Adrian Grenier's fourth proposal for a better world is to end drug wars by legalizing all drugs. We asked him a few questions about this radical perspective. He also introduces us to Sharda Sekaran, Managing Director of Communications for the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation's leading organization promoting drug policies that are "grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights."
Adrian: I was very proud of the film that I made, "How to Make Money Selling Drugs," challenging our current war on drugs and suggesting that the war itself is worse than the drugs themselves. I believe that. I think we’re afraid of drugs. I think what we’re afraid of is addiction and we’re afraid of abuse of those drugs. Really, I think that the war on drugs doesn't do anything for addiction. In fact, since we declared war on drug use, addiction has increased. But what we’ve also done is create more violence due to the black market and the culture of selling drugs for profit. Drugs have become increasingly more profitable, so the incentive for criminals to go into the drug trade is that much higher. And they employ all sorts of violence and additional crime in order to support their trade because it is illegal. Not to mention how it has increased our prison population. So you have this cycle of people who are simply doing drugs recreationally, maybe have an addiction, or are self medicating for mental illness, or simply escaping, and they end up going to jail. Where they become trained criminals by the time they get out.
They have an address book after they leave prison.
A: That’s right they come out trained and ready to commit more crimes. In fact, the punishment model – just keeping people in the cell – does not teach them how to be better people or how to overcome their addiction or whatever troubles got them into crime in the first place. We must look for alternatives to the punishment model, or the incarceration model, and really look for really interactive holistic methods to inspire and educate those who are downtrodden or troubled, and bring them to a place to be productive citizens.
So what’s the alternative?
A: First, legalize.
Legalize all drugs?
A: I believe yes. Legalize all drugs and make them a medical use. Bringing them into the medical realm so that addiction professionals and doctors can deal with addiction, first and foremost. Also make sure that people are, if they so want, getting safe drugs that aren’t tainted or laced. It’ll crash the black market so the crime associated with profiting off of selling those drugs or importing them will plummet - particularly here in America because we’re the largest consumer of Mexican cocaine and drugs. Then, all the crime we see in Mexico will start to diminish. The criminal elements that are getting wealthier and wealthier, and having an increased influence politically and also over journals in creating fear for freedom of speech.
Adrian introduces us to Sharda Sekaran, Managing Director of Communications for the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation's leading organization promoting drug policies in order to reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition.
"End Drug Wars" does this mean: all illegal drugs commerce ignite dangerous wars?
Sharda: People seem to be inherently motivated to get their hands on substances that cause intoxication, and have been throughout human history. Drugs are popular among consumers, and this is true whether they are legal or illegal. When a popular commodity with an established demand is prohibited, someone will be interested in supplying that market and making a profit. Underground economies attract shady characters, therefore prohibition inevitably leads to violence, crime, and corruption. The annual global market for currently-illegal drugs is hundreds of billions of dollars. Funneling such large sums of money to organized criminal syndicates is inherently dangerous to democracy and the rule of law.
What would happen if all drugs were circulating freely in the US? Wouldn't that increase the number of users?
S: Free circulation of drugs is hard to speculate about but the approach that Drug Policy Alliance recommends, decriminalizing drugs – meaning no one is subject to arrest and criminal sanctions for consumption or possession of a drug – is fairly well documented with real world examples from other countries to learn from. A policy of decriminalization is not shown to result in increased rates of drug use to any significant degree. In many cases, drug use has even decreased following decriminalization.
A World Health Organization (WHO) study of drug use rates among seventeen countries, for example, found that the U.S. had the highest drug use rates by a wide margin, despite its punitive drug policies. The WHO researchers concluded that decriminalization has little or no effect on rates of consumption. A groundbreaking 2013 report of the Organization of American States likewise concluded, “The available evidence suggests that reducing penalties for possession of small quantities has little effect on the number of users but retains the benefit of reducing judicial caseloads and incarceration rates.”
Portugal enacted one of the most extensive drug law reforms in the world when it decriminalized low-level possession and use of all illicit drugs in 2001. Results from the Portuguese experience demonstrate that drug decriminalization – alongside a serious investment in treatment and harm reduction services – can significantly improve public safety and health.
In any case, rather than measuring success based on slight fluctuations in drug use, the primary measure of the effectiveness of drug policies should be the reduction of drug-related harm. A rational drug policy would prioritize reducing the problems associated with drug misuse – such as overdose, addiction and disease transmission. Looking at use rates in a vacuum is missing the forest for the trees.
Do you think a drug user can regulate his heroin, or cocaine use?
S: It is difficult to generalize because the impact of drug use is very individual – there are no one-size-fits-all rules. We do know, according to the U.S. government’s own annual data collected for decades, eighty to ninety percent of people who try heroin or cocaine do not appear to develop a physical dependence. This probably makes sense to most of us experientially, as we all know stories about people who have consumed drugs and had very different results, some with little to no consequence at all.
The vast majority of drug consumers never experience serious problems. A very small number of people suffer from severe addiction, which can put them at a great deal of risk. In these cases, they may recover through abstinence or they may be able to control their dependency by using maintenance treatment (through replacement therapies such as methadone or medically monitored amounts of the drug they are addicted to). However, even among those suffering from addiction, neuroscientists have shown that they are capable of rational thought and making conscious decisions about their drug use and the opportunity costs of trading intoxication for other forms of reward.
Can there be a sovereignty of the individuals when the drug is in control of their mind and body?
S: There are many varied themes about the nature of addiction and its physiological and psychological effects. Again, it is deeply individual and influenced by a number of factors including socioeconomic, psychological, medical and family history. But addiction researcher, neuroscientist and DPA board member Dr. Carl Hart has done fascinating studies with actives drug users for decades that show the ability to make deliberate decisions and even opt for stimuli other than drugs when given attractive alternatives, even after long term and heavy use.
Since we know that individuals prone to pharmacopsychosis are between fifteen and twenty five years old, how do we protect youth from drug use?
S: The drug war has done little to nothing to protect young people, and in many ways has made their lives more dangerous. Scare tactics are an ineffective deterrent to drug use and misinformation makes young people vulnerable to engaging in behaviors that put them at greater risk. To minimize problematic drug use, it is our responsibility to equip young people with fact-based information and resources. Drug education has to do more than offer “Just Say No.” It needs to include practical information about how to be safe and responsible, just like effective sex education.
Parents, caregivers and other important adults in the lives of young people know talking with teenagers about drugs is an important responsibility. Drug education driven by fear rather than facts weakens young people’s trust in law enforcement, educators, parents and other adults. Whether at home or at school, we need reality-based approaches that foster open, honest dialogue about the risks and consequences of drug use. Teens need drug education that respects their intelligence and gives them the tools to stay safe and healthy.
What is DPA's alternative to Drug Wars?
S: Firstly, we need to reduce the role of criminalization in drug policy to the maximum extent possible while protecting public safety and health. More than half a million people are locked up in U.S. prisons and jails today for violating a drug law. They are disproportionately black and Latino. It costs billions of dollars annually to incarcerate them. We believe people should not be punished solely for what they put into their bodies, but only for crimes that hurt others. And we know that when people struggle with drug misuse, compassion is typically more effective than punishment.
Secondly, it’s time to responsibly regulate marijuana. Marijuana prohibition has resulted in more than twenty million arrests since 1970 and has deprived responsible people of their jobs, educational opportunities, housing and freedom. It is unique among American criminal laws – no other law is both enforced so widely and harshly yet deemed unnecessary by such a substantial portion of the population. That’s why we’re focusing on making marijuana legally available for medical purposes, reducing criminal penalties and arrests for possession, and ultimately ending marijuana prohibition in the United States and in other countries.
Thirdly, we need to reduce the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drug use and drug prohibition. DPA focuses on the overdose crisis by advocating for expanded access to the overdose antidote naloxone, supervised injection facilities and 911 Good Samaritan laws. We promote counseling and treatment including maintenance therapies such as methadone, buprenorphine and prescribed heroin programs for people struggling with addiction. And we’re committed to reducing HIV and hepatitis C through sterile syringe exchange programs for people who inject drugs.
Lastly, we need to empower youth, parents and educators with reality-based information grounded in dialogue and trust. Our Safety First and Beyond Zero Tolerance publications provide parents and educators with honest information and realistic options for dealing with adolescent drug use.