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DRCNet Interview: Dr. Harry G. Levine

Queen's College/CUNY sociologist Harry G. Levine is perhaps best known to drug reformers as coauthor (with Craig Reinarman) of "Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice," a shattering expose of fabrication and demonization amidst a drug crisis. But Levine has long toiled in the field of drug policy research, and this month his paper, "The Secret of Worldwide Drug Prohibition: The Varieties and Uses of Drug Prohibition," was published in the current issue of the Independent Review, the publication of the Independent Institute, a libertarian leaning think tank.

In the paper, Levine argues that global prohibition exists not only because nations want to protect the public health and safety, but also because the perpetual war on drugs has so many other uses for governments, politicians and various organizations. Levine's article tackles an issue that drug reformers have wondered about for years: If drug prohibition does not serve its stated purpose -- making the world safe from drugs -- and it clearly does not, why does it continue to exist? Does it serve some latent function? Is it inertia? Is it a conspiracy?

You can read a version of Levine's answers at online. The Week Online spoke Thursday with Levine about the paper and much more.

Week Online: Can you briefly summarize for our readers the argument you are making about the ubiquity of drug prohibition?

Harry Levine: Not easily, but I'll try. The article makes three main points. First, every country in the world has drug prohibition, but few people know this. Drug prohibition is a global system held together by a series of UN treaties, the most important being the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Second, it is helpful to see drug prohibition as a continuum. Heavily criminalized and punitive policies like the US crack cocaine laws are at one end. The Netherlands' cannabis policy is currently at the other end. Drug policy reform seeks to move laws and policies away from criminalization and punishment and toward decriminalization, tolerance and public health.

Third, the article offers a series of reasons why in the 20th century drug prohibition was adopted by every country in the world and supported by politicians from one end of the political spectrum to the other. Let me just list the reasons I give for why drug prohibition has spread so successfully around the world.

One, because of the influence and power of the US.

Two, governments of all stripes have found that the military and police resources marshaled for drug prohibition can be used for all sorts of purposes.

Three, politicians and the media find that drug demonization and anti-drug crusades can be politically, rhetorically and even economically useful for them.

Four, drug prohibition has benefited from the greater acceptance of the use of coercive state power in the 20th Century.

Fifth, drug prohibition has gained legitimacy because it is a project of the UN.

WOL: You have some interesting things to say about harm reduction. You write that harm reduction tolerates drug prohibition just as it tolerates drug use, and that it seeks to reduce the harm of both. What are the political implications of the harm reduction approach for ending prohibition?

Levine: Harm reduction is a very good thing. Harm reduction is probably the most important public health movement to emerge in the last twenty years or more years, and it is the first international movement to challenge the more criminalized forms of drug prohibition. Its effect, if not always its intent, is to move drug policies toward the decriminalized, regulated end of the spectrum. Some harm reductionists don't consider themselves drug reformers, but in the course of pursuing improvements in public health, harm reduction often requires changes in policy that reduce the punitiveness of drug prohibition.

Interestingly, harm reduction's approach to drug prohibition is the same as its approach to drug use. It seeks to reduce the harmful effects of drug use without requiring that users be drug- free; harm reduction also seeks to reduce the harmful effects of drug prohibition without requiring that countries be prohibition- free. Harm reduction offers a radically tolerant and pragmatic approach to both drug use and drug prohibition: It assumes neither are going away any time soon and suggests therefore that reasonable and responsible people try to persuade both those who use drugs, and those who use drug prohibition, to minimize the harms that their activities produce.

WOL: Do you consider such phenomenon as drug courts or the "treatment not jail" initiatives to fall within the realm of harm reduction?

Levine: Coerced treatment, mandatory treatment, drug courts, whatever you want to call this, is not harm reduction, at least as I understand it. Drug courts and the like are a change within criminalized drug prohibition; they are not a shift toward decriminalized prohibition. I believe that most leaders of the drug court movement, however well intentioned, are supporters of criminalized drug prohibition -- they want drug users arrested and threatened with criminal sanctions. This is important to understand.

I personally think that offering voluntary drug treatment as part of a range of services for people who want it is a very good thing. But drug courts and coerced treatment still send to jail the many people who fail in treatment, and especially in drug-free treatment, to jail. As Lynn Zimmer has taught me, the only effective way of reducing the number of people in jail and prison on drug charges is by arresting fewer people for possessing and using drugs. This is what they have been doing in Europe, and it works.

Look at the case of Robert Downey, Jr. The man called the best actor of his generation spent a year in jail because he flunked drug tests. It started with a DWI, an unloaded gun and a small quantity of heroin. If it were only drunk driving with a gun, he would not have gone to jail. But Downey went to a drug court and "treatment," flunked drug tests and was sent to prison. He didn't give or sell drugs; he was a threat to nobody. He had friends, family, doctors and more work than he could do, and yet he was forced into jail and treatment simply for possessing small quantities of drugs and for flunking drug tests. His case is important because the same thing has happened to hundreds of thousands of other young people -- mainly black and Latino -- who nobody knows about.

WOL: One critic accused you of conjuring up a "secret cabal" that creates and enforces drug prohibition. How do you respond to suggestions that you are positing a sort of conspiracy theory?

Levine: I'm a sociologist and historian. I don't believe in conspiracy theories, it's a silly point. If anyone knows of a secret cabal, please have them contact me. I think that many things that develop for one reason have all kinds of other unintended effects. That's not a conspiracy theory.

WOL: You write about the "romantic view of the coercive state," which sounds like a libertarian argument for less state power. Are you a libertarian, and if so what kind?

I am absolutely a civil libertarian. I am a member of the ACLU and a graduate of Brandeis University, named after Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who was the Supreme Court's first great modern champion of civil liberties. He would be appalled by urine drug tests and much else done in the name of the war on drugs. Brandeis was also a defender of ordinary people against corporate power as well as government power. He was called "the people's lawyer," and he campaigned for consumer protection, women's rights and against monopolistic business practices. He was also the first lawyer and judge to passionately argue that the Constitution gave the right to privacy.

Nowadays many people learn of the civil liberties movement from The Libertarian Party and related organizations which, I believe, mainly articulate what is called a "free-market" or "right-wing" libertarian perspective. This movement has grown remarkably since the 1970s, and they have done excellent work on many civil liberties issues, including repeatedly pointing out the awfulness and repressiveness of the war on drugs. William F. Buckley Jr., the economist Milton Friedman, the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz and the Cato Institute are well known free-market or right-wing libertarians. My article on "World-Wide Drug Prohibition" has just come out in the Independent Review, which is certainly sympathetic to free-market libertarian perspectives.

However, I myself come from a more left-wing libertarian tradition that includes Justice Brandeis, the founders of the ACLU and much of the early civil rights movement. Ira Glasser has called such people "social justice libertarians," and I think it's a good name. Both of my parents -- one Irish from the mid-west, the other Jewish from New York -- were staunch civil libertarians, and they just as strongly supported social and economic justice for ordinary men, women and their families. On both sides of my family, I am actually a third generation social justice libertarian.

Social justice libertarians see the battle for civil liberties and civil rights as linked with the struggles of working people, and of the poor, exploited and discriminated against. The modern civil liberties movement was created after World War I by social justice or left-wing libertarians, and most of the 20th century court cases over freedom of speech, press, civil rights, and more were won by them.

I think nearly everyone who strongly supports drug policy reform, decriminalization, and harm reduction policies is probably a libertarian of some sort. They just may not know it yet. I suspect that among the most active drug policy reformers, more people are likely social-justice libertarians than free-market libertarians. My sense is that right-wing libertarians have been courageous, fierce, articulate critics of drug prohibition laws and policies, but they have not thus far been strong supporters of harm reduction programs or even of much drug decriminalization. I think that harm reduction has been created and developed by people who are essentially left libertarians. I also suspect that the people working on the medical marijuana campaigns have been disproportionately what I call social justice libertarians.

Unfortunately, there is no formal organization or movement of social justice libertarians. Many of the people who do work for the ACLU may themselves be social justice libertarians, but the ACLU itself is not a think tank devoted to developing political thought like Cato or the Independent Institute. Rather, the ACLU is primarily the most important activist organization dedicated to fighting against suppression of anybody's civil liberties, including Nazis and Klu Klux Klanners.

I hope one consequence of the growing opposition to criminalized drug prohibition will be a strengthened movement for civil liberties in America and other countries. I also hope that we left-wing libertarians will soon get our act together and openly stand with right-wing libertarians -- as libertarians -- against punitive drug prohibition, against the US drug war, and for the civil liberties and civil rights of people who use the currently illegal drugs.

WOL: You write that global drug prohibition is in crisis. Do you foresee an end to the global prohibition regime anytime soon?

Levine: In the long run, the more punitive forms of drug prohibition are doomed. And in the very long run, it seems to me that the whole system of global prohibition is likewise doomed. It is important to understand that the end of global drug prohibition will formally happen when the Single Convention and its related treaties are modified or repealed. These UN anti-drug treaties are to the global prohibition system what the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act were to US alcohol Prohibition. Once the 18th Amendment was repealed, states and some localities were free to pursue their own alcohol control policies. Once the Single Convention is modified or repealed, countries throughout the world will be free to adopt their own drug policies -- including prohibition if they so desire.

Until recently European drug reformers had concluded that it was politically too difficult to modify or repeal the Single Convention. So policy makers and reformers have pursued their own drug reforms, largely ignoring the treaties. But now there is some discussion about changing the conventions, and that is a very important development. The Drugs and Democracy Project at the Transnational Institute in the Netherlands has put up some very good materials about this on their web site).

WOL: What is currently happening with cannabis prohibition?

Global cannabis prohibition is coming apart as we speak. The DEA chief, Asa Hutchinson, says that decriminalization of cannabis in Canada will make it harder to fight the drug war in the US, and he is absolutely right. This has happened in the last 20 years in Europe with the Netherlands. It also happened in the 1920s when the US tried to maintain alcohol prohibition after Canada had established legal production and sale. In both cases, many visitors and even ordinary tourists saw a real world alternative to ineffective prohibition policies. Many visitors also returned home with the currently forbidden substance. The US drug czar and DEA head appear to understand this, and so they are openly warning Canada and openly worrying about what will happen. Nonetheless, Canada is likely to make more steps toward decriminalization.

WOL: What else have you studied or written about besides drugs?

Levine: A number of things, especially alcohol prohibition, the anti-alcohol or temperance movement, and the history of ideas about alcohol. I also study the history and anthropology of food, and I wrote a piece about why New York Jews love Chinese food and eat so much of it. Recently I learned that students at Hong Kong University read it.

I now think that drink, drugs and food are really all part of one large topic. In the beginning there was only food. Then human beings separated some plants as medicines. Finally, about 200 years ago, they created the category of intoxicants or drugs. Drug demonization first happened in a large way in the early 1800s with the creation of the anti-alcohol or temperance movement in the US. Drug prohibition and the war on drugs are, in fact, the direct continuation of the 19th century's war on alcohol. I think that eventually more and more people will understand that. Someday people will look back on drug prohibition and the crusade for a drug-free America the way we today view alcohol prohibition and the campaign for an alcohol-free society. Both were repressive government systems in the service of an impossible and historically bizarre goal.

I have a personal web site-- I have put up some of my writings, along with jokes and various other things. When this interview comes out, I'll put it up there too.

by staff reporter at DRCnet
© 2002