Are drug laws politically or scientifically motivated?

People often joke that if alcohol was discovered today, it would be banned immediately and put on controlled-substance lists without a second thought. 

If you’ve ever seen a British city center around midnight on a Saturday – fights, people vomiting or passed out in the street – you could probably make an argument in favour of such a ban. Try thinking of another social setting involving drugs, whether legal or illegal, that creates this kind of public chaos. While I’m not of course actually advocating a return to prohibition, it’s clear that for many of us, our engrained attitudes are far from consistent around what constitutes a societal menace.

Equally, opiod overdoses alone accounted for over 47,000 deaths in the United States in 2017, with an estimated 1.7m people suffering from addiction to prescription opioid-based medication.  Our laws and perspectives are steeped in cultural norms, decades of marketing (promoting certain drugs) and political propaganda (demonizing others).

In the 21st century, with the ability we have to accurately test the efficacy of different substances for medical conditions, the harm they could cause if misused, and their potential social impact, it seems apparent that global and national legislation is not fit for purpose.

A recent report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), a panel that includes 14 former heads of state, found the current international categorization of drugs to be “biased and inconsistent”. The findings of the commission, as well as output from the World Health Organization (WHO), recommend the reclassification of cannabis, with the WHO report also recognizing the cannabis plant’s potential medical benefits. 

Former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss, a GCDP member, commented that the “core is rotten”, when referring to the current global classifications that inform the legal status of drugs in countries around the world. Cannabis hasn’t been re-evaluated for over 30 years, which given the mounting evidence from medical and clinical trials appears to be willfully negligent. 

Speaking in the wake of the GCDP report’s publication, Juan Manuel Santos, the former president of Colombia, described the scientific basis for the current system of classification as “nonexistent”. The question then has to be asked: if the system is not based on our best scientific understanding, what is it based on? 

Santos sees it as politically motivated, that the decades-long ‘war on drugs’ combined with irrational and unscientific prohibition has in fact added to the world’s problems. Currently the WHO makes recommendations (such as that of January 2019 on cannabis, linked above), which are then voted on by the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), leaving the process open to political manipulation. 

The result of this opaque and manifestly unjust system has been to deprive millions of people of drugs that they need, while imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people unnecessarily. As highlighted by Mind Body Community, a legalized and regulated cannabis industry can benefit us all, while removing billions of dollars from crime syndicates. 

It’s time we listened to scientists and independent commissions, not those who play with our health and social well-being for their own profit or political interest.