Legalize it?

Propaganda Is the Most Dangerous Drug

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The world's elder statesmen have a problem when it comes to drug policy. They are increasingly coming out in favor of broad legalization, but their message is having a hard time getting through thanks to decades of anti-drug propaganda from the governments in which they participated.

Three years ago, a group called the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a reportdenouncing the "war on drugs" for increasing violence and failing to curb consumption. It got a lot of attention because its members included such luminaries as former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, former North Atlantic Treaty Organization chief Javier Solana and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. These are serious, powerful men, not potheads or irresponsible anarchists.

Now the group has issued a new reportthat goes further, arguing that an all-out war on drugs is a waste of money and a danger to public health. Thanks in part to restrictive policies, 37 percent of Russia's 1.8 million intravenous drug users are infected with HIV. As many as 100,000 people have died fighting Mexico's drug wars. Minorities and women are disproportionately incarcerated for drug offenses. Meanwhile, global opium production has increased 380 percent since 1980, to 4,000 metric tons a year. The global population of drug users increased about 20 percent from 2008 to 2012, to 243 million, according to the UN.

The commission recommends that governments renounce prohibitive policies and treat drugs as they do alcohol, tobacco and strong medicines. This would entail experimenting with legal, regulated markets "beginning with but not limited to cannabis, coca leaf and certain novel psychoactive substances," as well as allowing restricted access to highly addictive drugs such as heroin, primarily for treatment purposes. As the report puts it: "Ultimately the most effective way to reduce the extensive harms of the global drug prohibition regime and advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation."

QuickTake Up in Smoke

The voting public isn't nearly as progressive. Uruguay's recent marijuana legalization plan -- cited in the report as a positive example -- is now in danger of collapsing because 64 percent of Uruguayans oppose it. In the U.S., where a majority supports marijuana legalization, most would draw the line at permitting other psychoactive substances. According to recent Huffington Post/YouGov polls, 83 percent oppose the legalization of cocaine and LSD, and 79 percent support the ban on methamphetamine and MDMA, also known as ecstasy. Support for their legalization is in the single digits.

These public prejudices were shaped when the retired politicians who make up most of the commission were in power. Whatever their private opinions might have been, they had no appreciable effect on the policies of governments, which delivered relentless anti-drug propaganda that the media bought and carried.

Perhaps propaganda is the most dangerous drug of all. The U.S. Congress appeared to understand the potentially corrosive effects back in the 1970s and 1980s, when it banned the dissemination on U.S. soil of government-funded media such as Voice of America, partly in an effort to prevent domestic propaganda (the ban is no longer in force). The no-holds-barred war of lies between the governments of Russia and Ukraine shows propaganda machines maintain their deadly effectiveness even today.

Governments' power to influence public opinion should be restricted as tightly as the most dangerous drugs, and free media -- where they still exist -- need to pay special attention to how they relay government messages. Otherwise, when officials grow older and decide something was done wrong, their wisdom will fall on deaf ears.

Corrects to clarify nature of dissemination ban in seventh paragraph.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net