David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

The Fantasyland of the War on Drugs

Brandon Sun, June 18, 2018 – David McConkey

We are living in a fantasyland. And we have inhabited a fantasyland for a century. Because we are in a fantasyland, we pretend three things about drugs. First, we pretend that the War on Drugs is working. Second, we pretend that we know how to solve problems of drugs and addiction. And third, we pretend that illegal drugs are always more dangerous than legal drugs.

The first part of our fantasy: we pretend that the War on Drugs is working. But the War on Drugs has failed even in our own community. As highlighted in the recent series in The Brandon Sun, many people right here are addicted to crystal meth. But why is crystal meth even a problem in Brandon? Haven’t we been trying for decades to stop the spread of this drug?
The War on Drugs – including the disaster of alcohol prohibition – has failed for 100 years. Take a story from the front page of the Feb. 13, 1919 Brandon Daily Sun. Police in northwestern Ontario intercept 29 pounds of opium that were en route to Brandon. The futility – and racism – of the War on Drugs is summed up by the Sun headline: “Chinaman was Bringing Opium to this City.”

Making a drug illegal opens up a lucrative market, which criminal entrepreneurs then fill. Despite – and partly because of – the War on Drugs, there are now more drugs and more widely available than ever.

Today, countries in Europe and elsewhere are trying decriminalization and legalization of drugs, with success. Fortunately, Canada is starting to move in this direction, too, by legalizing marijuana.

The second part of our fantasy: we pretend we know how to deal with drug problems and addictions. But there is much we don’t know; there is not even agreement on whether addiction is a disease. Admitting that we have much to learn about these complex issues is a good first step. Let’s be open to discovering, experimenting and drawing on evidence-based approaches that are working, from anywhere in the world.

Then there is the third part of our fantasy: we pretend that illegal drugs are always worse than legal ones. But this, too, is false. No matter how big the crystal meth problem appears, it pales in significance to the damage done by alcohol. But because alcohol is legal and sold by the government – in other words, by us – it is a taboo to say it is a problem.

Look at the thousands of children in government care in Manitoba. These kids (many are Indigenous) represent a heart-breaking reality. Parents are unable to look after their children and so they must be taken away by child protection agencies. But media reports about this situation describe a fantasyland. There is much discussion about historical wrongs, about culture, about funding arrangements and about jurisdictional questions. But why isn’t there a discussion about alcohol? Isn’t alcohol almost always a cause of these families’ distress?

Our political leaders want to keep us in a fantasyland. During the last Manitoba election, I pointed out in this space that politicians of every political party were afraid to say out loud three words. Fetal. Alcohol. Syndrome.

Instead, politicians prefer language that is more distracting and more politically correct. So they say that half of the babies in government care have “developmental or addiction issues.” But how can we help suffering parents and children if we can’t even say the word “alcohol”?

Pretending that illegal drugs are always harmful has also held back useful medical research. One is the medicinal use of marijuana. Another is the medicinal use of psychedelics: including as a treatment for depression, for other mental illness and for addiction. (Sometimes the best remedy for a drug addiction is a more benign drug; it’s called medication-assisted treatment: MAT.)

So, let’s admit that the War on Drugs has failed. That we have much to learn about drugs and addiction. That we need to evaluate the dangers and benefits of drugs: prescription, over-the-counter, other drugs and when used together.

Finally, let’s admit that we should legalize – and regulate – all drugs.

We don’t have to live in a fantasyland.

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See also: 

Reflections on the War on Drugs

Can We Learn from the New Science of Psychedelics?

Review – The War on Drugs: A Failed Experiment

End the War on Drugs and Find a Better Solution

Other Reviews



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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