“Prohibition is more dangerous”

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June 30, 2009
By William Caiger-Smith
El Espectador, Colombia


English Translation

An interview with Ethan Nadelman, the global point-person on the issue of drugs

Over the past 20 years, Ethan Nadelmann has led a movement that seeks to refocus drug policies in the world. His ideas are so well-informed that he was invited by the members of the Latin American Commission on Drugs – headed by former presidents César Gaviria, Fernando Enrique Cardosa y Ernesto Zedillo – to participate in the drafting of a report that opposes the criminalization of consumers. This weekend, he was in Bogota for the Malpensante festival and spoke with El Espectador.

Are you in favor of legalizing drugs?

No. I don’t think that all drugs should be legal and available and I do not advocate for treating all drugs like alcohol and tobacco. However, I advocate for two things: the first is ending marijuana prohibition and moving in the direction of treating it more like alcohol. The second is ending the prohibition of the use and personal possession of drugs when they are not hurting a third party. People should not be punished for what they consume. We have to move towards reducing the role of criminalization and the criminal justice system as much as possible. Maybe this means allowing addicts to obtain their drugs through legal sources instead of on the black market, maybe this means making less potent forms of these drugs available, but we need to give priority to reducing the role of the criminal justice system and increasing the role of public health.

Can prohibition be causing more harm than drugs themselves?

Yes. 30 years ago, the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, said that the harms caused by drug laws should not exceed the harms caused by the drugs themselves. This was a brief moment of clarity which ended quickly. But we must be clear, any drug can be dangerous. Therefore, the idea of laws of control is to reduce the dangers. Unfortunately, the prohibitionist approach, which has been carried out over the past century, has caused much harm. And not only war and violence, but also the ecological effects of fumigation efforts, for example. This does not have to do with drugs; it has to do with a prohibitionist policy which is futilely trying to assert its usefulness. Prohibition is causing much harm and its benefits are few. Use has been reduced in some suburban communities but in poorer communities, drugs are still widely used and prohibition has totally failed in its objective of reducing the availability of drugs. The consequences of prohibition fall on poor and powerless people.

What do you think about the UN report on drugs, which argues that legalization is not the solution?

The UN commission on drugs has been a very retrograde institution but I must highlight that one part of the report is very encouraging because while they reject legalization, the more or less advocate for decriminalization. They spoke favorably of Portugal’s recent experience, where the possession of all drugs was decriminalized. They acknowledged that harm reduction policies are necessary. Therefore, in many ways, this report is a step forward.

The report, however, insists on prohibition…

Yes, but with very weak arguments. It is absurd to rule out legalizing marijuana. They argue in favor of regulation – same as me – but what the UN drug czar does not understand is that prohibition is not the highest form of regulation; prohibition is the abdication of regulation. Whatever is not controlled by the government is out of control and in the hands of competing criminals. It is for this reason that we have a global black market for drugs; it is for this reason that we have the FARC and the paramilitaries. Legalization does not mean chaos. It means taxing and regulating these substances to achieve two aims: reducing the harms of drug abuse and reducing the harms of drugs and the current drug policies.

Why has the taboo still not been broken on a public debate on drug policies?

It is a very powerful taboo. Even politicians who agree with us are worried about being called soft on drugs and crime if they speak publicly about the issue. But I have to say that things are changing. One of the amazing aspects of the recent report from the Latin American Commission on Drugs is that it not only says that prohibition is part of the problem; it not only speaks favorably about the harm reduction policies in Europe; but it also emphasizes the need to break the taboo.

The majority of the legalization debate centers on marijuana, ignoring the other drugs. should we not focus on all types of drugs?

The question of what we should do with the international markets of drugs such as cocaine and heroin is much more difficult. 40% of Americans say that it is time to legalize marijuana. Only 10% support the legalization of other drugs. It is about reducing these markets. For example, allowing addicts to obtain their heroin and syringes from legal sources – which is being done in some European countries – would reduce the black markets and the personal harm.

In the report of the Latin American Commission on Drugs, they speak about legalizing only marijuana. Is it not hypocritical to talk about only one drug?

The majority of people perceive marijuana differently to other drugs. But in reality, according to science, it is not that different. Our objective is not to legalize drugs; it is to reduce the harms that they cause, and the harms caused by prohibitionist policies. Legalizing and regulating marijuana would help achieve this aim. Ending the prohibition of use and possession would help achieve it.

Although there is a growing acceptance towards those who use softer drugs, especially marijuana, there is a stigma against drug consumers. How do we end this?

Part of this has to do with class and race; we tend to see addicts as “the others”. There is a fundamental difference between a person addicted to illegal heroin and a person dependent on legal heroin. Both are addicted to the same drug but the quality of life is very different for both of them.

How can a pragmatic debate on drugs be fostered?

The most important is that authorities speak about this issue. People who are respected, too, but the most important are those that have been voted into power. When presidential candidates, mayors, press chief editors, former president Gaviria and vice president Santos talk about this issue, they make a difference because they show that they are thinking about the issue.

In Colombia, personal doses are penalized. What do you think of this measure?

It is a horrible step back which impedes treatment for addiction. I said this to President Alvaro Uribe a year ago but he did not say that he did not agree. He is the president and he does not need reasons, right?

You have been working on this issue for 20 years. What significant changes have taken place during this time?

In Europe, especially, there has been much progress. 20 years ago, there were no heroin maintenance programs, no supervised injection facilities, the coffee shops in Holland were only beginning to be established, the idea of harm reduction was struggling to be heard. In Asia – a continent traditionally regressive regarding drugs – there is now a movement towards harm reduction. In the US, the debate is opening, that the war on drugs has failed is being acknowledged, and medical marijuana has been legalized. It is the first time, in my 20 years, that I feel the wind is in my favor.

View the interview in Spanish.

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