Drug prohibition isn’t just one of the most hotly contested issues of our day, it’s an issue that has resulted in some of the most far-reaching consequences for both American citizens and people living around the world. The United States has led the global effort to prohibit, stigmatize, and eradicate these substances, but this approach, known as the War on Drugs, has taken a huge toll on human rights, public health, and crime rates. There are many reasons why the War on Drugs failed, and the cost has been very high.
With a few notable exceptions (such as Portugal, who decriminalized all drugs in 2001 to great success), most countries take a hardline stance against the possession and use of drugs that are not owned and manufactured by drug companies, including hard drugs like heroin and meth, psychedelics like LSD and DMT, and recreational drugs like marijuana. Addiction is a growing problem, particularly to opiates like heroin, and with the exception of tobacco, drug abuse in the US has only continued to increase over the last two decades. Ironically, one of the most hopeful solutions to our national drug use and addiction problem — psychedelic treatment — has long been one of the War on Drug’s biggest casualties.
The Effects of the Drug War
There is no clear beginning to the War on Drugs, but people often attribute President Richard Nixon’s 1971 declaration of drug abuse as “public enemy number one” as the day the modern War on Drugs began. While Nixon’s rhetoric did put things into motion, it was really the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations that made the War on Drugs as we understand it today.
The FBI and CIA began military actions to fight drug trafficking within the US and around the world. In the US, incarceration rates for drug offenses began to skyrocket — between 1980 and 1997, nonviolent drug arrests increased from 50-000 to over 400,000. Huge media and public outreach projects like the D.A.R.E program and Just Say No advertising campaign saturated the American public with anti-drug propaganda. This hardline, zero-tolerance approach did little to lessen the availability or demand for drugs and instead succeeded in marginalizing and incarcerating huge amounts of non-violent drug users, with minorities making up the majority of arrests.
Most importantly for our purposes here at Psychedelic Times, The War on Drugs put a decades-long halt to the scientific study of psychedelics such as LSD, stifling our exploration of the profound medical and therapeutic benefits that these substances have to offer. It also prevented psychedelic treatment — which was gaining popularity with psychologists in the 1950s as a break-through therapy — from becoming a viable option for people suffering from ailments like addiction and depression. Thankfully, we are witnessing a sea change today in our approach to drug policy and psychedelic research as we begin to clearly understand the fatal flaws of this total war approach.
Why the War on Drugs Failed
Those who have supported a hardline approach to recreational drug use are quick to talk about the crime, violence, and health risks associated with drug addiction, but what they often critically overlook is that these negative outcomes are not caused by the drugs themselves, but rather by their being illegal. Looking at alcohol prohibition as an example, you can’t help but see the parallels to today: when the United States made alcohol consumption illegal in the 1920s, it led to a massive increase in crime, increased rates of incarceration, and a big payday for the criminal enterprises that stepped in to fill the distribution gap that legal businesses had to abandon.
The demand for mind-altering substances, be it alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, or nicotine, will always be present in human culture. (Indeed, consciousness-altering substances have been present not just in modern times but all the way into distant antiquity.) Criminalizing these substances only creates a business opportunity for criminals who are willing to operate outside of the law. It also either incarcerates or stigmatizes those who choose to partake of these drugs, denying them the basic support they need to overcome addiction, avoid disease transmission, and seek health services.
The War on Drugs hasn’t made our addiction problem any better, either. In the last two decades, the number of deaths from heroin and prescription drugs in the US have steadily increased, and by more than just a little. Overdose deaths from prescription drugs like opioid pain relievers and benzodiazepines almost tripled between 2001 and 2014. In that same amount of time, overdose deaths from heroin increased six-fold.
Harm Reduction As a New Way Forward
So with the War on Drugs a failure, what is the right way to approach drug use, abuse, and addiction? The most prominent emerging movement is called harm reduction, a way of seeing drug abuse as a health issue, not a criminal issue. Harm reduction places emphasis on treatment rather than incarceration. Perhaps the most significant new proponent of this approach is Michael Botticelli, the ONDCP’s new “drug czar.” Botticelli is a recovering addict himself; he’s spoken publicly about how the War on Drugs has failed and how we need to treat addicts rather than lock them up. Even the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime seems to be on board, as Richard Branson leaked last summer that the office would release a report to governments around the world suggesting that all drugs be legalized and emphasis put on treatment for the sake of public health and human rights.
Perhaps the most promising of all is the recent research that’s been published about how these medicines can be used to treat addiction. The African plant-derived ibogaine has been shown to be a powerful addiction interrupter, and doctors like Dr. Gabor Mate elect to treat addiction patients with ayahuasca. Treatment centers for ibogaine and ayahuasca are opening up around the world. And the news about psychedelic addiction treatment has even crossed into government goings-on: last year, Vermont proposed an ibogaine pilot study in response to the heroin epidemic that’s exploded in recent years. All of this means that we’re likely to see more research for psychedelic addiction treatments, and if trends continue, the evidence will support the healing capabilities of substances like ayahuasca and ibogaine for addiction and beyond.
The drug war has been long and difficult and resulted in many casualties, but it’s exciting to see the movements of harm reduction, psychedelic research, and legalization begin to emerge. With a newfound appreciation for psychedelics, we may see a slow, subtle, but hugely transformational shift in cultural values towards individual sovereignty and widespread understanding of the lasting benefits that psychedelics can impart to people when taken responsibly.