As anniversaries go, 13 usually isn’t considered a big one. For the superstitious, it might even be a year to avoid celebrating. My book about the drug war, Maximizing Harm, was published 13 years ago. Since drug prohibition continues to result in consistent misfortune, what better time to glance back.
The book, subtitled Losers and Winners in the Drug War, suggested that policies supporting the prohibition of drugs made the problems surrounding drugs worse, not better. Here in the US, where I live, some things have gotten better, while some things have gotten worse. I will discuss some of those improvements and digressions, but our neighbor to the south truly illustrated the principle of Maximizing Harm in the time since my book was published.
During his term as Mexican president from 2006-2012, Felipe Calderon attempted a crack down on drug gangs. The crack down unleashed a wave of brutal violence across the country. Drug-related murders increased from about 3,000 per year before Calderon, to more than 10,000 per year toward the end of his term. By some estimates, more than 60,000 Mexicans lost their lives due to the Calderon drug war, and many victims had nothing to do with the drug trade.
Despite the spike in violence, the drug trade remains as strong as ever, demonstrating another principle of harm maximization: increased efforts in the drug war always fail to curb the drug trade in the long term.
Back to the US, we continue to arrest around 1.5 million citizens each year for drug crimes. Of those drug arrests, more than 750,000 were for cannabis in 2011. That number is similar to what it was back in 2000, though cannabis arrests did rise above 800,000 annually during the late Bush years.
While the number of arrests doesn’t change that much, one could argue that the slight decrease in cannabis arrests in recent years reflects new attitudes and policies about cannabis.
Unlike the year 2000, there are now two states (Colorado and Washington) that have formally legalized cannabis consumption. Also, there are now 19 states (soon to be 20 when my home state of Illinois joins the ranks) with medical cannabis laws, as opposed to only 8 states with such laws 13 years ago.
Of course, science has taught us so much more about cannabis now: how all humans use cannabinoids to regulate health; how cannabinoids can help heal the very sick (going so far as to kill cancer cells); and how cannabinoids can help the healthy stay healthy. The shadows of this knowledge may have started to form in 2000, but now these principles are accepted as scientific fact.
The drug war has tried to persuade us that cannabis is always bad; science has shown this view isn’t merely foolish, it’s dangerous. Indeed, while the drug war maximizes harm, cannabis can minimize the harm done by the drug war.
Thirteen years ago, I saw some paths away from the drug war, but it was hard to see how the broadest path would come from cannabis itself. In many ways, cannabis and cannabinoids are the antidotes to the drug war. Opinion polls now frequently find majorities of Americans who would like to end cannabis prohibition, which is the foundation of all drug prohibition.
Thirteen years from now, I suspect general attitudes will have shifted much further on cannabis and other currently illegal drugs, as science will have shown even more amazing properties of cannabinoids. Though policies will be dramatically different at that point, we will likely be wondering why they took so long to change.