As someone who studied an undergrad in environmental management back in the early 2000’s (before Al Gore made it all mainstream), you best believe the topic of drugs came up a lot. That’s not the hippy-bashing it may sound like – for the most part my classmates were a group of passionate, political, intelligent leaders, out to fight the good fight for the environment and a whole range of social issues which (especially at the time) were not going to make them any friends with the vast majority of people.
Considering mentioning veganism still gets you howled down in a lot of cases, imagine how it was received 15 years ago.
Drug policy reform was one of those topics, and possibly the most controversial of the lot, since Australia was on the tail-end of a heroin epidemic at the time and just about everyone was queuing up with a junkie horror story. The newspapers, politicians and every ‘family values’ demagogue going had been milking the situation for all it was worth, crapping on about ‘moral decay’ and proposing a variety of ‘tough-love’ measures intended to get the ‘junkie scum off our streets’. And with the Australia government very firmly on board with the USA’s War on Drugs, it was hard to believe that things would ever change.
Naturally my classmates took the rebellious stance – sure hard drugs caused a lot of harm if they were misused, but by demonising recreational drugs like weed and pills and putting them in the same basket as heroin, it was in fact the moral crusaders who were causing the harm. Tough criminal charges for something as minor as possession of drugs were disgusting abuses of power, and all the constant War on Drugs was doing was fuelling the massive criminal enterprises that made money off the black market it created. And most damning of all, my classmates claimed, was the very simple fact that for all the draconian measures the government took, none of it was working – even at the height of the ‘drugs are literally evil’ campaign, it wasn’t exactly hard to get hold of the stuff.
The truth of these arguments was eventually proven in the last few years with virtually everyone suddenly just sort of giving up, admitting that the whole War on Drugs thing hadn’t worked out, and that more complex solutions were needed. Portugal in particular lead the way by legalising the use of pretty much every narcotic, followed shortly thereafter by several US states making the sale and use of marijuana legal. The whole ‘tough on drugs’ narrative just sort of petered out and ‘treatment’ has become the name of the game.
Too bad it took 45 years to figure that out
That whole sudden shift is a pretty fascinating cultural study in itself, but there is another question to the whole issue of drugs that I always found fascinating and which never really seemed to get addressed by either side; specifically, how both sides of the issue ended up directly funding some of the most brutal criminal cartels in existence.
Now the roles of various War on Drugs-participating governments in enabling these drug cartels is pretty well established by now – when the US’s anti-drug efforts switched from education and prevention in the 70’s, to harsh sentencing and punitive measures in the 80’s it effectively created a massive, MASSIVE blackmarket. Since small-scale, local drug production was now way too risky, more organised and better protected production was required. Sure that still came with some pretty serious risk, but for a share of a market roughly estimated at $360 billion, it was worth it. Demand wasn’t going anywhere since people love their drugs and the government’s harsh sentencing approach just made issues of addiction worse, and so what you ended up with was a massive cash prize to any group willing and able to go toe-to-toe with the government. The result was the cartels.
Latin American nations, with their ideal climate for drug crops and handy proximity to the major source of demand in the USA, saw the bulk of this action, though south east Asian nations weren’t far behind. National governments, heavily backed by the USA and its allies, moved to crack down on these groups, who naturally fought back causing everything to go to shit.
The cartels would bribe anyone they could, pushing corruption to absurd levels and annihilating the reliability of national institutions. When they couldn’t bribe, the cartels would murder and kidnap, and when all else failed and the government moved in with force, they could always resort to good old-fashioned guerrilla tactics – campaigns of charity and terror by both sides designed to strip opponents of any support in the contested regions, and with some pretty horrific results for the people caught in the middle.
Mexico in particular turned into a virtual war zone
This total shitshow of a situation was one of the major criticisms of the War on Drugs, with reformers pointing out how it was practically identical to what happened when alcohol was banned in the 1920s. It was a ridiculous oversight (assuming it was in fact an oversight) then, and it’s excellent to see reform taking place to counter it now.
But that’s the well-recognised part of this mess, and since I spend a fair amount of time already ragging on government on this blog, it’s easily the least interesting part of the issue. No, the bit that really gets me about all of this isn’t the governments’ predictable (and highly suspicious) ham-fisted response to the drug trade, but rather the factor that made the entire mess possible in the first place.
It’s a real source of chagrin for me and many others that you can’t change the world without being a bit of a hypocrite in the process – every time you challenge the way things are someone inevitably (and quite accurately) points out that you personally are an active participant in the current system, and more often than not, a massive beneficiary of it. How can you bitch about a system that you’re actively propping up?
Of course this criticism isn’t terribly valid – working with the current practical reality towards a better system is good ethics in a nutshell – but the criticism does get ever so slightly more pointy when you’re actively funding brutal regimes for a bit of fun of a Friday night.
While I agree with the need for drug policy reform, there is a fairly massive irony that the same people who objected to the War on Drugs empowering criminal groups, was also for a large part, the same group that was buying the drugs, and directly funding criminal groups in the process.
It’s pretty tempting to point to the idiotic War on Drugs policies of the time and argue that it was the governments that were responsible for this; by clamping down on local production, they effectively eliminated all competition to the cartels, after all. And while that criticism is definitely fair, it doesn’t mean squat for the responsibility of the buyers.
That responsibility is indivisible is one of the key ethical rules I harp on about on this site; the fact that others could have prevented a problem is irrelevant to your own responsibility. All that is relevant is your own capacity to intervene and whether you did what you should have. If ten people stand around and refuse to help a drowning person (despite all being fully capable of doing so) then they are all 100% personally responsible for that death, regardless of the fact that the others also failed to help.
“… he’ll be fine.”
The upshot of all this is that it while governments can and should be held accountable for their incredible (and suspicious) bungling of drug policy for the last 45 years, that in no way decreases the responsibility of anyone else involved in causing the problem. And since buying drugs on the black market, with no way of verifying their source and a very high probability that they came from a cartel, effectively amounts to exchanging human misery for a high, there’s more than enough blame to go around for the buyers as well.
None of this is to argue that ‘drugs bad, don’t do’. Drug use is and always has been a massively complex issue, and the staggering hypocrisy of society looking down on ‘junkies’ while nationally celebrating getting drunk is not lost on me. And it’s fair to say that anyone suffering from addiction to any substance isn’t exactly going to have the detachment necessary to consider the socio-political impact of their purchases. But for the millions of people that use drugs recreationally, and particularly those who advocate for legalisation on political grounds, purchasing cartel-produced narcotics is a dark hypocrisy that is all too willingly ignored.
Far be it from me to argue that our own failings should stop us from pursuing the injustices of others (especially since that would stop me doing anything in the ethics field whatsoever), but it is always our first duty to make sure that we hold ourselves to the standards we would foist on others. Even when – especially when – we discover we really don’t like the results of that.