Marijuana won’t kill you, but the police might

From extra-judicial killings in Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, to gang shootings in the no-go zone neighbourhoods of suburban Chicago, the body-count associated with the drugs trade has recently made its way to news headlines again. The number of deaths is truly staggering: in the Philippines, more than six thousand people have been killed in less than a year. Those who, like us, oppose the war on drugs, argue that the death and misery (and financial cost) caused by the fights against drug traffickers, dealers and users vastly outweighs the benefits bestowed upon society by criminalisation. But of course, as with any business taking place in the shadows of society, hard facts are often difficult to come by to back up those claims.

However, recently published data compiled by the New York Times does provide an interesting angle on the problem. The study tallies fatalities as a result of SWAT operations against drug dealers in the US since 2010. The data for raids on suspected marijuana dealers is particularly intriguing: there were at least 20 such raids which turned deadly in that period, and the dead includes small-time dealers, as well as people suspected of dealing in harder drugs, but who after the fact were found to be in possession of only marijuana. Four police officers who were killed in the line of duty are also included in the numbers. With all these people dead as a result of the fight to protect US citizens from the dangers of marijuana, it begs the question: how dangerous is marijuana really? Well, we can answer that as well: according to the DEA itself, there are no instances of deaths being reported as a consequence of marijuana use. None. The case is clear: there is a much greater risk of loss of life coming from the enforcement of anti-marijuana laws than from the actual drug itself.

Drug dealers, including those who concentrate their effort on marijuana, are of course violent criminals, which is why law enforcement feels justified in the hard-line approach despite the sometimes-deadly outcome. But of course, that is a circular argument, because it is the very harshness of anti-drug legislation and the severe penalties associated with being caught which cause drugs trade to be such a violent occupation in the first place. Without draconian consequences for getting caught producing, importing or dealing drugs, prices commanded on the streets would be a fraction of what they currently are, the stakes would be much lower, and the incentive to risk your life – or take someone else’s – would simply disappear.

The NYT data also shows that in the last seven years SWAT raids turned deadly on 41 other occasions where the operations were targeting drugs other than marijuana. But of course, it is not the authorities who pull the trigger on the vast majority of drugs-related violent deaths, it is the competing gangs who are the major culprits. Drug dealing is the only major industry in today’s America where violence forms a standard part of the job description. The magnitude of violent crime which is drugs related is unknow, but we can get a sense of the problem by looking at gang related crime, for which statistics are published by The National Gang Center. According to their data, more than 2,000 murders a year are gang related, and it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of this is in turn related to turf-wars and other disputes over the drugs trade. Of course, there are victims other than the dead: in Chicago – the epicentre of drugs violence in America – this year so far, there have been 130 deaths from more than 700 shootings. Then there are the widows, the fatherless children, the imprisoned… The list of victims goes on.

We strongly favour complete legalisation of all drugs, both on philosophical grounds (my body, my choice) and because of the human and financial cost of enforcing criminalisation. We also believe that a legal drugs market would vastly enhance consumer information and protection. But some drugs are of course highly dangerous; the risks associated with hard drugs such as crack or meth should not be underestimated, and this provides the proponents of tough anti-drugs laws with arguments for their resistance to legalisation. Crystal meth, however, owes part of its popularity to the very fact that drugs are illegal: it can be produced in a lab, and therefore does not have to be smuggled across borders. Similarly, designer drugs, which are designed to mimic effects of traditional drugs while avoiding classification as illegal, also are a direct result of criminalisation. Little if any testing on the toxicology of these drugs often results in dangerous side effects.

So, there are very strong arguments for across the board legalisation. But where the war on drugs is easily exposed at its most hypocritical is when it comes to the enforcement of anti-marijuana legislation. A recreational drug with no recorded deaths on its conscience, it is a substance which in a multitude of ways is less harmful that alcohol. The consequences of criminalisation have been untold misery for millions of people. It is, in fact, a crime.

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