As anyone who has watched Narcos will know, there is indeed much that seems pointless and unbecoming in the US-led war on drugs, but framing it as a deliberate conspiracy by Uncle Sam may not win over critics of Loewenstein’s case. He is most thought-provoking not when lamenting the problems of prohibition, but when grappling with the challenges of legalisation. With cannabis legally available in 11 US states, that watershed moment has already come. He advocates, perhaps rightly, for a state monopoly on its sale, to prevent the rise of “Big Cannabis” corporations underplaying the risks it poses to mental health.
When it comes to the dirty wars waged by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, which, after 9/11, created a fictitious bogeyman called “narco-terrorism” to partner “Islamofascism” as a casus belli, Loewenstein gives a thorough and convincing picture of an utterly failed policy, driven by racism, neoimperialism and mere professional closure on the part of politicians and police. But right-thinking people knew the war on drugs was futile years ago, didn’t they? The very name gives the game away, for how can a war against an inanimate object ever be won?
So even if the drug war has been a disaster, it is not clear precisely what an alternative policy looks like, or how it should be rolled out. Loewenstein does some good work sketching elements of it, and elaborates some ideas in a penultimate chapter titled “Solutions”, but they lack the eye-witness acuity and rigorous scepticism he brings to the drug war itself. That, perhaps, could be his next book.
We need to dispense with this pharmacological puritanism. Sensible drug policies begin with the acknowledgment that for the majority who use them drugs are, at least for them, a relatively harmless source of relaxation and escapism. A minority need help to get off drugs, not criminalisation. Humans have been getting high since time immemorial; the war on drugs is unwinnable because it is a war against human nature. And the only thing wars against human nature ever produce, as Loewenstein shows in this lucid and well-researched book, are piles of dead bodies.