Pubdate: Tue, 10 Nov 1998
Source: Canberra Times (Australia)
Page: 7-8

The evidence about drug use is often overlooked when it comes to
making decisions about drug control, as MICHAEL BOOTH reports.

GOOD politics, it is often said, is about good policy, and, good
policy often depends upon our scientific knowledge of the relevant

One area where this adage definitely does not apply is drug policy.
Here, unfortunately, the scientific and scholarly evidence we have
about drugs and drug use are routinely overlooked in favour of
policies based on ideas that are the intellectual and academic
equivalent of a belief in witchcraft.

It is difficult for many people to understand why another human might
smoke tobacco, drink alcohol, or inject substances to the point where
their wealth, health, or indeed their life itself is placed at risk.
Regardless of what motivates people to use drugs, however, we do in
fact know a surprising amount about the people who use different
drugs, the drugs they use, and the ways they use them.

The evidence tells us that the overwhelming majority of humans are
drug users of one sort of another. Almost everybody consumes some sort
of mood-altering drug, whether it is chocolate, tea or coffee,
alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, opiates, stimulants, hallucinogens or a
substance prescribed for them by a medical practitioner.

The true deviants (statistically speaking), are those who never
consume any mood-altering substance at all. Indeed, there has probably
never been a human culture without some form of intoxicating substance
available to its inhabitants.

The same evidence also tells us that for the overwhelming majority of
people, their drug use, whether illegal or legal, medical or
non-medical, will remain a relatively harmless activity with few or no
adverse consequences. Indeed, for many people drug use will be
something from which they derive considerable benefits, both real and

We also know that drug use is largely an activity for young people.
The years of experimentation and exploration are largely restricted to
the teenage years and the early 20s. If people get to their mid-20s
without trying a drug then they will most likely go through the rest
of their lives without ever trying it.

Of people who do try a particular drug, only a minority will go on to
become regular users, and an even smaller proportion, will develop any
kind of dependence on a drug. Even dependent users retain the capacity
to control and modify their drug taking in response to a variety of
factors, the most powerful one of which appears to be age. By the time
most dependent drug users reach their mid 30s they will modify and
reduce their drug use of their own accord, and the rate at which they
do this appears to be largely independent of the external conditions
in which they are living.

Opiate dependent people appear to give up the drug at approximately
the same rate whether they are in a rehabilitation program, in prison,
or left to their own devices with a regular and assured supply. The
proportion of ex-smokers in a population increases as the population
ages. As some authorities have put it, there appear to be natural
levels of drug-use among people that are largely independent of the
legal, economic, political and cultural conditions that have
determined how and where drugs are grown, marketed and

This is not to argue that these factors are unimportant - merely that
there are probably natural limits below which is almost certainly
impossible to reduce drug use, regardless of the persuasive or
coercive efforts on the part of the state.

The evidence also tells us about the various attempts by governments

and states to control and restrict drug use. As late as 1900, all the
drugs that we are now called to have zero-tolerance for were perfectly

Attempts to restrict and control drugs were motivated by baser
political motives. Historical studies have dispelled the myth that
some drugs were banned because of the damage caused by them. Rather
the ban on some drugs emerged as the bastard child of social reform,
the temperance movement, religious fundamentalism, out and out racism
and the real politik of international diplomacy in the age of Empires.

The early treaties aimed at curbing the opium trade, for instance,
were motivated by as much by international pressure to curb the
influence of the British in Asia as they were by the domestic need to
exclude the cultural group most associated with opium - the Chinese.
The bans on cannabis were first implemented in American states where
large Hispanic populations lived and worked. The laws against cocaine
can be traced in large part to fears of African-Americans in the
southern states of America.

Under the international auspices of the United States in particular,
the world has become locked into an approach to drugs that is
dominated by prohibition. This has been particularly evident in the
years since the World War II, when America's undisputed superpower
status enabled it to impose its prohibitionist domestic policies on
the rest of the world as well. As a result of US influence, the world
is now confronted by a towering wall of prohibition that is, to all
intents and purposes, unassailable.

We know that the availability and cost of illicit drugs do not appear
to have been restricted by the world-wide legal prohibitions on
manufacture, distribution, and consumption. On the contrary, all the
available evidence about illicit drugs informs us that weaker and
dilute forms of drug have been replaced by ever concentrated varieties
- - opium by heroin, cocoa by cocaine and then crack, marijuana leaf by
seedless buds.

This is not new. During the prohibition of alcohol in America in the
1920s and 1980s, distilled spirits replaced beer and wine.

At the same time as the potency of illicit drugs has increased, real
prices have fallen, and ever increasing quantities are being produced
and distributed. And this while ever increasing resources have been
committed to enforcing the prohibition.

The record of 80 or so years of prohibition as the major tool for
governments to control and regulate drug use has been an abject
failure. The overwhelming bulk of scientific and scholarly evidence
suggests that prohibition has greatly exacerbated the problems
associated with drugs, drug use and drug users.

Even so there are still those who try to argue that reliance on
prohibition has prevented an explosion in availability and usage, and
that any change in policy would send out the wrong message.

There is no evidence to support this. Indeed, what evidence there is
suggests the exact, opposite.

The Dutch experience shows that possession and small-scale trafficking
of cannabis can be effectively ignored. Indeed it can be tolerated,
permitted, and taxed without society failing apart in a cloud of
marijuana smoke. The Dutch have lower levels of cannabis use among
their citizens than countries where the ban on possession and
small-scale trafficking is much more heavily enforced.

Those people who think about drug policies must deal with one basic
question: Do they agree that the overwhelming bulk of scientific and
scholarly evidence suggests that our current approach to drugs is
unscientific and inadequate?

There are only two possible answers to this question. One is that they
do agree with the scientific and scholarly evidence, in which case
they should withdraw their opposition to any change in policy. The
other is that they really believe that the scientific and scholarly
evidence does not matter.

Just why drug policy should be exempt from the normal criteria of

evidence and best practice is seldom addressed by people in favour of
the status quo and policies based on prohibition, but the fact is that
every other area of contemporary life - the economy, agriculture, law,
medicine relies on scientific and scholarly evidence. It is time that
drug policy was similarly reliant. ---

Michael Booth is an associate lecturer in the Faculty of Communication
at the University of Canborra. He has worked for the Alcohol and Drug
Foundation, Australia, the Drug Referral and Information Centre, and
served on the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations. He is
currently attempting to become an ex-user of tobacco.

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Checked-by: Rich O'Grady