opposed the 

I can well understand, however, why the drug warriors would be upset by my 
involvement. I have no use for drugs. I tried marijuana and enjoyed it but 
it did not become a habit and I have not tasted it in many years. I have 
had my share of anxieties concerning my children using drugs, but 
fortunately it was not a serious problem. My sole concern is that the war 
on drugs is doing untold damage to the fabric of our society. I believe 
that a drug-free America is a utopian dream. Some form of drug addiction or 
substance abuse is endemic in most societies. Insisting on the total 
eradication of drug use can only lead to failure and disappointment. The 
war on drugs cannot be won; but, like the Vietnam War, it has polarized our 

And its adverse effects over time may be even more devastating. 
Criminalizing drug abuse does more harm than good, blocking effective 
treatment and incarcerating far too many people. Our prison and jail 
population -- now more than a million and a half -- has doubled over the 
past decade and more than tripled since 1980. The number of drug law 
violators behind bars has increased eightfold since 1980, to about 400,000 

Our drug policies are especially harsh on African Americans. Among young 
African American men, the war on drugs has contributed strongly to a rate 
of incarceration so high that it disrupts family structures in our cities 
and increases the number of single-parent families. One out of every seven 
black men has been disenfranchised, permanently or temporarily, by felony 
convictions. Among black adults between the ages of 25 and 44, AIDS is now 
the leading cause of death, with half of those cases resulting from drug 
injections. At the same time, proper treatment of drug addicts is inhibited 
by the fact that they are regarded as criminals. Tens of thousands sit 
behind bars -- at substantial cost to themselves, their families and 
taxpayers -- rather than in less costly, more effective drug treatment 
programs. Even methadone treatment and needle exchange programs are 

There are indications that our prohibitionist policies have increased 
drug-related disease and death, and had a much-documented impact on the 
crime rate. Restrictions on access to sterile syringes facilitate the 
spread of HIV and other diseases. Drug addicts overdose from street drugs 
of unknown purity and potency, injuring or killing themselves and placing 
strains on the health care system.

Focusing resources in a lopsided manner on the interdiction of supplies 
ignores basic economic principles. As long as demand and profits are high, 
there is no way to cut off supply. There will always be large numbers of 
people willing to risk incarceration for the chance of making so much money.

It is, of course, easier to identify what is wrong with present policies 
than to design better ones. I do not pretend to know what the right drug 
policy is; but I do know that the present policy is wrong. A more 
reasonable approach would try to reduce both supply and demand and aim at 
minimizing the harmful effects of drug abuse and drug control. I am aware 
of at least some of the steps we should be taking now: making methadone and 
sterile syringes readily available to addicts; removing criminal 
prohibitions and other sanctions on the ability of doctors and patients to 
treat pain and nausea with whatever medications work; saving our jail and 
prison cells for violent criminals and predatory drug dealers, not 
nonviolent drug addicts who are willing to undergo treatment; and exploring 
new means of reducing the harms done by drug use and our prohibitionist 

If public opinion were ready for it, I would advocate "hollowing out" the 
black market for drugs by making heroin and certain other illicit drugs 
available on prescription to registered drug addicts while discouraging 
non-addicts with social opprobrium, the dissemination of reasonable and 
persuasive information on the harms caused by drugs, and, to the extent 
necessary, by legal sanctions. If the Swiss and the Dutch and the British 
and increasingly other countries as well can experiment with new 
approaches, so can the United States.

Not all the experiments have been successful. Zurich's unsuccessful attempt 
to regulate an open-air drug market in the early 1990s became known as 
"Needle Park" and gave the city a bad name. But recent initiatives in 
Switzerland have been more successful and generated widespread public 
support. The national heroin prescription experiment has proven remarkably 
effective in reducing illicit drug use, disease and crime, and helped many 
addicts to improve their lives. Swiss voters approved this initiative in 
local referendums.

Our first priority should be to discourage children from using drugs. Even 
marijuana can be harmful to the mental and emotional development of 
youngsters. But demonizing drugs can increase their appeal to adolescents, 
for whom rebellion is often an important rite of passage to adulthood. And 
we must be particularly careful not to exaggerate the harmful effects of 
marijuana because it may undermine the credibility of our warnings about 
harder drugs. Generally speaking, de-emphasizing the criminal aspect of 
drug use should be accompanied by more, rather than less, social opprobrium 
for the drug culture. Education and social disapproval of cigarette smoking 
have been much more successful than the war on drugs. America is a world 
leader in cutting down on cigarette smoking, and, simultaneously, one of 
the world's losers in dealing with drug abuse.

Unfortunately the present climate is inimical to a well-balanced drug 
policy. Crusading advocates of prohibition and deterrence -- Rosenthal, 
Califano, McCaffrey and others -- stand in the way of reasoned discussion. 
They insist that there is only one solution to the drug problem, namely, 
the "war on drugs" and that those who are critical of present policies are 
enemies of society. Few elected officials dare to incur their wrath. 
Hysteria has replaced debate in the public discourse.

It was left to the voters of California and Arizona to introduce a note of 
sanity into our drug policy. Califano asserts that they were bamboozled 
but, in doing so, he reveals a totalitarian mind-set. When he claims that 
the voters of Arizona and California did not know what they were voting for 
when they supported the two initiatives, he reminds me of the way Serbia's 
President Slobodan Milosevic reacted to recent election results in that 
country. Defenders of failed policies often claim that they know better 
than the voters themselves what is best for the voters.

The voters in Arizona and California have demonstrated that it is possible 
to support more sensible and compassionate drug policies while still being 
tough on drugs. I hope that other states will follow suit. I shall be happy 
to support (with after-tax dollars) some of these efforts, and I look 
forward to the day when the nation's drug control policies better reflect 
the ideals of an open society.