The Art of War on Drugs

by Ke M. Huang, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Ke M. Huang.jpgA recent New York Times article addressed the research of a psychology professor at Columbia University that aimed to discredit misperceptions about drug addicts. The article cited Professor Carl Hart saying: “Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don’t get addicted,” Hart continued, “And the small number of who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures. His research showed that, for example, recruited addicts who were given a choice between a dose of crack and $5.00 sometimes chose the money. Findings such as this led Professor Hart to conclude that addicts can make rational economic decisions.

In the Volume 11, Issue 1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Eagleman et al. also shed light on drug addiction by offering two additions to drug policy. After presenting an overview of the shortcomings of the U.S. drug policy, and a summary of the modern neuroscientific understanding of chemical dependency, Eagleman et al. suggested that the government should try implementing (1) cocaine vaccines, and (2) neuroimaging feedback to treat drug addiction. The first measure creates on the recipient of the vaccine an immune response to cocaine molecules that can weaken, if not eliminate, the high of the cocaine. The second measure, like biofeedback, allows an individual to view a graphical representation of the activity in a certain area of her brain, and let her practice to control it. Thus Eagleman et al. support a more rehabilitative, rather than retributive, policy to addressing issues of chemical dependency.

As someone who was raised in the country with one of the least criminalized drug policies in Europe–Portugal, I stumbled upon literature that also suggested that a country’s war on drugs does not have to be a hot war. Since 2001, Portugal implemented a drug decriminalization reform. A drug user is not arrested, but referred to a squad often times made up of a lawyer, a social worker, and a medical professional. The squad finds whether the user is addicted. If yes, he may be then referred to a treatment or be penalized, such as being banned from a certain neighborhood or losing a driver’s license. If not, he is unlikely to be sanctioned. About 5% users are brought before the squad the second time in the same year. A 2010 study in the British Journal of Criminology concluded that Portugal’s drug policy reform was quite successful. Teen drug use decreased, law enforcement authorities seized more drugs, and, though adult drug use rates climbed, the rates were lower than the neighboring nations that did not adopt drug policies like those in Portugal.

About 2500 years ago, Sun Tzu wrote “the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting.” Similarly, the literature discussed indicates that the war on drugs could be a peaceful fight after all.