Heightened sense A critical view of drug laws in the UK and worldwide


Thinking of the children

Drugs can be bad for kids but prohibition is worse. Credit: Wesley Ferreira Oliveira

Essay collection examines the impact of drug policy on children and young people

Pleas to “think of the children” are rarely met with much actual thought at all. Particularly where drug policy is concerned, they’re more often followed by a repetition of received wisdom and unfounded assumptions. But not any longer.

Children of the Drug War is a collection of essays by academics, policy experts and campaigners examining the impact that a global “punitive and prohibitionist paradigm” has on children and young people all over the world. Edited by Damon Barrett of Harm Reduction International, it makes for occasionally grim, but always vital, reading.

The collection covers the frontline of trade and production, the disproportionate effects on ethnic minorities and the poor, the consequences for families, and the justifications commonly given for attempting to protect children via a policy of prohibition. It is a much-needed corrective to a common misconception: far from protecting children from the very real dangers of overdose or addiction, that policy places them at the very forefront of the harmful unintended consequences that it causes.

Writing about a 16-section anthology in its entirety would prove too long even for the theoretically infinite space afforded by the web. To bind the review in a nutshell, a seminar held at the London School of Economics in November focused on three chapters, therefore so will this blog.

That by University of Kent criminologist Jennifer Fleetwood and City University of New York graduate student Andreina Torres tells of the huge numbers of women in Ecuador who are separated from their children after being imprisoned for drug-trafficking offences.

They are massively overrepresented in the prison population, largely as a result of the country having worked to meet conviction targets imposed by the US in return for grant money. Low-level ‘mules’ make for easy targets. Many of these women are single parents, and the care system is inadequate, so their children have to be packed off to relatives or brought into prison with them. The result is collective punishment of a whole family for what is actually a fairly minor transgression by one member of it. Some of the stories related by Fleetwood and Torres, based on extensive fieldwork carried out within the prison system in 2007, are heartbreaking.

Steve Rolles from Transform, the drug-policy foundation, explains how regulation of production and trade would better protect children. He points out that restrictions on supply to children are easier to enforce than a universal prohibition, as well as commanding more popular support than widely ignored bans on drug use by adults.

Nor does prohibition make it harder for children to get hold of drugs if they want them, representing a total, abject failure of the declared aims of the war on drugs. Rolles cites a study by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse that found that 80–90% of children claim that cannabis is easy or very easy to access. He acknowledges also that limits on sales to minors would need to be enforced more strongly than those on alcohol are in the UK – he references a finding from Alcohol Concern that up to 15% of licenced premises regularly sell alcohol to children but only 0.5% have their licences subject to review.

The chapter by LSE criminologist Michael Shiner pragmatically addresses the limits of prohibition, acknowledging that it is impossible to achieve a drug-free world. He builds on the work of sociologist Jock Young, who said forty years ago that some amount of drug use is inevitable and the best tool to limit the harms involved is the drug subculture itself, and suggests that prevalence rates of the use of different drugs is down to the perception of how harmful they are.

Shiner concludes:

“We must take seriously both the limitations of the criminal law and the harmfulness of illicit drugs. In practical terms, this means accepting that the elimination of drug use is an impossible task and focusing instead on establishing a system of regulation that concentrates on reducing harm. What is required, in other words, is a more effective system of regulation than prohibition is able to provide.”

Rolles and Shiner’s chapters seem a good choice to have paired together at the LSE seminar. Between them they nicely expose the founding mythology of prohibitionism, futile in attempts to stamp out drug use and ineffective in protecting children. It is not, in other words, the only thing standing between us and a society too drugged-up to function. That there are better ways to minimise drug-related harms, without all the unintended consequences – lethally tainted product, gangsterism, depriving farmers of their livelihoods, and needlessly separating families.

The chapters of the book dealing with those harms, however, aren’t necessarily clear on where the line is between what is really caused by drug prohibition and what is simply caused by poverty. But then the web that the two factors weave is rather hard to untangle. Rolles acknowledged at the aforementioned seminar that legal regulation wouldn’t cure the problems of the poor world overnight, and that some sort of post-drug-war “Marshall Plan” would be required.

This certainly seems a better use of billions of dollars than continuing to pour money into funding the implementation of a discredited policy. For while the risks that drugs pose to children are great, the harms imposed by prohibition are worse.
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Children of the Drug War is available as a free download.

Posted by Christopher White