EFFACING THE SCREAM – Confronting Drug Legalisation

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Those seeking to legalise all currently illicit drugs have exploited one particular strategy which has yielded results for more than a decade.  It is a strategy which uses the weight of the public’s fortuitous naivete regarding the complexities of drug policy, striking at the emotional level with arguments which appear to time-poor individuals in the midst of minimal media debate to have substance when reflection shows otherwise.

The appeal to the plebiscite and the opinion poll has been the legalisation lobby’s chosen strategy for influencing or forcing legislative change, and it is a play which is used with a great deal of confidence due to hundreds of millions of contributed dollars from some of the world’s richest men who have queued to bankroll their cause.  Since New York financier George Soros donated $550,000 in 1996 to legalise home-grown medical cannabis in California’s successful Proposition 215 plebiscite, the ability of the lobby to out-advertise their opponents by marshalling 25 advertising dollars for their every $1, as detailed by Gil Kerlikowski of the US Drug Enforcement Administration regarding a more recent plebiscite, has ensured the legalisation agenda’s continued advance.   In the UK it has more recently been Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson who has reached into his own deep pockets.

Chasing the Scream, a new book published earlier this year by Johann Hari, focuses and refines the drug legalisation lobby’s previous arguments, and has been released to rapturous reviews worldwide.  “Chasing the Scream is an absolute gem, and I honestly feel that it’s one of the best examinations of drug policy that I’ve read,” says one Goodreads review.  But if ruse has been the major stock-in-trade of the legalisation lobby, Hari’s new book takes an even bigger lend of reader’s lack of drug policy knowledge.

The lobby’s constant resort to ruse is exemplified in the Guardian’s 2014 British Drugs Survey which asks respondents a quintessentially leading question, “Do you believe that the ‘War on Drugs’ can ever be won?”  The question is outright deception simply because the UK has never had a war on drugs, where it has rather offered a drug strategy which is only a slightly lesser shadow of our Australian drug policy where we have done everything possible to facilitate the use of illicit drugs in this country.  For the last 30 years we have spent more than half a billion dollars on our world-leading needle and syringe programs, methadone programs and more recently an injecting room.  Alongside our harm reduction programs we have had a Tough on Drugs strategy which introduced more prevention strategies between 1998 and 2007, still no war on drugs, which halved our cannabis use, decreased heroin use by 75%, reduced amphetamine use by 40%,  but failed to reduce cocaine and ecstasy use which increased by 15% and a disturbing 46% respectively.

Of course, policing illicit drug use is no more a war on drugs than the policing of rape, paedophilia, stealing or drink driving.  All are capable of being titled a ‘war’ on activities which society condemns, but no opinion poll will ever indicate that the public believes that those ‘wars’ could ever be won, far less abolished, simply because they can’t.  While ‘blitzes’ on drink driving or speeding are frequently declared in this country, there is no suggestion they be discontinued because that war can’t ever be won.  Yet the drug legalisation lobby will use the Guardian poll’s 87% who believe the obvious, that any War on Drugs can’t be won, to tell politicians that the public’s view implies policy failure which must be terminated.  By deceptively titling every country’s necessary policing of illicit drug use a ‘War on Drugs’ the drug legalisation lobby seeks only to befuddle the public’s perceptions of the aims of drug policy.

Hari’s approach is not limited to the underhanded titling all illicit drug policy a war on drugs, but rather a far more explicit, creative rewriting of drug policy history, manufacturing an illusion that the historic international agreements prohibiting the recreational use of opium, heroin and cocaine in 1912 and of cannabis in 1925 are really all the work of one devious, dishonest US bureaucrat, Harry Anslinger.  That Anslinger led the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 through to 1962, commencing years after these agreements were established, does not deter Hari from rearranging history to suit his thesis that Anslinger treacherously beguiled and bewitched the entire world into prohibiting the very drugs which Hari believes are largely beneficial with significantly less harm than alcohol or tobacco.

To make this thesis work Hari has to creatively unhinge his creative assertions from verifiable fact, fact that is eminently verifiable given every Anslinger file from his 32 years at the Bureau is still archived at Pennsylvania State University.  Hari’s treatment of Anslinger commences with, “From the moment he took charge of the bureau, Harry was aware of the weakness of his new position.  A war on narcotics alone–cocaine and heroin, outlawed in 1914–wasn’t enough.  They were used only by a tiny minority, and you couldn’t keep an entire department alive on such small crumbs.  He needed more.”

Such a creative rearrangement of history ignores the fact that Anslinger, when commencing his work in 1930 at the Bureau, did everything he could to avoid the public hue and cry led by various newspapers and legislators in the Southwest regarding the use and effects of marijuana.  Anslinger maintained that cannabis was not being imported as was opium or cocaine, but rather domestically grown, and should therefore be controlled by each State rather than the Federal Government’s 1914 Harrison Act.  It was not until 1937 that Anslinger begrudgingly acceded to pressure, a very different reality to Hari’s inversion of facts to suit his emotionally appealing but fanciful polemic which carefully avoids the reality of how and why these prohibitions were initially instituted.

For Hari’s book to influence any unversed reader, he needs to carefully conceal the harsh realities of public attitudes towards illicit drugs which led to those international Conventions 18 years before Anslinger took control.  They were the very same attitudes seen in opinion polls today.  Every 3 years, the National Drug Strategy Household Survey asks 25,000 Australians about their drug use and their attitudes to drugs and national drug policy.  97-99% do not approve the regular use of heroin, cocaine, speed, ice and ecstasy, while 90% do not approve the regular use of cannabis.  And we can be sure Australians are not naïve in their distaste for drugs.  Up to 46% have experimented with illegal drugs, and the high percentages for disapproval of drugs indicates that almost all have come to reject them.  Australia, too, has had the highest levels of drug use in the developed world, with the highest heroin and amphetamine use, second highest cannabis use and fourth highest cocaine use before Tough on Drugs worked to effectively reduce most of these.  There are few families in Australia not touched by illicit drug use in some way.

Any national community which sees new substances presenting unacceptable dangers to the fabric of their society maintains the democratic right to expect its government to prohibit the behaviours which large majorities condemn.  To position these negative attitudes towards drugs, which have remained largely unchanged for the last century, as the product of a conniving US bureaucrat requires an inexcusable, illogical displacement and rearrangement of history, which Hari has  crafted.

His view on drugs is glib.  Says Hari, “Some drug use causes horrible harm, as I know very well, but the overwhelming majority of people who use prohibited drugs do it because they get something good out of it– a fun night out dancing, the ability to meet a deadline, the chance of a good night’s sleep, or insights into parts of their brain they couldn’t get to on their own. For them, it’s a positive experience, one that makes their lives better.”  What Hari’s book wishes to advance is that all humans should be liberated to indulge their intoxicant of choice, based on his assertion that all cultures over the millennia, until today, have been supportive of intoxication.  A more accurate assessment is that of Theodore Dalrymple who states, “Man’s desire to take mind-altering substances is as old as society itself: as are attempts to regulate their consumption. If intoxication in one form or another is inevitable, then so is customary or legal restraint upon that intoxication. But no society until our own has had to contend with the ready availability of so many different mind-altering drugs, . . .”

But Hari’s book goes further, blaming the stigmatisation of drugs and drug users on the very act of governments prohibiting these drugs, such is his inversion of reality.  Conversely, a Quantum Market Research survey conducted annually with more than 1,000 Australians asks, amongst other questions, what respondents consider most socially unacceptable, with remarkably uniform responses year on year.  While child pornography tops the list typically at 96%, public intoxication comes in fourth (80%) after the use of hard drugs (92%) and use of designer drugs (88%).  Hari’s thesis that prohibition creates a conditioned intolerance towards illicit drugs cannot explain this public intolerance of intoxication, with no prohibition of alcohol to shape public attitudes.  Hari’s hypothesis fails to find support in real-world data.  It is consequently clear that the community desires the prohibition of particular drugs because it believes their use is a self-indulgent form of recreation which presents unacceptable harms, not because of the mystifying hidden influences of drug prohibitions.

Hari’s silence about the 1925 Geneva Convention, which added cannabis to the list of internationally prohibited substances, and of the intent of both the 1912 and 1925 international Conventions which willed the elimination of all recreational non-medical use of harmful substances is inexcusable.  In his attempts to disparage Anslinger, he circumspectly avoids mention of the international agreements made well before the advent of Anslinger.  Anslinger did indeed work toward tightening the early Conventions in order that they more effectively fulfil their originating intention of eliminating all recreational drug use, but he was never the de novo author of those intentions.

The unreliability of Hari’s allegations against Anslinger extends to his exploitation of the race card.    Writes Hari of his homeland Britain, “just as in the United States, our drug war began in a race panic,” despite the fact that US opium addiction largely gained a foothold via treating wounded soldiers with opium during the American Civil War of 1861-65.  The apprehension of Fitzhugh Ludlow in an 1867 edition of Harper’s Magazine urging that ‘the fearful (opium) habit is gaining ground’ is representative of numerous statements in the US press over the following 40 years, with negligible mention of Orientals.

Regarding cannabis, it is documented fact that Mexicans introduced the recreational use of marijuana (a Mexican word) to the United States and that it was almost entirely confined to the barrios and ghettos in which Mexicans and African Americans lived.  As late as 1966, epidemiologist Lee Robins’ who was subsequently entrusted by the US Government with testing every soldier returning from Vietnam for heroin use, found negligible drug use in her white study populations while experimentation in the black communities she studied was at 50%.  If drug use was not rampant in most white communities until after Anslinger’s tenure, what are we to make of Hari’s accusations of a race panic?  Anslinger’s pursuing cannabis or opiate-using black musicians, where drug use was at that time chiefly centred, was entirely to be expected when as role models to their own communities their unchecked use of substances advertised the wrong message.

Along with previous legalisation apologists, Hari ridicules Anslinger’s views concerning cannabis harms, particularly his promotion of cannabis as a cause of drug-related violence and madness.  Despite the lampooning of the lobby there is now a copious science indicating a dose-response relationship between cannabis and psychosis with a February 2015 Lancet study finding that daily users of high THC cannabis have a fivefold risk of psychosis.  Previous studies had indicated a doubling of psychosis risk from lower THC cannabis use.

Studies in 2003 by Niveau & Dang and in 2007 by Howard & Menkes have investigated the effect of cannabis on a particular neural mechanism controlling impulse and found a connection with violence and aggression.  It stands to reason that the lowering of inhibitions via intoxication will create a greater expression of violence in those so predisposed, whether by alcohol or cannabis.  In the Geneva Convention discussions of 1925, the Egyptian delegate M. El Guindy implored the prohibiting of cannabis on the basis of ‘madness’ associated with its use, but also that its intoxication ‘takes a violent form in persons of violent character.’   Contrary to Hari’s assertions, Anslinger was never alone in linking violence and madness with cannabis use and modern science exposes Hari’s scorn.

The 2012 Australian Institute of Criminology DUMA study on the degree to which crime is drug and alcohol-related found that self-report by police detainees attributed as many offences to cannabis use as to heroin or amphetamines during the study period, the result of the higher number of cannabis users.  36% recorded that they were high on cannabis at the time of the crime with another 15% claiming they were ‘hanging out’ for cannabis.  It is notable that these are effects of the drug itself, not of its prohibition.  Only 9% of those attributing their crime to cannabis cited their need for money to buy it where the higher prices resulting from prohibition could be held responsible.

This raises the most serious issue with the legalisation lobby’s attack on the United Nations’ long-standing drug Conventions.  The lobby’s history of consistently downplaying the harms of illicit drugs must necessarily lead to increased experimentation with these substances — in 2010, 47% of Australians who had never used illicit drugs cited health reasons as a major deterrent so the real health harms of drugs must be known for informed decisions about drugs.  Hari’s book very typically downplays the harms.  Then, to quell any fears about the illicits he juxtaposes the legal drugs thus, “At the moment, we have a licensed and regulated way to sell the two deadliest recreational drugs on earth–alcohol and tobacco.”

Chasing the Scream’ continues to downplay cannabis as a ‘soft’ drug, presenting less harm to users than alcohol and tobacco.  Yet an abundant science of more than 20,000 peer-reviewed journal studies indicates that it is anything but soft.  Cannabis is the main gateway drug to cocaine and heroin use.  Cannabis users are 50% more likely to develop an alcohol disorder as well as presenting a fourfold risk of depression and threefold higher ideation of suicide.

Cannabis causes amotivational syndrome, depresses the immune system, affects verbal learning, organisational skills, coordination and memory where loss of the latter can become permanent.  It also creates problems with attention.  Cannabis intoxication causes vehicle collisions due to slower reactions and when combined with alcohol, as is frequently the case, yields a 16 times higher risk of accident than with either drug used alone.  Issues with fertility, effect on the unborn, problems with the respiratory tract such as bronchitis, heart disease and cancers render a profile for cannabis that combines the harms of both alcohol and tobacco.

There is a well-documented withdrawal syndrome, indicating that cannabis is addictive.  In 2009, the same New Labour Government that downgraded the classification of cannabis from Class B to Class C in 2004 reclassified it Class B on the basis of the number of young people seeking rehabilitation for addiction to cannabis.  Yet with all of the discovered harms of cannabis above, the main promotional line from the legalisation lobby is that nobody has ever died from smoking cannabis.  Their juxtaposition of the toxicity of heroin, cocaine and amphetamines with the lower toxicity of cannabis is another ruse.  Intriguingly, death from tobacco toxicity is also rare, but on the lobby’s deceptive logic, that would make tobacco harmless.  It is anything but.

To downplay the harms of illicit drugs, Hari appeals to a 2010 study by the long-term drug legalisation campaigner David Nutt, claiming that cannabis, cocaine and heroin are safer than alcohol.  This study is exposed by the fact that heroin annually kills 1 out of every 100 dependent users from overdose alone, while tobacco kills  at worst 1 in every 180 annually from all causes.  There is only one alcohol-related death yearly for every 2,600 current users, despite alcohol being anything but harmless.  Another typical sound-byte from the legalisation lobby, is ‘alcohol causes the most harm’, but this because 200 times more Australians use alcohol than illegal opiates.  Comparisons on anything other than per capita harm can only be based on a desire to mislead the public.

In Australia opiate fatalities peaked at 1,115 in 1999 against an opiate using population estimated at 100,000.  Comparatively driving accidents in 1999 killed 1,764 against a population of roughly 12 million drivers.  Additionally, heroin and morphine prematurely age long-term users, contributing to life-threatening illnesses and death decades before those in a normal population.  The fact that Nutt was able to publish this study in the prestigious Lancet clearly owes more to the Lancet’s Chief Editor, Sir Richard Horton, being a key member of the international drug legalisation lobby, and certainly not the merits of the study itself.  Horton is a Science Board member in the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy.

For complete paper go to Effacing the Scream

Gary Christian is the Secretary of Drug Free Australia and also coordinates 24 national and international Fellows for the organisation, including addiction medicine specialists and medical doctors, epidemiologists, social researchers and psychologists, including a US Drug Czar to two US Presidents.  He has worked in the Australian welfare industry for 22 years, including 17 years in Senior Management for Mission Australia and ADRA Australia.