I’ve hidden the drugs inside this political football

The BBC World Service broadcast an interesting programme on the effect of Portugal’s 2001 policy to decriminalise all illicit drugs, from cannabis to heroin. Far from what you might expect from your local politician, the effect was rather positive. As also recounted in a recent article for Time magazine, drug use has actually dropped.

Recreational drugs are a fascinating area precisely because the political view and the health view are so completely out of whack in most countries.

As we have reported several times in the past, the UK has a regular public ritual where the government commissions a panel of scientists to report on the health dangers of drugs, and then completely ignores them when they point out that the current policies make no sense and don’t reflect the actual impact of the substances.

This week’s Bad Science column has another example, where a now leaked 1991 World Health Organisation report [pdf] on the impact of cocaine was suppressed by the US government because it pointed out that it’s not as intrinsically poisonous to health or society as it’s made out by drug war propaganda.

This political double book-keeping is probably why the severity of drug laws around the world have virtually no relation to the drug use of the population.

I’m morbidly curious about how we’ve arrived at this odd situation where one of the culturally universal human activities, modifying our consciousness with drugs, must be looked down on publicly to the point where our politicians are free to ignore evidence when it suits them.

It’s a conspiracy of ignorance that would be unthinkable if it was applied to swine flu but perfectly acceptable for something that already kills thousands upon thousands of people every year.

Link to BBC World Service on Portugal drug decriminalisation.
Link to Time ‘Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?’
Link to Bad Science on suppressed WHO cocaine report.

3 Comments

  1. Posted June 15, 2009 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    I know the change occurred early in the 20th century with the criminalization of cocaine and heroin. I’m not sure what prompted that. Prior to that, drug use was cavalier. Women’s tonic included laudanum (opium) and women were also routinely given morphine for childbirth pain, disregarding the addictive element.

  2. Posted June 15, 2009 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    You’ve probably already read this, but Flat Earth News analyses this weirdness too – Nick Davies locates the beginning of the drug fear around the early C20th in America, with a specific incidence of misguided reporting that became a self-reinforcing story. Part of the book is on his website here: http://www.flatearthnews.net/media-falsehoods-and-propaganda/heroin

  3. AFV
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    I believe the drug laws were introduced by a combination of forced public morals (think prohibition in the 1920′s/30′s in the United states and a sincere concern for the public health.
    What has changed today from then, and allows rational discussion about drug laws, incarceration and medical treatment for people with addictions, is that there is so d***n much money involved today, and it’s global. We’re looking at 100′s of billions of dollars.
    Huge profits for the producers and suppliers, but also for those enforcing the drug laws and the incarceration system for users, no matter how trivial their drug “crime” is.
    Also, these 100′s of billions of dollars are not simply hidden deep in caves, it ultimately circulates in the international financial system. Think leveraging those 100′s of billions of dollars even just 10:1, but 20 or 50:1, now were in multiple trillions of dollars. Imagine the profits and fees that brings to financial operations.
    Really, except for the users paying the penalty of breaking the “law,” it’s a very (very) good thing. Why mess with it? Because certainly no one is going to.


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