Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Why banning drugs might not be such a good idea

This is a collection of selective quotations from a discussion that took place between Sam Harris and acclaimed environmental journalist Johann Hari here :

Common sense dictates that we ban drugs and other such addictions. After all, who wants their friends and family to fall victim to its menace ? The above conversation shows us why such a ban might be counter-productive, and might very well contribute to increasing the misery of society in general. Following are some of the snippets of that conversation :

Funding for the mafia

"When you ban substances that people enjoy using so much that they’ll break the law to do it, you create a black market with huge profits. And since purveyors of illicit drugs have no legal way to secure their investment, the trade will be run by increasingly violent criminals. In a single stroke, therefore, prohibition creates organized crime and all the social ills attributable to the skyrocketing cost of drugs — addicts are forced to become thieves and prostitutes in order to afford their next fix. Why isn’t the stupidity of prohibition now obvious to everyone?"
When the American authorities decided to completely ban drugs in 1914, they left a deliberate loophole permitting doctors to prescribe them to drug addicts. When in the 1930s, the government decided to ban even this, the drug gangs and mafia actually bribed the narcotics officers to implement the ban even quicker, and more strictly. Their rationale was that if the addict could not get the drugs legally, he would have to go to the mafia, which could extort obscene amounts of money for it. Its quite astonishing how this ban has funded (and continues to) fund the most violent drug lords and extremist groups, to the extent that some of them are virtually running the city's finances for it.

"[Banning drugs] means unknown criminals selling unknown chemicals to unknown users, all in the dark, in our public places, filled with disease and chaos. Legalization is a way of imposing regulation and order on this anarchy. It’s about taking it away from criminal gangs and giving it to doctors and pharmacists, and making sure it happens in nice clean clinics, and we get our nice parks back, and we reduce crime."

The example of Portugal and Switzerland

"In 2000 Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, which is kind of extraordinary. Every year they tried the American way more and more: They arrested and imprisoned more people, and every year the problem got worse. One day the prime minister and the leader of the opposition got together and in effect said, 'We can’t go on like this. We can’t have more and more people becoming heroin addicts. Let’s figure out what would genuinely solve the problem.'

They convened a panel of scientists and doctors and said to them (again I’m paraphrasing), 'Go away and figure out what would solve this problem, and we will agree in advance to do whatever you recommend.'

... The panel went away for a year and a half and came back and said: 'Decriminalize everything from cannabis to crack. But'—and this is the crucial next stage—'take all the money we used to spend on arresting and harassing and imprisoning drug users, and spend it on reconnecting them with society and turning their lives around.'

... Most of it, the most successful part, was really very simple. It was making sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning. It consisted of subsidized jobs and microloans to set up small businesses. Say you used to be a mechanic. When you’re ready, they’ll go to a garage and they’ll say, 'If you employ Sam for a year, we’ll pay half his wages.' The microloans had extremely low interest rates, and many businesses were set up by addicts.

It’s been nearly 15 years since this experiment began, and the results are in. Drug use by injection is down by 50%, broader addiction is down, overdose is massively down, and HIV transmission among addicts is massively down.

Switzerland, a very conservative country, legalized heroin for addicts, meaning you go to the doctor, the doctor assigns you to a clinic, you go to that clinic every day, and you inject your heroin. You can’t take it out with you. I went to that clinic — it looks like a fancy Manhattan hairdresser’s, and the addicts go out after injecting their heroin to their jobs and their lives.

I stress again—Switzerland is a very right-wing country, and after its citizens had seen this in practice, they voted by 70% in two referenda to keep heroin legal for addicts, because they could see that it works. They saw that crime massively fell, property crime massively fell, muggings and street prostitution declined enormously."

What exactly causes addiction ?

"For 100 years we’ve been told a story about addiction that’s just become part of our common sense. It’s obvious to us. We think that if you, I, and the first 20 people to read this on your site all used heroin together for 20 days, on day 21 we would be heroin addicts, because there are chemical hooks in heroin that our bodies would start to physically need, and that’s what addiction is.

The first thing that alerted me to what’s not right about this story is when I learned that if you step out onto the street and are hit by a car and break your hip, you’ll be taken to a hospital where it’s quite likely that you’ll be given a lot of diamorphine. Diamorphine is heroin. It’s much more potent than what you get on the street, because it’s medically pure, not f***ed up by dealers. You’ll be given that diamorphine for quite a long period of time. Anywhere in the developed world, people near you are being giving loads of heroin in hospitals now.

If what we think about addiction is right, what will happen? Some of those people will leave the hospital as heroin addicts. That doesn’t happen. There have been very detailed studies of this. It doesn’t happen."

"...our idea of addiction comes in part from a series of experiments that were done earlier in the 20th century. They’re really simple experiments, and your readers can do them at home if they’re feeling a bit sadistic. You get a rat, you put it in a cage, and you give it two water bottles: One is water, and the other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. The rat will almost always prefer the drugged water and will almost always kill itself. So there you go. That’s our theory of addiction.

But in the 1970s, Bruce Alexander came along and thought, “Hang on a minute. We’re putting the rat in an empty cage. It’s got nothing to do except use these drugs. Let’s try this differently.”

So he built a very different cage and called it Rat Park. Rat Park was like heaven for rats. They had everything a rat could possibly want: lovely food, colored balls, tunnels, loads of friends. They could have loads of sex. And they had both the water bottles—the normal water and the drugged water. What’s fascinating is that in Rat Park they didn’t like the drugged water. They hardly ever drank it. None of them ever drank it in a way that looked compulsive. None of them ever overdosed."

Switzerland again and the Vietnam soldiers

"In Switzerland, where they legalized heroin, when you start on the program, you set your own dose of heroin, and you can stay on it for as long as you want. There’s never any pressure to stop, which surprised me. I actually was taken aback by that.

So anyone on that program can just stay on it their whole life, right? You can just carry on. The program’s been running for 20 years. But it’s interesting—there’s almost nobody on the program now who was on it at the start.

I said, “Well, how come that happened?” And they said that the chaos of street use, of scrambling to pay this grossly inflated price, ended, because people were given heroin as a medical prescription. The people in the clinic support you, they help you get housing, and they help you look for a job. So the majority of the people there get jobs, get homes, so they choose entirely of their own will to gradually cut down their heroin use over time, and eventually they stop. Because their lives become more bearable. Because they want to be more present in their lives. Because their lives slowly improve.

In Vietnam 20% of American troops were using a lot of heroin. And if you look at the reports from the time, they were really sh***ing themselves, because they thought, 'My God, we’re going to have hundreds of thousands of junkies on the streets of the United States when the war ends.'

Actually, this was studied very closely, and the overwhelming majority—95%—of the men who had been using lots of heroin in Vietnam came home and just stopped. They didn’t go to rehab, didn’t get any treatment. They just stopped. Because if you’re taken out of a hellish, pestilential jungle where you could die at any moment, and you go back to your nice life in Wichita, Kansas, with your friends and your family and your human connections, that’s the equivalent of being taken out of the first cage and put into Rat Park."

The case of tobacco

"[This's] not to say that there’s no chemical component [to drug addiction]. It’s important to stress that... There’s a broad scientific consensus that one of the most physically addictive drugs available to us is tobacco. And we’ve isolated the part that’s chemically compelling—it’s nicotine. So when nicotine patches were invented in the early 1990s, there was this massive wave of optimism: Great, you can give smokers all the drugs they’re addicted to without the filthy carcinogenic smoke. Progress. You will see a huge fall in smoking.

Actually, the US surgeon general’s report found that only 17% of smokers stopped with nicotine patches. Now, it’s important to stress that 17% is a lot. It’s not nothing. That tells us that 17% of these addictions are chemically driven—or at least that 17% of people can stop when the chemical component is met. That’s huge. That tells us that the story we’ve been told up to now is not false. But it also tells us that it’s only 17% of the story, and that 83% has to be explained in some other way. These social and environmental factors should be a very big part of the conversation and the discussion."

Image courtesy of marin at


  1. Nice post. However I feel its difficult to achieve in a developing country like India. Government have to allow the farming of cocaine. Once it grows people will export it to black markets. There is already shortage of food and jobs. It will be difficult for the Government to afford such scheme.

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  3. India still doesn't have the drug mafia as in the US and Latin American countries. Perhaps the governments there (in the 30s and 40s) also thought that they could not afford these schemes (there being massive unemployment at that time), but the result is that it created entire mafia industries. Punjab is already suffering from this immensely. Something has to be done, and repeated studies have shown that banning doesn't solve the issue. Perhaps some modified version of the above will work here.

    I don't know much about the alternatives to cocaine farming though.