Why deterrence was always doomed to failure

In some ways, I think of our current drug policy as akin to astrology, or a creationist view of the planet. It’s an early attempt to get a hold on something, but over time its flaws have been exposed. Intelligent people display wilful ignorance on the subject. We still send a message about man-made dangers of drug use, distracting from our understanding of the drugs themselves. In decades of scientific research and observation, movement towards a centralised health based approach has been painfully slow. I have no doubt that one day the blanket prohibition of recreational drug use will become a thing only the most authoritarian states will subscribe to. Yet in the UK, our current trajectory suggests we are intent to hold onto it until its last breathe.

I don’t mean to discount the very real risks that are associated with drug use, but to use deterrence as a drug policy is almost an admission in itself that drugs are not as dangerous as they are portrayed to be: the risks associated with the drugs themselves are not enough to discourage use. We must introduce an artificial risk to create a deterrence.

By its nature, the relationship between the effectiveness of deterrence, and people most at risk of harm, is inverted. It will always be more successful with people who have something to lose. People with a greater capacity to exercise self control. People more likely to moderate their drug use based on the risks of the drugs themselves. To align drug policy with these people is, at best, misguided.

There are over six thousand suicides every year, and at least ten times that number attempt suicide. How many more are willing to sacrifice a clean criminal record – which in comparison is a small price to pay – to escape their inner turmoil. The drug-free utopia that our ruling elite have spent the last few decades searching for is not in the equation. A drug addict isn’t thinking about the long term consequences, they’re dealing with their present moment. And in trying to deal with whatever bum hand they’ve been dealt, our response is to inflict further punishment on them. The lack of understanding and compassion required to criminalise people in such circumstances is astonishing.

It’s been argued that the role of the Criminal Justice System is an important one because it flags up people who need help. But by criminalising drug users, they are first pushed into the shadows of society. They are discarded into the hands of criminal dealers who have no interest in their wellbeing, are not accountable for the quality, content or purity of the drugs they sell, and who operate without age restrictions. This is what we expose users to, and in doing so we forfeit the claim that any moral duty is being fulfilled. Any subsequent contact through the Criminal Justice System is consequential. It’s an after-thought. It’s secondary to abandoning drug users. To dress this up as being a productive way to reduce harm and encourage rehabilitation is delusional.

Mechanisms can be put in place to flag problem users without criminalising them. Ones that don’t unduly put them in harms-way. We can create a culture that encourages those who want help to ask for it on their terms. Because when we talk about deterrence, it doesn’t just apply to deterring people from using drugs, it also applies to deterring people who do use drugs from seeking help. It’s just another consequence of the poorly thought out war on drugs.

There is another flaw in this system. You don’t have to break the law to numb yourself with drugs. We have alcohol. For potential problem users who are deterred from using illegal drugs, how many succumb to alcohol addiction? Even when deterrence succeeds, it doesn’t necessarily prevent harm. Imagine if America were to ban all guns, except for one type that remains freely available. And it just happens to be a particularly powerful one.

Deterrence is least effective against the most vulnerable people in society – the people who need help the most. It’s most effective against people who need help the least. It’s an ideological approach to reducing levels of use. In reality, it’s a fundamentally flawed approach to reducing levels of harm.


4 thoughts on “Why deterrence was always doomed to failure

  1. So it’s just as bad in Europe? I thought only the US had a serious issue with the utter failure of our “Just Say No Policy” that began in the 80s, when my son was in grade school. All the classes he had to attend did nothing for him. And, because, as you say, there is always alcohol. Not to mention cigarettes…not that they have the same emotionally destructive capacity, but simply as an unhealthy addiction. The US already knew that prohibition didn’t work. They tried, gangs took over, and there was nothing else to do but legalize it again. Why does no one in the DEA understand that?


    • Yes. Not the whole of Europe – Portugal decriminalised all drug use about 10 years ago and it’s largely been a success – but most of Europe. I think we’re moving in the right direction though.

      America drove the war on drugs, but brought everyone along for the ride. The DEA don’t want to know. Turkeys voting for Christmas and all that. Don’t expect any sense from them!

      Liked by 1 person

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