Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Global tide turning against the War on Drugs

Michael Gormly
Thursday, 3 September 2009


Except for the occasional glimmer of light, consumers of Australian media can be forgiven for thinking the dark age of drug prohibition is not only justified but securely incumbent.

While our media, most politicians and even some health experts continue to regurgitate an evolving panoply of drug myths usually traceable to ultra-conservative US elements, truth will out and the international tide is on the turn against prohibition.

One of these myths is the one about cannabis and psychosis. New strains of skunk are X times stronger than the weed baby-boomers smoked in the 60s, and it's sending today's teenagers crazy, right?

Wrong. The perpetrators of this myth have funded a swag of dodgy research to link cannabis and psychosis, and our media faithfully regurgitate the moral panic. But they fail to explain why rates of psychosis have not significantly risen since pot became popular in the West over the past four decades; and anyone who thinks the drugs of the 1970s were not potent either wasn't there or had no personal experience of them.

Yet research still shows links between cannabis and psychosis. It drives horror headlines variously claiming that smoking pot results in a 40 or even a 200 per cent increase in the risk of mental illness, depending on the shrillness of the source. But what they don’t tell you is that this dramatic increase in risk is limited to far less than one percent of smokers. While a 40 percent increase in risk sounds alarming, 40 per cent of nearly nothing is no reason for a worldwide War on Drugs which directly kills countless thousands of people each year.

Other recent marijuana myths claim that it shrinks your brain, makes your teeth fall out and gives you cancer. Horrid little Frankensteins are still injecting people and rats with pure THC (an active ingredient of cannabis) to prove it is toxic, even though no-one has ever died directly from cannabis.

Locally we now have the lavishly funded National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC) to foment panic. It published a minor study claiming that cannabis makes people violent “ pure Reefer Madness nonsense. It has now conducted an evidence review to support a new campaign claiming that driving stoned is the same as driving drunk. But this is not backed up by NCPIC's own report, which concludes that great variations and inconsistencies in the findings detract from the likelihood of a clear synthesis of results.

None of these cannabis plagues actually show up clearly in population studies, which is why authoritative bodies like the British Government's Scientific Advisory Panel advised against reclassifying pot into the more serious Category B. This was ignored by Gordon Brown, who went ahead anyway in a desperate pursuit of political points. The privately funded Beckley Commission recognises dangers of cannabis but concludes that prohibition is disproportionate and ineffective.

A recent Cato Institute study assessed Portugal's progress since it decriminalised all drugs including the hard ones in 2001. Cannabis use is down among teens and HIV transmission has been slashed.

This is awkward stuff for prohibitionists who always assert that going soft on drugs will unleash a tsunami of drug abuse and mental illness. They also have trouble with solid world-wide evidence that liberal harm minimisation practice“ needle exchanges, supervised injecting centres and the like“ is the best way to reduce HIV transmission among injecting drug users and does not increase drug use.

It is this HIV factor which is turning the United Nations away from the US-driven War on Drugs towards a new approach based on harm minimisation.

This is despite the still-powerful influence of Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and a keen prohibitionist.
In 1998 his organisation declared it would make the world drug-free by 2008. Despite the spectacular failure of this ambition, he has recommended another ten years of War on Drugs. Given that the global illicit drug market rivals the oil industry in size, and any kid can still score pot in any town in Australia, his defence is reduced to nonsense sound-bites such as Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled, they are controlled because they are harmful. Sounds neat, except that drugs are not controlled and prohibition clearly makes them more harmful ” as we are repeatedly told by police who warn against buying ecstasy pills because you never know what's in them.

Costa ignored a recent global email campaign urging him to explain why, if prohibition was effective, cannabis usage in the Netherlands (where it is freely available) is around one-third the rate in the prohibitionist US, which jails more people for possession than any other country. The US has five per cent of the world’s population but 25 per cent of its prisoners, most of them black or Hispanic. No-knock raids on homes by armed para-military police are common there, frequently resulting in the death of innocent people because information was wrong or police just got the wrong house.

Fortunately for the world, Costa is outranked by UN General Assembly resolutions in support of harm minimisation, echoed by WHO.

The election of Barak Obama is also significant. While he is not dismantling US prohibition, he has stopped Federal law enforcers busting people for medical marihuana use in the growing number of states which have legalised it.

Mexico has just decriminalised personal possession of most drugs with nary a peep out of the Obama Administration, in sharp contrast to the last time Mexico tried this route only to backtrack under intense pressure from the Bush administration. Now Argentina has also decriminalised cannabis, and the cocaine-producing nations of South America are calling for a change of strategy as their countries are being ripped apart by drug cartel warfare without any reduction in cocaine production which is fuelled, ironically, by the huge profits to be made in the US market..

Respected journal The Economist is campaigning against prohibition while the idea of regulated supply is making the opinion pages of leading newspapers including The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.

Even police in the US have a 16,000-member organization, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which has erected roadside billboards announcing Drug abuse is bad “ the Drug War is WORSE

But here in backward Sydney, the Miranda Devines, Fred Niles and the Christian Right keep singing from the same old songbook and this supposedly global city is embarrassed when travellers from progressive countries are confronted by the sight of police with sniffer dogs searching people in the street like a scene from some hardcore American cop show or an Iron-Curtain police state. This is no longer the free country we have fought so many wars to defend.

All inner city residents suffer the fallout from prohibition “ from syringes in the street to muggers, beggars and burglars feeding addictions, to less obvious problems such as police focusing on easy drug busts instead of, say, high-visibility policing in late-night entertainment precincts where a stronger presence would reduce actual violence.

It's time we got real.

by Michael Gormly

PS The latest study to question the cannabis-schizophrenia link, and a host of other current Drug Law Reform information, is blogged on my Kings Cross Times site.

Global tide turning against the War on Drugs « Alternative Media Group

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