The us Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders spoke the unspeakable at a press conference on 8 December 1993. She courageously suggested that the government look at the experience of countries that had decriminalized drugs. She said it was her understanding that in other countries the crime rate and the incidence of drug abuse had actually declined with legalization. The White House was apoplectic and dismissed the idea out of hand. The administration’s disavowals came faster than planes flying cocaine from Venezuela to Miami: under no circumstances would there be such an inquiry.

The response of the administration is particularly unfortunate since the Surgeon General’s proposal was not to legalize drugs, as the American press erroneously reported. She proposed only that we look at the facts to see if the experience of other countries might provide a clue to a better approach than the us ‘war on drugs’ which almost everyone, including the Attorney General Janet Reno, acknowledges has been a complete and utter failure. The ineffectiveness and absurdity of putting so many people in prison for drug offences has led police chiefs, prison wardens, big-city mayors and even some conservative politicians and pundits including William Buckley, former Secretary of State George Schultz and Nobel economist Milton Friedman, to speak out in favour of decriminalization. Judges, under legal prescription to sentence drug offenders to long-term mandatory sentences, recognize the injustice and folly of the system and often refuse to impose the sentences.footnote1 On the other hand, drug offenders are sentenced without the possibility of parole which means they actually spend more time in prison than more serious, even violent, offenders.

As a consequence of the ‘war on drugs’ the prisons and jails of the country are overflowing. Between 1980 and 1992 the prison population in the United States more than doubled. Compared to other industrialized nations the us is the most incarcerating country in the world.

Drug arrests and convictions are a major contributor to the extraordinary incarceration rate of the United States. In 1992 there were 1,066,400 arrests for drug-abuse violations reported to the fbi.footnote2 Drug arrests were the third most frequent category of arrests, behind larceny (1,504,500) and driving under the influence (1,624,500). Over two-thirds (68 per cent) of the drug arrests in 1992 were for possession and less than one-third (32 per cent) for the sale or manufacture of drugs. Marijuana arrests accounted for 32 per cent of the total, heroin and cocaine for 53 per cent; the remainder of the drug arrests were for synthetic or ‘other dangerous drugs’.footnote3 In 1992, 58 per cent of the inmates in federal prisons and over 30 per cent of state prisoners were sentenced for drug offences.footnote4 Approximately one-third of these are sentenced for marijuana and other drugs, two-thirds for heroin and cocaine: official reports make no distinction between these two but it is certain that the vast bulk of these arrests are for cocaine. Over 21 per cent of all federal prisoners are ‘low-level drug offenders with no current or prior violent offences on their records, no involvement in sophisticated criminal activity and no previous prison time’.footnote5 Austin and Irwin estimate that over 50 per cent of the prisoners in state and federal prisons are in for offences which opinion surveys show the general public think are ‘not very serious crimes’.footnote6

Were the Surgeon General’s recommendation followed and a study conducted the findings most certainly would suggest the necessity for a major shift in policy. The Netherlands has been a leader in the search for alternatives to policing as a solution to social problems associated with the use of drugs.footnote7 Their solution has been to decriminalize the use and sale of marijuana and to decriminalize de facto the possession and sale of small amounts of other drugs. Marijuana and hashish can be purchased in over two thousand coffee shops which even advertise the availability of the drug by displaying a drawing of a marijuana plant on their sign. Other forms of advertising are prohibited. Almost every kind of drug is readily available on the streets of major cities in the Netherlands.footnote8 The operating rule that governs police enforcement of anti-drug laws is that the police are to serve as a bridge between drug addicts and treatment services. The net result is that there are few arrests and even fewer trials and convictions for possession and sale of drugs.

What has the effect of these policies been? Substantial research has been conducted to evaluate the impact of the Dutch policies, all of which conclude that the decriminalization of the use, possession and sale of small amounts of drugs has not led to any increase in usage, and has decreased the amount of crime associated with drug use and dealing.footnote9 These conclusions are not just those of academics but are supported by research conducted by the public health and national police authorities, which finds that there was no change in the frequency of use of heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana or any other drugs and that crimes associated with drug use such as those motivated by attempts to support a drug habit declined after decriminalization between 1987 and 1990.footnote10

Other countries have had similar experiences. Switzerland established ‘drug vans’ that visited parks where drug users congregated. The vans distributed sterilized needles and free drugs. This experiment was stopped because the parks where the drugs were distributed were inundated with addicts and users, leaving little room for anyone else. The authorities felt, however, that the reduction in drug-related crime and other social problems justified the creation of a three-year programme that provides drugs to addicts free of charge, but not through the vans. The programme is ‘experimental’ with the results to be evaluated in order to establish permanent policies. Spain followed the Netherlands and de facto decriminalized drug possession and sale of small amounts. Reports from Spanish police and academics are based on less carefully conducted research than the Dutch studies but the results are the same: usage does not go up and crimes associated with drug dealing and supporting drug habits go down.