In the 1960s, drugs became a symbol of youth rebellion, establishment rejection and passive resistance to the Vietnam war embraced by the hippie movement in the US.
Fast forward to 1971 when then president of the United States Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” with claims that it was America’s “public enemy number one”. The aim was to reduce the illegal drug trade and discourage consumption of a list of psychoactive drugs that the UN had made prohibited.
Nixon justified his actions by shifting public perceptions of drug users and making citizens believe they were dangerous and a threat to America.
However, almost half a century and millions of incarcerations later, the public perception on drugs, notably cannabis, has been transformed.
Cannabis is now legal recreationally in 11 states and Washington DC with cannabis products, namely CBD, being made available across the globe. It seems that the US is finally changing its approach on the budding industry.
Nixon’s drug-free dream
In 1969, Nixon designated Stephen Hess to the position of National Chairman of the White House Conference for Children and Youth, tasked with listening to the voices of young Americans to uncover their opinions on current affairs within the country.
Two years later in 1971, Hess and 1,486 delegates came together and discussed the most pressing issues concerning the youth of America, the main issues included the war in Vietnam, the economy and employment, education, the environment, poverty and drugs.
The participants on drugs argued for addressing the causes of drug abuse, championing therapy for addicts over incarceration and punishment. They concluded that they “acknowledge that drug abuse is largely a symptom of the individual’s inability to cope with his immediate personal environment. However, it must be understood that deep societal ills increase the individual’s sense of personal alienation”.
Three months after the conference, instead of heeding the suggestions of aiding drug users to truly put an end to the drug crisis, Nixon had waged his drug war whereby he framed drug users as criminals who deserved imprisonment and punishment.
Nixon placed marijuana under Schedule One, alongside heroin and ecstasy, where it still sits today under federal law.
In 1972, a federal commission advised congress to remove criminal penalties on possession and distribution of cannabis for personal use citing that ‘neither the marijuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety’, nevertheless Nixon decided to ignore the report.
Failed war on drugs
Although the initial aim behind the war on drugs was to reduce substance abuse and addiction, the current opioid crisis in the US is a prime example of how drug use and abuse has actually skyrocketed.
Between 1999 and 2017, almost 400,000 people have died from an opioid overdose in the United States. This figure is, shockingly, six times more than the number of deaths of US soldiers during the entirety of the Vietnam War.
Making drugs illegal and setting harsh punishments for possession has undoubtedly driven the criminal underworld and taken control away from the government with the war on drugs having almost no effect on global supply.
Data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime shows no reduction in the scale of global cultivation of opium, coca bush (to produce cocaine) and cannabis. Production of opium rose by a record amount of 65% from 2016 to 2017, to 10,500 tons.
The global cultivation of cocaine also reached the highest level ever reported in 2016 with an estimated 1,410 tons more than the previous year, a 25% rise.
Cannabis cultivation was indicated by seizure of cannabis plants or direct cultivation, with global seizures up by 6,313 tons from 2015 to 2016.
In 2019, estimates predict that the illegal cannabis market is worth a staggering 3.7 billion dollars in the US alone, equating to more than four times the size of the legal market.
Continually struggling with violence directly caused by brutal drug cartels, from January to June of 2019, Mexico recorded its most murderous first half of the year since records began due to ever increasing levels of drug-related violence. 14,603 murders were registered, versus 13,985 in the first six months of 2018.
Another issue with driving the industry underground is the unregulated contents of the illicit drugs themselves. In the US, heroin has been increasingly found to be laced with fentanyl as it has a much higher potency than heroin therefore making it cheaper for dealers, and has caused a huge spike in overdoses.
Although less likely to occur, weed has also occasionally been found to be laced with glass, embalming fluid, laundry detergent and even heroin. Alternatively, if cannabis was cultivated in a regulated environment, it would be free from contaminants and safer for the users who will use regardless of laws.
A blazing future for legalisation?
Portugal took the bold stance to decriminalise drug possession more than a decade ago. Since then the number of heroin addicts has been slashed in half, as has the amount of drug related crime and incarceration rates. Also notable is the huge decline of HIV infections and all drug related deaths, and the dramatic rise in drug use which many feared failed to materialise.
Decriminalisation in Portugal saw a reduction in the number of people arrested and sent to a criminal court for drug offences, going from more than 14,000 in 2000, to approximately 5,500 – 6000 per year after the new law had come into effect.
Among adults in Portugal, there are three drug overdoses for every one million citizens which is minuscule compared with the EU average of 17.3 million.
Decriminalisation of cannabis, mainly for use and possession, could see the end of ordinary non-violent citizens being labelled as criminals and befalling harsh punishments and provide users with a more humane and helpful response to their inevitable drug use.
More plausibly, legalisation could eliminate or significantly reduce the illegal black market for cannabis and eventually many other drugs, bringing the drug trade out of the hands of criminals and back in control of governments who can therefore accrue tax revenue and reinvest in important and necessitous sectors.