17 September 2009

An Open Society? - George Soros outlines his concept of an Open Society

I was delighted when voters in two states approved a change in direction in drug policies. California legalised the cultivation and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes; Arizona allowed doctors to prescribe any drug for legitimate medical purposes and approved treatment not incarceration for those arrested for illegal drug possession. It also stiffened penalties for violent crime committed under the influence of drugs.

These results are significant, not least because they suggest that Americans are beginning to recognise both the futility of the drug war and the need to think realistically and openly about alternatives.

Our drug warriors responded by pushing the panic button. One opponent of the reforms claimed that "these propositions are not about compassion, they are about legalising dangerous drugs."

I was severely attacked for having supported the initiatives financially. I was accused of "bamboozling" the voters with misleading advertising and the New York Time columnist A M Rosenthal went so far as to imply that I represent a new kind of "drug money".

I must reject these accusations. I am not for legalising hard drugs. I am for a saner drug policy I am just as concerned about keeping drugs away from my children as any responsible parent. But I firmly believe that the war on drugs is doing more harm to our society than drug abuse itself. Let me explain.

I became involved m the drug issue because of my commitment to the concept of an open society, which is based on the recognition that we act on the basis of imperfect understanding and our actions have unintended consequences. Our mental constructs, as well as our institutions, are all flawed in one way or another.

Perfection is unattainable but that is no reason to despair. On the contrary, our fallibility leaves infinite scope for innovation, invention and improvement. An open society that recognises fallibility is a superior form of social organisation to a closed society that claims to have found all the answers.

Our drug policies offer a prime example of adverse, unintended consequences. In perhaps no other field have our public policies produced an outcome so profoundly at odds with what was intended. But who are waging a "war on drugs" refuse to recognise this. They consider all criticism subversive. To suggest the possibility that this war may be self-defeating is tantamount to treason.

I contributed approximately $1 million, which represents 25 to 30 cent of overall contributions, to the California and Arizona campaigns. I was not involved in the planning and execution of either campaign or in the drafting of the initiatives.
I can well understand why the warriors would be upset by my involvement. I have no use for drugs. I tried marijuana and enjoyed it but it did not become a habit and I have not tasted it in many years. I have had my share of anxieties concerning my children using drugs, but fortunately it was not a serious problem. My sole concern is that the war on drugs has done untold damage to the fabric of society.

I believe that a drug-free America is a utopian dream. Some form of drug addiction or substance abuse is endemic in most societies. Insisting on the total eradication of drug use can lead only to failure and disappointment. The war on drugs cannot be won but, like the Vietnam War, it has polarised society.

And its adverse effects may eventually be even more devastating. Criminalising drug abuse does more harm than good, blocking effective treatment and incarcerating far too many people. The American prison and jail population - now more than a million and a half - has doubled over the past decade and more than tripled since 1980. The number of drug law violators behind bars has increased eightfold since 1980, to about 400,000 people.

The policies are especially harsh on black people. Among young black men in America, the war on drugs has contributed strongly to a rate of incarceration so high that it disrupts family structures in cities and increases the number of single-parent families. One out of every seven black men has been disenfranchised permanently or temporarily, by criminal convictions. Among black adults between the ages of 25 and 44, Aids is now the leading cause of death, with half of those cases resulting from drug injections.

At the same time, proper treatment of drug addicts is inhibited by the fact that they are regarded as criminals. Tens of thousands sit behind bars - at substantial cost to themselves, their families and taxpayers - rather than in less costly, more effective drug treatment programmes. Even methadone treatment and needle exchange programmes are discouraged.

There are indications that prohibitionist policies have increased drug-related disease and death and the crime-rate. Restrictions on access to sterile syringes facilitate the spread of HIV and other diseases. Drug addicts overdose from street drugs of unknown purity and potency, injuring or killing themselves and placing strains on the health care system.

Focusing resources in a lopsided manner on cutting out supplies ignores basic economic principles. As long as demand and profits are high, there is no way to cut off supply. There will always be large numbers of people willing to risk incarceration for the chance of making so much money.

It is, of course, easier to identify what is wrong with present policies than to design better ones. I do not pretend to know what the right drug policy is; but I do know that the present policy is wrong. A more reasonable approach would be to try to reduce both supply and demand and aim at minimising the harmful effects of abuse. and control.

I am aware of at least some of the steps we should be taking now, making methadone and sterile syringes readily available to addicts; removing criminal prohibitions and other sanctions on the ability of doctors and patients to treat pain and nausea with whatever medications work; saving our jail and prison cells for violent criminals and predatory drug dealers, not non-violent drug addicts who are willing to undergo treatment; and exploring new means of reducing the harms done by drug use and prohibitionist policies.

If public opinion were ready for it, I would advocate "hollowing out" the black market by making heroin and certain other illicit drugs available on prescription to registered addicts. I would discourage addiction with social opprobrium, the dissemination of reasonable and persuasive information on the harm caused by drugs, and by legal sanctions. If the Swiss, the Dutch and the British and increasingly other countries can experiment with new approaches, so can the United States.

Not all the experiments hwe been successful. Zurich’s unsuccessful attempt to regulate an open-air drug market in the early 1990s became known as "Needle Park" and gave the city a bad name. But recent Swiss initiatives have been more successful and generated widespread public support. The national heroin prescription experiment has proven remarkably effective in reducing illicit drug use, disease and crime, and helped many addicts to improve their lives. Swiss voters approved this initiative in local referendums.

Our first priority should be to discourage children from using drugs. Even marijuana can be harmful to the mental and emotional development of youngsters. But demonising drugs can increase their appeal to adolescents, for whom rebellion is often an important rite of passage to adulthood. And we must be particularly careful not to exaggerate the harmful effects of marijuana because it may undermine the credibility of our warnings about harder drugs.

Generally speaking, de-emphasising the criminal aspect of drug use should be accompanied by more, rather than less, social opprobrium for the drug culture. Education and social disapproval of cigarette-smoking have been much more successful than the war on drugs.

Unfortunately the present climate is inimical to a well-balanced drug policy. Crusading advocates of prohibition and deterrence stand in the way of reasoned discussion. They insist that there is only one solution to the drug problem, namely, the "war on drugs" and that those who are critical of present policies are enemies of society. Few elected officials dare to incur their wrath. Hysteria has replaced debate in the public discourse.

The voters in Arizona and California have demonstrated that it is possible to support more sensible and compassionate drug policies while still being tough on drugs. I hope that other states will follow suit. I shall be happy to support (with after-tax dollars) some of these efforts, and I look forward to the day when drug control policies better reflect the ideals of an open society.

George Soros is a currency speculator and a philanthropist. In an essay published in The Week, he outlined his concept of an Open Society and the work of his Open Society Fund.