Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Why our drug policy is 'inconsistent' with all available evidence

Why our drug policy is 'inconsistent' with all available evidenceIt's safe to assume most people have never heard of the "Vienna Declaration." And that simple fact helps explain why public policies that fail -- policies that do vastly more harm than good -- can live on despite overwhelming evidence of their failure. The Vienna Declaration, published in the medical journal The Lancet, is an official statement of the 18th International AIDS Conference, which wraps up today in Vienna. Drafted by an international team of public health experts, including Evan Wood of the University of British Columbia, the Vienna Declaration seeks to "improve community health and safety" by, in the words of the committee, "calling for the incorporation of scientific evidence into illicit drug policies." Please don't stop reading. I promise this will not turn into another of my rants about the catastrophic failure of drug prohibition. I've been writing variations on that theme for more than a decade now and everyone knows I am a crazed extremist whose views are not to be trusted by decent folk. I'll spare you. Instead, I will merely present a few sentences from the Vienna Declaration: - "The criminalization of illicit drug users is fuelling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelming health and social consequences." - "There is no evidence that increasing the ferocity of law enforcement meaningfully reduces the prevalence of drug use." - "The evidence that law enforcement has failed to prevent the availability of illegal drugs, in communities where there is demand, is now unambiguous. Over the last several decades, (there has been) a general pattern of falling drug prices and increasing drug purity -- despite massive investments in drug law enforcement." - (Existing policies have produced) "a massive illicit market. ... These profits remain entirely outside the control of government. They fuel crime, violence and corruption in countless urban communities and have destabilized entire countries, such as Colombia, Mexico, and Afghanistan." - "Billions of tax dollars (have been) wasted on a 'war on drugs' approach ...." - Governments should "undertake a transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies." - "A full policy reorientation is needed." Remarkable, isn't it? It's exactly what this crazed extremist has been saying for more than a decade and yet the people who wrote and signed it are anything but crazed extremists. Among them is a long list of esteemed public health experts, including the president of the International AIDS Society, the executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, and Canada's own Dr. James Orbinski. There are former presidents of Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia. And there are several Nobel laureates, including the economist Vernon Smith. (See the full list of signatories, along with the statement, at viennadeclaration.com). This should be big news. Drug policies affect everything from the local street corner to the war in Afghan-istan -- and here is a long list of informed and eminent people who agree what we are currently doing is a horrifying mistake that wastes money and takes lives. The public should be alarmed. But this is not big news. And the public is not alarmed. In fact, most of the public has never heard of the Vienna Declaration. Why not? To answer that, let me take you way back to Sept. 5, 1989. That evening, U.S. president George H.W. Bush made a televised national address. Holding up a bag labelled "evidence," Bush explained that this was crack seized at the park across the street from the White House. Crack is everywhere, he said. It's an epidemic. Bush vowed "victory over drugs." The whole thing was a fraud. Federal agents had tried to find someone selling drugs in the park but couldn't. Posing as customers, they called a drug dealer and asked him to come to the park. "Where the (expletive) is the White House?" the dealer said. So the police gave him directions. This chicanery was exposed not long after but it didn't matter. Bush's address was a smash. The media bombarded the public with hysterical stories about the "crack epidemic." Popular concern soared. And "all this occurred while nearly every index of drug use was dropping," noted sociologists Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine. The power to throw the switch on media coverage isn't exclusive to the White House, of course. In 1998, the United Nations convened a General Assembly Special Session which brought leaders from all over the world to discuss illicit drugs. The media deluged the public with stories about drugs -- and the UN's official goal, signed at the end of the assembly by all member states, of "eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008." Time passed. The Special Assembly was forgotten. When 2008 rolled around, cocaine output had increased 20 per cent and opium production had doubled. But this spectacular failure was almost completely ignored in the media. Why? The UN stayed mum. So did national governments. With no major institutions putting the subject on the agenda, the media ignored it. This is the essential problem: If governments talk about drugs, journalists talk about drugs; if they don't, we don't. And since governments are full of people whose budgets, salaries, and careers depend on the status quo, they talk about drugs when doing so is good for the status quo, but they are silent as mimes when it's not. Thus the media become the unwitting propaganda arm of the status quo. I'm not sure what it will take to change this. It would certainly help if the media would stop letting governments decide what is news and what is not. Even better would be leaders with the courage to put evidence ahead of cheap politics, entrenched thinking, and vested interests. But that's not happening. And so, on Monday, the government of Canada felt free to categorically reject the Vienna Declaration because it is "inconsistent" with its policies -- policies which have never been subjected to evidence-based evaluation and would surely be condemned if they were. This is how failure lives on.