Huffpost WorldPost
Johann Hari Headshot

Face the Facts -- and End the War on Drugs

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

proponents of the ‘war on drugs’ are well-intentioned people who believe they
are saving people from the nightmare of drug addiction and making the world
safer. But this self-image has turned into a faith – and like all faiths, it can
only be maintained by cultivating a deliberate blindness to the evidence. The recent
furor about the British government’s decision to fire its chief scientific
advisor on drugs
, Professor David Nutt, missed the point. Yes, it is shocking
that he was ditched for pointing out the mathematical truth that taking ecstasy
is less dangerous than horse-riding and smoking cannabis is less harmful than
drinking alcohol. But this is how the war on drugs has to be fought. The unofficial
slogan of the prohibitionists for decades has been: The facts will only
undermine the war, so invent some that show how successful we are, fast.

at the United States,
the country that pioneered the drug war, and still uses its military and
diplomatic might to demand the rest of the world cracks down. In 1998, the
Office of National Drug Policy (ONDP) was ordered by Congress to stop funding
any scientific research
that might give the impression that we should redirect
funding from anti-trafficking busts into medical treatment of addicts, or that
there is any argument to legalize, regulate or medicalize drug use. It’s Nutt
cubed: only tell us what we want to hear. So, to give a small example, the ONDP
spent $14 billion on anti-cannabis ads aimed at teenagers, and $43 million to find
out if the ads worked. They discovered that kids who saw the ads were more
likely afterwards to get stoned, so the evidence was suppressed, and the ad
campaign marched on.

would happen if we started to build our drugs policy around the facts, rather
than our desire for a fuzzy feeling inside? Professor Nutt only took tiny baby
steps in this direction before he was booted out. He argued that we should rank
drugs by the harm they do, rather than by the size of the panicked headlines
they trigger. Now the row is fading, it is possible to see how conservative he
was. A must-read new report out this week – ‘After The War on Drugs: Blueprint
for Regulation’
– follows the facts as far as they will take us. It shows that
the rational solution is to take the drug market back from the unregulated
anarchy of criminal gangs, and transfer it to pharmacists, off-licenses, and
doctors who operate in the legal economy. To see why this is necessary, we have
to look at some of the facts our politicians refuse to see.

One: The drug war hands one of our biggest industries to armed criminal gangs,
who unleash terrible violence across the country.
When alcohol was
prohibited in the US
in the 1920s, it didn’t vanish. No: armed gangsters like Al Capone stepped in
and sold it – and they shot anybody who got in their way. Yet today, Wine Rack
does not shoot up Thresher’s. Oddbin’s does not threaten to kill anybody who
sees its staff selling wine. Why? Because it wasn’t the booze that caused the
violence; it was the prohibition. Once alcohol was reclaimed for legal
businesses, the dealer-on-dealer violence swiftly stopped.

there is a huge profit to be made in a black market – it’s 3000 percent on
drugs today – people will fight and kill to control it. Arrest a dealer, and
you simply trigger a new war for his patch, with the rest of us caught in the
crossfire. The Nobel-prize winning economist Milton Friedman calculated that
there are 10,000 murders in the US
alone every year caused this way
. Legalize, and you bankrupt most organized
crime overnight. With their profits in free-fall, the gangsters don’t suddenly
become cuddly – but the huge financial incentives to remain a gangster wither
fast. It’s the drug war that keeps them in business, and legalization that
shuts them down. As Friedman said, “Prohibition is the drug dealer’s best

Two: Under prohibition, drug use becomes more hardcore.
Before alcohol
prohibition, most Americans drank beer and wine. After prohibition was
introduced, super-strong moonshine became the most popular drink, as booze
rapidly became 150 percent stronger. Why? The writer Richard Cowan called it
“the iron law of prohibition”: whenever you criminalize a substance, it gets
stronger. Because they are smuggling and stashing a substance, the dealers condense
their product to give the biggest possible kick while taking up the smallest
possible space. It’s at work today: it’s why dealers invented crack in the
1980s. The researchers Matthew Robinson and Renee Scherlen found: “The
increased deadly nature of drugs under prohibition led to 15,000 more deaths in
2000 [in the US
alone] than [if] prohibition had not made drugs more dangerous.”

Three: The drug war doesn’t reduce drug use – but the alternatives can.
people believe these two dark side-effects are a price worth paying if
prohibition stops a significant number of people from picking up their first
bong or needle. It was an understandable enough argument – until the evidence came
in from countries that have experimented with ending the drug war. On July 1st 2001, Portugal
decriminalized the possession of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. You
can have and use as much as you like for your own needs, and if you are caught,
the police might refer you to a rehab programme, but you will never get a criminal
record. (Supplying and selling remains illegal.) The prohibitionists predicted
a catastrophic rise in addiction, and even I – an instinctive legalizer – was

we know: overall drug use actually fell a little. As a major study by Glenn Greenwald
for the Cato Institute
found, among teenagers the fall was fastest: 13-year-olds are 4 percent less likely to use drugs, and 16-year-olds are 6 percent
less likely. As the iron law of prohibition predicts, the use of hard drugs has
fallen fastest: heroin use has crashed by nearly 50 percent among the young,
who were not yet addicted. The Portuguese have switched the billions that used
to be spent chasing and jailing addicts to providing them with prescriptions
and rehab. The number of people in drug treatment is now up by 147 percent. Almost
nobody in Portugal
wants to go back. Indeed, many citizens want to take the next step: legalize
supply too, and break the back of the gangs.

is no fluke. It turns out that wherever the drug laws are relaxed, drug use
stays the same, or – where spending is switched to treatment – falls. Between
1972 and 1978, eleven US states decriminalized marijuana possession. The
National Research Council found
that the number of dope-smokers stayed the same.
In Switzerland,
a decade ago the government started providing legal centres where people could
safely inject heroin – for free. Burglary rates fell by 60 percent, and street
homelessness ended. A study by the Lancet – one of the most respected medical
journals in the world – found that the rate of people becoming new heroin
addicts fell by 82 percent. Why? Heroin addicts didn’t need to recruit new
addicts to sell to in order to feed their habit. The pyramid scheme of heroin
addiction was broken.

the drug war doesn’t achieve its goal of reducing addiction. All it does
achieve is horrific gang violence – and in some cases the cartels gut whole
countries like Mexico
and Afghanistan
It does unwittingly press people into using harder and more dangerous drugs.
And it does waste tens of billions of dollars that could really reduce drug addiction,
by spending it on treatment for addicts.

prohibitionists are therefore left a contradiction between their message and
the facts. They can either change their message, or try to suppress the facts.
Last week, the British government made its choice. But how long will this be
tenable for them or the wider world? The prohibitionists are – from the best intentions and the highest
motives – unleashing a catastrophe. Human beings have been finding ways to get
stoned or high since we lived in caves. In our attempt to end this natural
impulse, we have created a problem worse than drug use itself.

is another way. Imagine a country with no drug dealers killing to protect their
patch or terrorizing whole estates. Imagine a country where burglary fell by 60
percent. Imagine an America
where we spent all these billions treating addicts as ill people who need our help,
not hunting them down as criminals who need punishment. We can be that country.
We just have to come down from chasing the dragon of a drug-free world – and
start looking soberly at the facts.


Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here. You can email him at johann -at-

To read an archive of his articles about drugs, click here.

Johann is also a contributing writer for Slate magazine. To read his latest article for them - about the loon Ayn Rand - click here.

You can follow Johann on Twitter at