Rune Engelbreth Larsen
Jens-André P. Herbener
Rune Engelbreth Larsen
There is no doubt that the use of illegal drugs is a source of great suffering in modern society. But why is it that these drugs are able to cause so much damage? A closer analysis reveals that practically all our problems with the drugs are a consequence of the fact that they are forbidden - or, in other words: That the real crime is committed, not by smugglers or big underground bosses, but by the enforcers of the drugs policy that outlaws the drugs and thus marginalizes, criminalizes and persecutes the drug addicts. In modern society, a large quantity of drugs are used with the purpose of changing people's state of mind. These drug differ widely in effect and chemical composition and are taken for quite different purposes. As regards the effect, we have a range from weak stimulants (like coffee, tobacco, khat and the coca leaves used by the Indians of the Andes mountains) to regular poisons with a tremendous effect on behavior and state of mind (alcohol, heroin, benzodiazepins, LSD).
The reasons for the consumption also varies widely. The smoker will smoke in order to be diverted and stimulated, or because he likes the taste of a nice pipe of tobacco. A very large portion of the population do all their work under the constant influence of caffeine – and many more would feel badly were they to do without their morning coffee.
In all cultures, this kind of drugs (which we may conveniently classify as psychoactive drugs) are enveloped in complicated taboos and rituals. It is thus supposed to be quite normal to drink alcohol when we want to have fun at a party, or to take tranquilizers to soothe our nerves – but if somebody were to take sedatives in order to have fun or drink to soothe his nerves, many would consider that person an abuser of pills or alcohol.
While a relatively small number of psychoactive drugs are legal (though still subject to regulations and control), most of the drugs used are illegal. The latter are, of course, the drugs we usually label »narcotics«.
There is no fundamental difference between these and the legal psychoactive drugs except the fact that at some time they have been forbidden, formally because they were judged so dangerous for society that it would be irresponsible to let people use them. The real reasons that these substances were forbidden (and the prohibition is maintained) are far more complicated.
In Denmark, the illegal psychoactive drugs are, quite typically, forbidden by a law which outlaws all import, sale, purchase, delivery, manufacturing, and possession of narcotics, defined as drugs listed in the relevant departmental order from the Ministry of Health. Violation of these rules is punishable with fines or prison up to a maximum of two years. Cannabis is an exception, since the possession of minor quantities of cannabis is not prosecuted.
»Professional« dealing with narcotics may furthermore be punished with a maximum of 6 years, which under very incriminating circumstances may be raised to as much as 15 years.
Narcotics may then be defined simply as »illegal psychoactive drugs«. The most widespread narcotics are cannabis, amphetamine, heroin, cocaine and ecstasy.
Both legal and illegal drugs may inflict severe damages on their users. Alcohol, nicotine and heroin may all lead to a life-long dependence and reduced quality of life because of medical complications (brain damage, cirrhosis of the liver, respiratory problems, lung cancer, hepatitis or ruined arms and legs because of failed injections).
On the other hand, the notion of consuming drugs in order to feel better has also led to moral concern. In many »informative« publications on the subject we see a strange mixture of ethical and medical arguments against the use of drugs or in favor of prohibition: that drugs represent an »escape« from the real problems; that the time wasted during the intoxication might be used more sensibly; that the drug may possibly be carcinogenic; that the damages produced by the legally available drugs already are more than enough; that the use of cannabis will without a doubt lead to dementia; that a single whiff of a cigarette with heroin will surely condemn the subject to a desperate existence, enslaved by the drug; or that the feeling of happiness instilled by the drugs is false (even though this distinction between »true« and »false« happiness is deeply problematic, as pointed out by Christie and Bruun: is the happiness of a sports star upon winning »true«, while that of the spectators is »false«?).
This is an actual problem in all discussions about the drugs and their significance for mankind: hardly any subject has in our age been so surrounded by myths, half truths and moral short circuits as the drugs question.
This is primarily due to the biased way the drugs are depicted in the media or in the multitude of pamphlets, textbooks, etc., that exist on the subject: Society is at war against the drugs and all information on the subject thus takes the character of propaganda, becoming information of the dangers in using drugs.
The purpose of the official information on drugs is not that people should be able to assess for themselves the risks involved in taking the various drugs, but that they should shudder and stay clear.
As a consequence, the public's conceptions on the subject are dominated by a series of myths, persistent obsessions, that any serious exposition of the subject should begin by dismantling.
Myths about drugs
According to the common misconceptions, the »hard« drugs are outrageously dangerous. Just a single line of cocaine or a single injection of heroin will inevitably cause the user to feel a pleasure so profound that henceforth, he will be addicted to the drug for the rest of his life. Enslaved by the drug he will have to spend astronomical sums in order to satisfy his insatiable hunger for drugs, and all scruples are abandoned. The withdrawal symptoms will drive the addict into prostitution, or into stealing, lying and killing in order to get the huge amounts of money needed to cover his daily consumption. The drug addicts have often been fooled into their habit by dissolute pushers who would never dream of touching the drugs while making tons of money ruining the lives of others – quite often, the pusher will hand out doses for free in order to get new users, normally recruited in the nearest schoolyard. As soon as they are addicted, they get to pay. Similarly, the drug traffic is controlled by big bosses, so-called kingpins, often assumed to be quite ordinary people, possibly from the upper classes (in Denmark, biker gangs like Hell's Angels or Bandidos are also often assumed to make huge profits on drug traffic) who make lots of money on other people's misery. And this is not all: our society is constantly being threatened by new waves of drugs – the Danish public was recently warned by a news channel that our problems with drugs might well be tripled because the market was about to be flooded with cheap cocaine.
And yet we must say of this picture that, firstly, it is almost completely false, and that, secondly, the notion of violent physical withdrawal symptoms is actually only relevant for opiates.
But yes, heroin and the other opiates are actually quite dangerous and many people are actually being driven into life-long dependence of the drug. This is a fact that we neither want to deny nor lose sight of.
But it is also a fact that most users of these drugs try them sporadically or in brief periods, after which they cease to use them. Constant replacement is just as typical of the drug culture as the constancy of old users.
Also, it should not be overlooked that a very great part off the effect of the drug, as well of the dependence it provokes is culturally determined. During the war in Vietnam the American soldiers, probably due to their unusual and very pressed situation, were heavy users of many different drugs. Thus, 69% of the soldiers smoked cannabis during their stay in Vietnam, while the corresponding number for heroin and opium was 43%. 29% used heroin or opium more than once a week, while as many as 20% believed themselves dependent on one of these drugs.
Naturally, this level of consumption raised a great deal of official concern, and therefore an examination was made of their life after their demobilization. It turned out, that while 45% of the veterans still smoked marijuana, only 10% had taken opium or heroin after the demobilization – and furthermore, the vast majority of those who had used the drugs regularly in Vietnam now used the drugs only sporadically.
Actually, many examples are known of subcultures with a controlled use of heroin and of heroinists for whom the drug may apparently easily fit into a normal working life, as Ruggiero and South report from the city of Turin: »After all, the life style of many heroin users is closer to that of an ordinary worker. They work all the time; and two or three times a week, instead of going to the cinema or away for the weekend, they have a fix. This is also the case with the habitual users.«
It is thus not true that everybody who tries a drug like heroin must necessarily be driven into addiction.
As regards the other popular notion – that the price on drugs and the pursuit of money for drugs transform the addict into a »crime machine«, a monster who will prostitute him- or herself, steal or mug people on the street with no hesitation at all just to get the next fix – we must say that it is at best very exaggerated. Some addicts may be willing to mug old ladies to get money for drugs, but many addicts would rather suffer the withdrawal symptoms.
When speaking of heroin, it is normal to distinguish between (younger) occasional users who are content with smoking the drug, and (older) injection users, who typically have been addicted for years. The last group are those we normally regard as »drug addicts« – heavily marginalized, often criminal and almost always large-scale consumers of alcohol and sedatives besides heroin. The situation of these people is a product of the way they take the drugs and the conditions, under which they must get those drugs that they do not want to dispense with, rather than of their actual consumption (which, as pointed out by the sociologist Jacob Hilden Winsløw, may even be quite modest).
A former addict becomes annoyed when asked how much money he had to get every day: » You take as much as you can and feel like – some days you have a party and do a little extra, others you only take enough to keep away the withdrawal symptoms – and yet others, you can't even do that. You can't make it up that way.«
Many addicts commit crimes in order to finance their drug consumption, but not nearly all and not all the time; »new« addicts will often start by spending all their ordinary income on drugs and then try to sell their possessions and borrow money (which they often cannot pay back) from their friends under various pretexts and will often have tried to quit before being driven into crime. Drugs like heroin and cocaine can be very demoralizing and may drive their users to extremes – but not necessarily to anything.
The notion of the pusher as a drug shark, of the cynical businessman living like life of a king selling drugs that lead others into misery and who may even tempt school children into addiction by »free handouts« is yet another bogey from the modern nursery. The vast majority of dealers at the retail level are themselves addicts who attempt to fund their own consumption. Thus, when the Copenhagen police in the autumn of 1996 with a lot of media coverage struck down hard on the heroin dealing perpetrated by African pushers in Vesterbro in Copenhagen, they exploited the popular contempt against the »pusher« and his shady profits while actually seizing poor, shabby people trying to make ends meet.
But obviously, those are only street pushers. What about the big underworld bosses? These mythical people making fortunes saturating the Danish drug market with death and disaster?
As the Danish sociologist Joi Bay has stated in Faklen no. 3, this is yet another myth, since it is assumed that »the notion of big bosses controlling the Danish drug market is wrong and the drugs supply is controlled by many smaller, uncoordinated groups.
A closer examination of the persons punished for »professional drugs trade« according to §191 in the Danish penal code confirms this assumption. The well-known criminologist Preben Wilhjelm writes: »The frequent references to unraveled 'drug leagues' and seizures of quantities of drugs which 'according to police estimates might have yielded so and so many millions on the street' leaves the impression of an extensive and well organized criminal organization behind the supply of the Danish drug market. It is not, however, the big bosses we normally see in the criminal statistics. (...) Every year, about 300 persons are convicted according to the drugs section in the penal code. If they alone had supplied the entire Danish market, in the average they would have supplied 25 addicts for one year. But they are not alone. It is estimated that the control policy reveals 5-10% of the supply. This means that these 300 people on the average were convicted for supplying two addicts for one year.« (Social Kritik no. 6, 1990).
So, with 5,000-10,000 addicts in Denmark, we must have at least 2500 »drug sharks« or »big bosses«...
The Norwegian Kåre Bødal has investigated the first 350 convictions after the equivalent section of the Norwegian penal code and arrived at the conclusion, that »the close he scrutinized the evidence, the more his original picture of these convicts changed. The professionals, the cynical kingpins, the money barons, those who tempt other into addiction but would never touch it themselves, increasingly faded away. Instead, a familiar figure emerged. (...) ruined families, alcoholized parents, the guy himself may have been passive and nice a few of the earlier school years, but with steadily increasing trouble...« (Christie & Bruun).
So these are the »merchants of death«: addicts funding their own consumption, common petty criminals and perhaps a few »normal« young people whom the drugs or the lure of easy money have enticed to a deal that may easily turn out to be the mistake of their lives. Very symptomatically, an application for permission to perform a similar investigation in Denmark was shelved for one and a half year in the Ministry of Justice. When the permission was finally given, it was with the proviso that the police must have the right to censor the manuscript. They may have suspected that the result would be unpleasant for a police force exploiting the myth of the »big bosses« in order to justify its own efforts.
This is not to say that underground drug bosses cannot and do not exist in the form of individual businessmen trying to make a little on the side by investing considerable amount in drugs traffic. In Italy, where there is a considerable overlap between the legal and the illegal economy (and where businessmen to a certain extent have found it natural to enter less traditional fields such as kidnapping and extortion) it is quite common that »legal« tradesmen have supplemented their income with such investments.
Only these individual cases play no role at all in the overall picture of the Danish drug traffic which seems to be dominated by smaller groups of addicts and common criminals.
And even in Italy, the notion that »the Mafia controls everything« is simply wrong, as stated in Ruggiero and South's investigation from Turin: »It is wrong to imagine a mega-organization that controls everything. We have to think of different groups which control specific sectors of the heroin market and simultaneously control other illegal activities carried out in these sectors.«
THE STEPPING STONE MYTH
Another very common notion about these drugs is the »stepping stone« or »career« hypothesis. According to this theory, the use of illegal drugs is a slide where one drug automatically leads to another. Once you tried cannabis, you will definitely want to try something stronger and may pass on to amphetamine or cocaine, after which the road is already laid down till the day you collapse in the gutter with the syringe in your hand. A common American propaganda pamphlet expresses it thus: »[Marihuana is] little feared by many people. But it frequently draws a person into the heavier, more dangerous drugs.« (Myers).
The stepping stone hypothesis is often affirmed as an infallible truth, even by people who ought to know better, for instance in a widely distributed introduction to psychopathology: »Once a person is assimilated in the drug culture, the steps of progression are predictable: from pot to LSD, from LSD to speed, and from intravenous anything to intravenous heroin.« (White & Wyatt).
The truth is that this hypothesis has never been confirmed or even rendered probable. On the contrary, all statistics show that only a very small portion of those who ever try cannabis go on to trying amphetamine or heroin. An investigation report from the Danish Health Administration says it unequivocally: »There is no direct road from cannabis to amphetamine, cocaine or heroin.«
The stepping stone myth is based upon the fact that practically all those who end as heavily marginalized addicts have smoked cannabis at some point. Only the very same argument might be used to construct a »stepping stone hypothesis« for alcohol or tobacco; the vast majority of cannabis will, just like the vast majority of normal smokers, never »take the next step« and get addicted to hard drugs.
THE COSTS OF THE DRUGS
But how big is the drug problem actually, and how does it compare to, say, the problems associated with abuse of alcohol?
When it comes to the heaviest addicts, the situation in Denmark has been relatively stable in recent years. Today as 20 years ago, about 5,000-10,000 people are assumed to be dependent on hard drugs, mainly injection users of heroin.
If the number of addicts has changed little, the problems that they and their way of life give rise to have increased in the 90's. Apart from the fact that they have to get by in a very hard environment where everybody is on guard against everybody, they have also suffered from an intensified police effort; this is particularly true of the hounding of addicts realized by the Copenhagen police in the first half of the 90's, the so-called »stress strategy«. Instead of concentrating their effort on dealers and smugglers, the police systematically targeted the individual addicts and street pushers, seizing their drugs and charging them in order to remove or reduce the market.
This strategy is not in order with the overall guidelines for the field – on June 20th, 1994 the Danish Attorney General distributed a circular to all prosecutors and police chiefs, stating that the intention of the law against possession had never been to criminalize possession for personal use and that their should be no charges or investigation against persons only suspected for possessing for personal use.
This letter portended the end of the »stress strategy« as well as of the so-called »cannabis war« then being fought on Christiania, where cannabis has been sold openly on the streets for decades; during the »war«, the police tried to stop this cannabis trade with all means, including very gross harassment of people who were only guilty of possession. Even though the police may still hand out fines for possession of hard drugs (or even cannabis) for personal use, the circular of the Attorney General seems to portend a more moderate posture. This does not mean, however, that the addicts are left in peace; many of the most marginalized addicts have received restraint order preventing them from being in the neighborhood of Vesterbro (where most addicts used to hang out) and have been driven out to Sydhavnen (near the harbor), where the local police simply continue where the Vesterbro police left off.
It is not at all clear how such a strategy would ever be able to »remove the market«. The addict who has just spent his last money on a fix will not give up getting his fix just because it is seized; on the contrary, many are driven into even more desperate crimes in order to obtain another dose – which increases the turnover and the profit of the importers.
In 1994, the Danish Medical Association published a scathing attack on the drugs policy till then, especially the suffering caused by it: »The police strategy of concentrating their effort on the addicts seems quite unproductive, apart from the fact that of course it does produce more charges and more prisoners, which can hardly be a goal in itself. At the same time, this policy is does considerable harm. The environment of the addicts becomes more and more criminal and violent. The hounded addicts can do nothing but feel marginalized and expulsed ...« (Ugeskrift
for Læger 5, 1994). It is summarized: »... the war against drug all to easily becomes the war against addicts, and that cannot be in their nor in our interest.«
In all cases, the results of the stress strategy were disastrous and are directly reflected in the development of drug related deaths, which is probably the best quantitative measure of the misery among addicts: »The number of drug related deaths is a product of the number of addicts (which as been more or less constant) and their misery. The deaths are thus a measure of the misery, and thus also becomes the most precise and general measure of the quality of out drugs policy,« which is the eloquent explanation of the Medical Association.
In 1990, 115 drug related deaths were registered in Denmark. The following year, this number had increased to 208, the largest figure ever; since 1994, we have been at a relatively stable level of 270 deaths per year – thus, there were 266 drug related deaths in 1996. About 80% of these deaths are caused by intoxication (OD); half the intoxications are overdoses of heroin, while the rest are caused by legal medicaments used by addicts as substitutes for heroin – mostly opiates and benzodiazepines.
The Danish criminologist Flemming Balvig has, partly based on a comparative study of two major Swiss cities, demonstrated that the number of drug related deaths is directly related to the intensity of the control policy – the more police effort, the more deaths (Nielsen, Ugeskrift for Læger 5, 1994). Thus, the increase in the number of drug related deaths must be seen as a direct consequence of the tightening of the control policy, especially the stress strategy employed by the police. The dispersion of the market and the many seizures force the addict to buy drugs whose quality and concentration the cannot know, or to substitute the heroin with less expensive but uncontrollable legal medicaments.
The addicts are also treated very harshly by the Danish judicial system. In Denmark, about 10% of all people charged in »normal« criminal cases are taken into custody – approximately one out of four is put in solitary confinement. About 75% of those taken into custody get a prison sentence. At first it may strike us as unreasonable that 25% are taken into custody and not later found guilty of anything worth a prison sentence, that is, as part of the investigation they receive a stronger sanction than actually called for.
If we look at the drug cases, however, quite another picture emerges. A recent investigation showed that the drug cases though only 1% of all criminal cases account for 17% of all who are taken into custody. In drug cases, custody is used in nearly 100% of the cases. At the same time, solitary confinement is used in about 90% of the drug cases, while two thirds of all people charged in drug cases end up being acquitted.
So we see that while the large percentage of »unjustified« custody in normal cases (about 2,5% of all charges for violations of penal law) might inspire some concern over our the legal protection of citizen's rights, drug cases show a complete arbitrariness. This is not improved by the fact that the period of custody (and of solitary confinement) is usually longer in cases involving drugs. Since most of those who get charged are addicts, in addition to psychological pressure from the solitary confinement they have to endure the pain from the withdrawal symptoms.
So while in most respects we might be quite concerned whether we possess an adequate legal protection, in cases involving drugs we have an alarming and uncontrollable arbitrariness: Charges are brought indiscriminately on inadequate grounds, whereupon the charged are pressed to confess after longish interrogations and the torture of solitary confinement.
Annually, about 900 charges are made according to section 191 in the Danish penal code; in 1996, the number was 891.
About 300 are convicted. Is our society really so threatened by drugs that it is necessary to imprison 600 innocents under such conditions?
The most widespread illegal drug in Denmark is cannabis. This drug is used very widely, and even though traffic and use is still illegal, it is so easy to get by that from the point of view of the users it might as well be legal. It is assumed that about 25% of the Danish population have tried this drug at some time; according to the latest figures from the Health Administration, 5% have used it the last year, while 2% (about 100,000 people) stated that they had used the drug the last month. From these figures it seems safe to assume that between 50,000 and 100,000 people use this drug more or less regularly.
Cannabis is, as is well-known, a mild hallucinogenic; the degree of harm it may do is controversial, but probably quite limited – and to a large extent determined by the culture in which it is used. Thus, when marihuana was forbidden in the USA, it was because of its reputation of provoking violent and criminal behavior. Today, on the contrary, one of the recurrent arguments for maintaining the prohibition of cannabis is that it is dulling and pacifying.
The illegal status of cannabis and its spread with the so-called »youth rebellion« in the sixties have endowed the smoking of cannabis with a certain tinge of »rebellion«. This is, however, somewhat illusory nowadays, where the drug is so widespread.
A vast number of investigations have been made of the adverse effects of the drug – these seem to be pretty manageable. For healthy persons, no long-term damages of any consequence have been found, even though the use of such a drug obviously is not unproblematic; a common experience is that cannabis may enhance already existing neurotic character traits; and even though the claim that cannabis is »dulling« or »demotivating« have no general validity, the drug may actually have that effect in the subcultures where it is used daily. Finally, any kind of smoking will entail some risk of bronchitis and other respiratory diseases.
On the other hand, no investigation so far has found any evidence of a connection between cannabis and psychoses, brain damage or decreased sexual activity which along with the stepping stone hypothesis are the most common »facts« in the propaganda against the drug.
According to the inquiries of the Health Administration, the use of cannabis is most widespread among young people, most of whom only try in a few times, while others grow more attached to it. The majority stop using it or go from regular to sporadic use as they grow older and have a family.
According to the Health Administration, only a small part of the Danish population have tried stronger drugs. 1-3% stated that they had tried »hard« drugs like amphetamine, cocaine and heroin, while even fewer – perhaps 10,000-20,000 people — may be assumed to use such drugs more regularly. These numbers are very uncertain, however, and the increase of the use of ecstasy and heroin for smoking in recent years has not been taken into account – the problem is that nobody knows how many people use these drugs.
All of these drugs are on one hand used occasionally by a relatively large number of people for whom this consumption will not constitute a problem (apart from the risk of poisoning as a consequence of lack of knowledge of the drug and unpredictable variations in the quality of the drugs), while on the other hand they are used more often by a regular clientele of so-called »mixed drug users«. These are often young people frequenting subcultures with drug use as the main rallying point, and of course it is in these circles that tomorrow's addicts are to be found.
EVALUATION OF THE PRESENT DRUGS POLICY
When facing a problem like a growing abuse of narcotics, we can immediately discern three possible responses. The most obvious is the one used for solving many other problems, viz. doing nothing and hoping the problem will wear off by itself. In Denmark, this strategy has been used both against homelessness and to a certain extent in the drugs policy, since for year the policy has been that of tolerating that Christiania in Copenhagen is actually a »cannabis supermarket«, which has been a de facto legalization as the (still formally illegal) drug.
Traditionally, however, one distinguishes between two fundamental viewpoints as regards the effort in the drug question, which are normally termed »control« and »harm reduction«. According to the first viewpoint, the diffusion of drugs is mainly a problem for the police and should be solved with the corresponding means. The narcotic drugs are illegal and harmful and the people using and selling them should be prevented from doing their evil deeds. The ultimate goal of control policy is to stop all use of illegal drugs. In the short term, the aim is to limit the use as much as possible by preventing the sales, thus diminishing the supply. A measure for the success of the control policy is thus, that the drugs are difficult to get by and that prices are high.
The other viewpoint, harm reduction, is far more pragmatic. Its starting point is that the main priority must be that these drugs cause as little harm as possible – on the users and on society. This kind of strategy is typical for the drugs policy in a country like Holland, where in the seventies the consensus was that the main danger of cannabis was its link to the criminal environments where the hard drugs are also sold; this observation lead to an effective (if half-hearted) legalization of cannabis in the famous »coffee-shops«.
Similarly, clinics exist in Holland where the addicts may have the composition and concentration of their drugs measured without fear of confiscation or prosecution, while methadone has been offered since the seventies to addicts who wanted help to lead a more normal life (in this policy, it is also possible to see a certain repressive tolerance. As it is explained in an official account of the Dutch drugs policy: »The lack of repressive action by the police against addicts purely on account of their drug use and the ease with which they van obtain the substitute methadone prevent the lifestyle of addicts being seen by young people as an expression of social or cultural rebellion.« (Drugs policy in the Netherlands). The contrast to the Danish stress strategy could hardly be greater). Similar principles have been employed in England, where doctors at a very early point were allowed to prescribe addictive drugs (heroin, for instance) to such patients that the doctor judged were addicted to these drugs. After an increase in the number of registered addicts, however, the rules for prescription of heroin and cocaine were tightened considerably; this was an important contribution to the growth of the illegal market which had already arisen, among other things because not all users wanted to be registered as addicts.
In Denmark, on the contrary, it has been decided to join the general hard line of the Nordic countries, whose objective is »the drug-free society«. This goal is sought by limiting the demand by a mixture of »information« (actually a kind of reversed advertisement, where the dangers of addiction are depicted vividly) and treatment of the existing addicts. Meanwhile, the supply is limited by letting the police strike down on the illegal traffic and use.
The objective of a drug-free society y accompanied by the traditional treatment for drug addiction in this country: the drug-free person. In many treatments, abstention from drugs has been deemed very important – as has the notion that the addict should not try to alleviate their withdrawal symptoms with other drugs like cannabis, alcohol, et cetera.
The problem with these ideal objectives is that they do not work.
If the aim has been to reduce supply or bring us any nearer a drug-free society, the present policy must indeed be said to be a total failure. The prices of heroin, amphetamine and cocaine have all dropped considerably since the beginning of the decade, while the price of cannabis has remained more or less stable the last 15 years. The falling prices are a clear indication of large supply, the consumption of cannabis seems unchanged and nothing had been able to prevent the diffusion of ecstasy and heroin for smoking in recent years.
The traditional objective in the treatment system of total abstention from drugs also has few chances of succeeding when put into practice, since several medical investigations have shown that a complete and permanent freedom from drugs cannot be obtained with a frequency of more that 3% with any currently known treatment. So if the choice lies between total abstention and total marginalization, it is in reality already made; against this background, the Danish Medical Association concludes in its 1994 review, that »if the objective of the treatment is recovery understood as freedom from drugs, the treatment is usually doomed to fail«. Instead, the more modest suggestion is made, that the objective for the individual addict might be »a greater degree of control with the abuse, an abbreviation of the periods of abuse, a better standard of living, a more socially accepted way of life and less crime«.
And the same is true, of course, for society as a whole: we cannot get rid of these drugs, but we can attempt to minimize the misery caused by them. For the truth is, that »the drug-free society« is a dangerous illusion. Its implementation would demand a so comprehensive control that few of us would probably like the society which would result; or, to put it another way: we cannot get a society without drugs – but we can ruin the one we have while trying.
THE COSTS OF THE DRUGS POLICY
The failure of control policy and the success of harm reduction in Holland and Switzerland (among others) have led many people to demand a legalization. These demands no longer only come from leftists or liberally-minded criminologists – people from the judicial system and mainstream politicians have joined in.
Vagn Greve, professor in penal law at the University of Copenhagen, comments the failure of control policy: »when the medicine did not appear to work at first we took some more, and when it failed again, we took even more. We should have recognized at an earlier point that we have been using the wrong medicine.«
Erik Merlung, the public prosecutor of Zealand, says about the present drugs policy: »Enforcing it demands vast human and economic resources and it inflicts great pain on the addicts.«
As a matter of fact, we may note that practically all the suffering that the addicts and their victims must got through can be traced back to the restrictive policy. Nearly all the drugs related deaths might have been avoided if only it had been relatively easy for addicts to get their heroin (so they would not have to recur to various substitutes), and if only there had been some kind of control with the quality of the drugs on the market. Practically all damages from chronic use of opiates are control damages, that is, damages provoked solely by the authorities' efforts against the drugs in general and the addicts in particular.
The same is obviously true of the 500-600 people who each year get arrested, charged and put in solitary confinement for drugs traffic and are subsequently acquitted and released. A drastic liberalization of the whole field would eliminate practically all drug related crime and thus release vast resources in the police and the prison administration.
The Danish criminologist Flemming Balvig comments the Swiss experiment of giving addicts the heroin they need: »If we want a serious discussion of preventing and reducing the number of burglaries we have to take hold of the drugs policy. I am personally in favor of giving better treatment and medically prescribed heroin to the most marginalized and criminal addicts.«
Similar voices are gradually being heard all over the world.
Even though the »war against drugs« is still one of the common features of international cooperation, an ever greater uncertainty may be felt regarding the utility of a continued control effort. Even in the USA, who declared a »drug war« under president Bush – a war that is led with such means as more police, more severe punishments, harder prisons and to a certain extent military intervention in the countries of origin – a considerable doubt is found.
While the criminal debate in American local politics seems superseded by a competition as to who can be toughest (»zero tolerance« campaigns alternate with Draconian punishment for the traffic of even small amounts of drugs, and the increased criminalization of the drug user subculture is met by frightened demands for even more repression), several mayors and high-ranking police officers speak openly against »the war on drugs«. Because if we really are at war with drugs, the drugs do not appear to be losing.
Instead of persevering in a struggle we cannot win, we might stop and ask about the human and economic costs of the present policy. George Schultz, former US Secretary of State and a veteran of several »drug wars« had barely demitted before he expressed his wish for a decriminalization so that addicts might buy their drugs under orderly conditions. Schultz is just one of a growing number of critics of the hard-line American drugs policy, a policy that does not seem to bring about anything except full prisons, more police, further marginalization of already exposed groups – and neither more nor less drugs. These critics are increasingly to be found in the ranks of the police and judicial system. Thus, in 1996 a congress was held with participation from police from 50 police forces from all over the country; the majority agreed that the war against drugs had gone to far and that a legalization is needed.
J. Wiarda, police chief in Utrecht, Holland, believes that the legislation against drugs is one of the most important causes of crime in our time. A legalization would not bring about any major changes to society – after all, about 95% of the drugs smuggled in is assumed to make it to the users. »I think this is a quite small change. Everybody who wants to use drugs in this country can find them at a reasonable price in a reasonable quality. This will not change if the drugs are legalized.« (Interrogation in official Dutch inquiry of investigation methods, 1995).
The only difference is, according to Wiarda, that this will be devastating for organized crime: all the income from illegal drug traffic will disappear, and no other illegal markets have the capacity to grow sufficiently for replacing it.
Previously, we have discussed the costs of the present drugs policy for the addicts. What is the cost for the rest of society?
As has been mentioned, it is accepted as a matter of course that practically all people who get charged in cases involving drugs are taken into custody and that practically all those taken into custody are put in solitary confinement. At the same time, less is required in order to press charges in such cases: only about 1/3 of these arrests in solitary confinement lead to conviction, while custody and solitary confinement are much less used in cases involving »common« crimes like homicide, rape and violent assault and much more frequently leads to conviction; that is, it is far less frequent that these measures affect innocents. On the other hand, those charged in drug cases are in a less favorable position than those charged in other cases since less is required of the indictment. The prosecution may employ anonymous witnesses, which may mean that specific parts of the indictment are kept secret from the defendant (for instance, that the defendant allegedly was a particular place at a particular time) who then will have no chance at all to defend himself by finding an alibi or similarly.
In a word, the drug problem is supposed to be so difficult and so important, that the common legal protection cannot be upheld so that it »unfortunately« turns out to be necessary to employ measures that would have been considered unacceptable in all other contexts. Solitary confinement is used arbitrarily and routinely without any obvious reason that this Danish specialty (denounced by the CPT as torture) should be more »necessary« than in other cases. Tapping of rooms and telephones is allowed in these cases to an extent unknown from other cases, just like the most elementary requirements such as precision in the indictment and burden of proof are loosened.
Other specialties are stress strategy, searches without a warrant and without search witnesses or the latest innovation: »preventive arrest« of addicts believed to be especially criminal, just so that they do not »deface the city« during certain public celebrations. The danger for those charged in drug related cases is that they are convicted while innocent or that the loosening of the legal protection and the presumption of innocence get them convicted for more than they have actually done.
The danger for society is that this dispensing with the most elementary judicial principles will spread to other cases once the jack is out of the box. The myth of the »necessity of special means« in drug related cases is simply one of the greatest threats to the legal protection and elementary civil rights, and the pretext – that this is necessary in order to get at the big underground bosses – rings rather hollow given Wilhjelm's and Bødal's demonstration that the convicts are mainly petty criminals...
Police Chief Wiarda comments: »... there is no turning back once a police force has acquired too much power, except by a revolution. The belief in repression, in the »war against drugs«, is the second most serious threat against democracy.« (J. Wiarda in Social Kritik no. 6, 1990).
It is a little more difficult to calculate the financial costs of the drugs policy. Those may be divided into the costs which the offences against property committed by addicts inflict upon individuals and insurance companies and the amounts spent on treatment, information, investigation, trials and imprisonment. The first of these expenses are very difficult to survey – in the Danish government's account of the Danish drugs policy from 1994, it is stated quite laconically: »There are no statistical investigations of the extent to which crimes against property are committed by drug addicts.«
It can hardly be more that a few hundred million kroner (roughly, $50,000,000) annually. A few year ago, Flemming Balvig estimated that the annual expenses for patrolling, investigations, trials and imprisonment in drug related cases amount to at least 2 billion kroner (roughly, $300,000,000. Nielsen, Ugeskrift for Læger 5, 1994). Of course, it is not easy to know how much of this money is spent on the approximately 500 innocents who every year become victims of the drugs policy's erosion of defendant's rights.
In all cases, to this must be added the expenses of the public health services for treatment, distribution of methadone and acute treatment of addicts who collapse.
As will be seen, the part of the costs originating from the addicts themselves – expenses for treatment and the value of their crimes – are absolutely negligible compared to the amounts spent on fighting drugs and addicts.
ON THE TRACK OF A BETTER DRUGS POLICY
In the same way as we earlier saw three possible points of departure for the drugs policy, we can discern three possible strategies for the future. The first (and once again, the most obvious) would be that of continuing the present drugs policy – this, we might call the »status quo«-policy. A continuation of the present restrictive drugs policy departing from the impossible dream of a drug-free society – while at the same time the most heavy addicts are marginalized even further, even though the control effort on which so much emphasis is made actually has no influence at all on the supply of drugs on the illegal market.
Another possibility were to stand up against the drugs – more police, giving up the more liberal attitude towards cannabis, more severe punishments for possession, more prisons – in a desperate attempt to wipe out the evil. This is, essentially, what has already been tried in the United States and in Norway and it has not been a very successful policy. The efforts have not led to less drugs – let alone less crime – only addicts have become more detested and marginalized and correspondingly more desperate. Perhaps the circumstance that neither in Denmark nor in the United States has it been possible to keep the prisons free of drugs tells us something about how little the drug-free society would resemble a society most of us could stand living in.
The third possibility were to recognize, with the words of the Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie, that we live in »the last days of prohibition«, that we cannot keep the drugs out and so might as well do what we can to learn to live with them.
We cannot get a society without drugs – but we can attempt to get a situation, where those we have cause as little harm as possible. Christie explains: »I do not hold with people using these drugs, and I repeat with monotone regularity that people should rather get high by taking a walk in the mountains than by using drugs. But at the same time, the hypocrisy and falsehood on this subject is appalling. We have reasons to assume that the adverse effects of cannabis are insignificant, if there are any. From the first, classical study by the Indian Hemp Commission to the latest reviews the main conclusions in this direction are pretty unambiguous. On the contrary, the drug appears to be very well-suited to alleviate the discomfort accompanying many treatments for serious diseases, especially the use of cell poisons against cancer. Pure heroin is by itself not very harmful for the organism. But this is a strong drug which by incautious use or miscalculation may lead to death or injury, just as it may lead the user into a dependence which it is quite difficult to get rid of. Heroin, therefore, must be subject to a stricter control than cannabis, but not in the brutal forms used today. To conclude on this matter: the war is lost. Now we must avoid losing civilian society.« (Nils Christie, 1996).
But how do we go about saving civilian society? Nils Christie enumerates 14 suggestions that would represent an extensive liberalization of the Norwegian policy in the field.
We will depart from the already mentioned medical fact that chronic dependence on heroin or morphine is a disease which as far as we know cannot be cured with a success rate of more than 3% per year. If we do not want to lose the remaining 97% we have to acknowledge that the present injection users will not stop using heroin and that they will continue to commit crimes as long as they cannot get money enough legally.
Instead of hoping to wean off the present addicts, we could endeavor to limit the intake of new ones. First of all, we should ensure that all the heaviest addicts can get the heroin they need under satisfactory conditions. Practically all the drug related deaths could then be avoided, since nobody would have to take heroin of unknown strength or alleviate the withdrawal symptoms with various medicaments. Hereby, the bottom would be knocked out of the illegal heroin market, just as no addict would have to sell drugs on the street in order to get money for heroin.
This maintenance treatment should not stand alone, though, but should be supplemented with offers of treatment and weaning for everybody who might want it, just as all should be offered a decent home and be given help to find a suitable job or education, if they wish.
The weaning must not be a condition for dispensing the drug, and there must be no pressure at all on those who are unwilling to receive these offers of jobs or training. The first objective is to ensure these people a decent life without the perpetual pursuit of money for drugs – and not to get them off drugs just to be off drugs. On the contrary, the addict's heroin should be regarded as vital medicine just as the diabetic's insulin.
Can we afford to make this massive effort, this special treatment of what is, after all, a somewhat small minority? The question is whether we can afford not to. We should also not forget that the whole justice administration's handling of the addicts presently costs two billion kroner a year. If only we spend 100.000 kroner per addict per year, at least half this money might be saved.
In the same way we must accept that drugs like amphetamine, cocaine and ecstasy for many people simply are drugs that may be used at parties, just like others use alcohol. We might hope, of course, that people might realize by themselves that using these drugs is not a sensible thing to do and thus will accept and respect that they should remain forbidden. Only this seems quite unlikely, especially given the results of similar attempts to regulate of prohibit the consumption of alcohol. As long as there is a market for these drugs, people will be able to buy them. The major health risk with the illegal traffic is that nobody really knows what the drug they are offered might be mixed with, or how strong it is.
A cautious legalization would partly mean that the quality of the drug would always be under control and partly that the total consumption and the problems involved would be known exactly.
In Holland, the coffee shops are nor allowed to sell more than five grams of hashish to each costumer.
With these drugs, a similar arrangement might be imagined. It might be legal to sell small amounts of drugs like amphetamine, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD in pharmacies without prescription to persons of more than 18 years, such that each person could not buy more than (say) three doses each day. This would obviously not prevent anybody from buying more than that through front men or by going to all the pharmacies in town but it would make it very troublesome to get hold of large quantities of these drugs. The price on these drugs should be set so high that it can pay for the manufacture of the drug, and so low that it would not be possible to sell them cheaper illegally.
This would eliminate all the uncertainties involved in the illegal distribution might be eliminated and ensure that the drugs would only be sold from pharmacies in packings provided with detailed directions for use and suitable warnings and at the same time, the illegal drug traffic would be completely eliminated.
Heroin, on the other hand, should only be available by prescription in order to ensure that the present illegal market is not just replaced by a legal one. In the long term, that is, when the majority of the present injection users have settled down in a decent existence, it may be sold in the same way of the other »hard« drugs.
Cannabis, on the other hand, is somewhat special. It should not be sold along with the hard drugs. Instead, it might be possible to allow the creation of special public houses, where the drug may be sold. In Copenhagen it would be natural to legalize the cannabis traffic in Christiania, while also allowing it to be sold in the rest of the city.
Illegal traffic and smuggling of hard drugs would still be illegal, of course, but it should be compared with bootlegging and should not be punished any harder. Illegal import of drugs could never constitute any major problem, however, since the prices of the legally available drugs should be low enough that the illegal market is eliminated.
Thus, by legalizing drugs we may
eliminate a very large part of the crimes against property committed by addicts
ensure all addicts a decent life
avoid all accidents of intoxication caused by mixture or varying quality of drugs
get rid of all illegal drug traffic and all crime derived from this traffic
ARGUMENTS AGAINST A LEGALIZATION
So how come these steps were not taken long ago? The answer is that the present prohibition has its origin in a real concern for the harm that may be caused by these poisons – and that concern is not always unfounded.
There is no doubt at al that many people have contracted serious psychoses by using LSD. The new and very popular drug called ecstasy may, used the wrong way, cause dehydration and heart attacks; as regards other drugs such as alcohol or cocaine, it should be unnecessary to repeat the risks of overdosing or excessive use.
This leads us on to the most common arguments against legalization:
Legalization will lead to increased use.
Since use is dangerous, and since a wider diffusion will mean more people getting tempted into abuse, the drugs should be as inaccessible as possible – preferably totally inaccessible.
This is, however, contradicted by the experience from Holland, where purchase and use of cannabis has been legal since the seventies. The local youth has not abused the drogue ravenously. Actually, the use of cannabis is not strikingly greater nor smaller than in the more restrictive neighboring countries. Opium was actually present in many medicaments sold in the 19th century, and even though a certain abuse of these medicaments did exist, it was not extraordinarily common. When most people refrain from taking drugs it is, after all, not because it is forbidden, but because they do not consider it sensible — just as most people would not consider it sensible getting drunk every day.
We have sufficient legal drugs already and the damages they cause are more than enough. There is definitely no need for more.
Only the problem is that the present prohibition does not prevent anyone from taking drugs. The prices on heroin rattled down between 1989 and 1993, while at the same time the quality of the drugs on the market increased significantly. In this period, the price was reduced to a quarter of what it was before. Rather, lifting the prohibition might remove some of the »underground« tinge of the drug subcultures and thus make them less interesting. Besides, this argument is fundamentally ethical and therefore without interest. From a humane point of view, the main priority must be to avoid the misery that users and addicts are inflicted by a prohibition that cannot be enforced.
Denmark has acceded to the international conventions against drugs.
These very severe conventions, whose prohibition of cannabis was forced through by the industrial countries (who at the same time have opposed any and all regulation of alcohol) in spite of vigorous protests from Tunisia and India among others, might after all be relaxed or interpreted more leniently. Holland, Switzerland and England have all had a more liberal practice without having any problems with these conventions.
Ultimately, it should not be forgotten that the fact that something is not illegal does not mean that it is endorsed, let alone recommended. Sniffing gasoline or jumping out from the 7th floor is not illegal either; it is definitely not to be recommended but it is not illegal (and probably should not be). Nor can we recommend drugs like amphetamine or cocaine to anyone but they like alcohol they are essentially harmless if used moderately.
This leads us to another very common argument against legalization:
These drugs are poisonous and many people have gotten into deep trouble using them. Why would we even consider legalizing them?
But once again, the problem is that the present prohibition does not prevent anyone from taking the drugs. On the contrary, in some cases it makes them more interesting, since using them is considered »rebellious«. On the other hand, because of prohibition we have no idea of the true extent of the consumption of drugs, nor is there any control with the quality of the drugs on the market.
By legalizing heroin we just keep the addicts in their abuse while they really need to get off drugs. Are we to give alcoholics cheaper Scotch as well?
It is true that handing out heroin will keep the addicts addicted. For the time being, they are just kept by the illegal market and their own addiction. The only difference is that legalization will give them a chance to lead a decent life – a chance they do not have today. Moreover, heroin and morphine are special cases in the sense that they – when taken correctly – can be used for years without causing any damage to the organism. Leading a normal life would not be easier for an alcoholic, if he could have alcohol for free – quite the contrary. On the other hand, we would definitely not do him a favor by banning alcohol or making it so expensive that he would have to commit crimes in order to finance his drinking habit.
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
One day in the autumn of 1997, the Danish television viewers were able to witness a peculiar procession. Some of the inhabitants in a street in the city of Odense gathered before a particular house, beating drums and shouting catchword in megaphones against the evil threatening the city which emanated from this house. Reason: according to the neighbors, drugs were sold from an apartment in that house and as a consequence they had to put up with a constant running about of prostitutes, thieves and addicts in the street. A six-year-old was able to add, that »we daren't pass by the drug joint, because one never knows what they might be up to«.
Nobody appeared to have suffered any concrete molestation, though. Odense's Police Chief was among the participants. He had to deplore that the police could not just clear the apartment, because »their kind also have some rights that must be respected«. How deplorable!
This incident is symptomatic of the increasing marginalization of drug addicts in recent years. The angry residents may thus comfort themselves that if addicts have rights, it is definitely not the same rights as »decent« people have. In Aarhus, the police flattered themselves for having arrested some of the most conspicuous addicts during Aarhus Festuge (an annual celebration which lasts one week): » [this week] they gather where they are most conspicuous. Therefore we have arrested them, using a general article about 'nuisance' so they don't bother too many.« (Ekstra Bladet, 2/9-97).
In Copenhagen, many drug addicts and alcoholics have received restraint orders not to be in squares and streets near their own home, and the city squares have been made more open during the urban renewal, so that addicts and drunks cannot »hide« behind corners or trees. In Aarhus, attempts have been made to find places outside the center where the addicts could be, so that the city would not be defaced by such rabble. Until now, all these plans have been given up because of vigorous protests from local residents. Everywhere the tendency is the same: All who might give the impression that social problems exist in the cities are pushed out – the only thing we do not want to hear about is how we might possibly solve these problems.
Instead of solutions – treatment, decriminalization, places to be, legalization – we get an escalation, passing from seeing the addict as a victim to seeing him as an outcast and an enemy of society.
In 1992, 46% of the inmates in Danish prisons were drug addicts. They did not end up there because of there addiction. They ended up there because they were unable to get their drugs at a reasonable price and because they were unable to cure themselves of a disease that nobody is able to cure. And this is the real drug crime. In the prisons you mainly find unhappy people who were trying to get by, people who were trying to stay clear of the sufferings of the withdrawal symptoms.
It is often said that drugs is one of the greatest threats against society. This is true, however the threat does not come from the drugs themselves but from the powers the authorities are given in order to fight them.
The real drug crime is not the drug traffic but the criminalization, the marginalization and the persecution of the addicts and the suffering this inflicts upon them.
The true drug criminals are those people responsible for their suffering, the people who maintain a drugs policy based on puritanical moralization, ignorance and intolerance; the infinitely well-meaning people who deny that it could ever be different.
By Carsten Agger
Published in Faklen (The Torch) No. 7, 1998