Sometimes it is surprising to learn the origins of things, which are almost taken for granted. It was only two years ago that I discovered that the war on cancer was declared by then President Nixon who in 1971 was aiming for victory and a cure for cancer by 1976. Richard Nixon also launched the war on drugs, in 1971.
For a President whose term ended in disgrace, he has certainly left a lasting legacy. After 40 years it is reasonable to wonder how these twin wars are going?
An honest assessment would have to conclude that neither is going well.
It is estimated that the number of cancer cases and deaths per year will more than double in the next 40 years. This is despite billions being spent on treatments and research. Screening tests for cancer have (with exceptions) been less helpful than hoped for and less reliable than claimed by their supporters.
Yet it has been shown that one third of cancers could be avoided if people ate more fruits and vegetables, moderated red meat intake, moderated alcohol intake and exercised regularly. For unknown reasons this information gets little airplay. Genuine prevention will do more than an ongoing war.
In the drug war in Mexico alone, there have been an estimated drug related 30,000 murders in the last four years. In the USA there has been an estimated 40 million drug arrests in the last 40 years. Jails are so overcrowded that a federal court ordered the state of California to release prisoners (many of whom are behind bars for drug related offences). In Perth so far this year there have been nearly 100 home drug laboratories found. The cost of the drug war is countless billions.
There is a game of cat and mouse played between authorities and the drug” industry”. A synthetic cannabis known as “Kronic” was found to be commonly used by mineworkers, as it was legal and gave a high. Promptly the substance was banned. Whilst this may or may not lead to lower usage, already new versions are being developed which will be “legal” or at least until the next substance is banned.
It is now being suggested that pseudoephedrine be available only on prescription so that it is harder to obtain. Whilst this would fill up doctors’ waiting rooms with people who have a runny nose, substances like oxycodone are already on prescription and their illicit usage is increasing. Police in Suffolk County allegedly found 11,000 pills in one apartment! Over one million pills are stolen each year!
To add more regulatory fuel into the fire some bright sparks want to raise the drinking age in West Australia to 21. Given that over half of those under 18 already use alcohol, making a whole new set of people “criminals” will not help.
To me these are not signs of wars being won. In fact it is clear evidence of a losing battle. This is not because the problems are insoluble. It is because the approaches we are taking are not working. In turn that is because the wars are largely political in nature.
Politicians want to be seen to be doing something. The problem is that tackling the substance misses the point entirely. The problem is how some people use substances. Contrary to popular myth many use illicit substances in a controlled way and continue to function in society. The problem is not the substance but the person.
The Global Commission on Drugs has found that far from decreasing over the last decade, use of drugs has gone up! Prisons are full, and billions of dollars are basically wasted. There must be better ways of reducing drug use than building more prisons and sinking more money into “enforcement”. One thing is certain. If what you do does not work, doing more of it will not work any better.
Richard Nixon has left legacies which 40 years on need to be revisited.
A clue might be found in the quote of another ex President, Jimmy Carter who told congress in 1977 “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself”.
The war on drugs causes more damage to (mainly young) people than the use of drugs. Our war is failing and the collateral damage is growing. We need new approaches. The Global Commission on Drugs offers some. It is time to think and act differently.