I have just finished reading Johann Hari’s new book, ‘Chasing the Scream’ and it has got me thinking about the war on drugs once again. I grew up a political household and I have always been fascinated by the grey area that sits between reality and the perceptions of reality. This ever evolving space is where most politicians like to position themselves and play for power and influence. They might not admit it publicly but ‘The Prince.’ By Niccolò Machiavelli is still the blueprint and guidebook for modern day politicians. The Prince is a devilish letter of advice from Machiavelli to the Magnificent Lorenzo de Medici in 1513.
The introduction to the book is both chilling and familiar:
“The tyrant terrifies his subjects. Spying balefully on the world from his strongly fortified palace, as sensitive to approaching prey or predators as a spider delicately balanced at the centre of a web, he dominates the life of all around him… He turns his entire state into a machine for his own profit and that of a few friends…”
You often hear people say they don’t really understand politics, read The Prince and you will get a better understand of what the game of politics is all about. Anyway back to the war on drugs and the gulf between reality and the perception of reality. Nowhere in human history has that gulf been greater.
In 1852 Charles MacKay a prominent journalist and friend of Charles Dickens wrote a book called, ‘Extraordinary popular Delusions and the madness of crowds.’
The book starts with the following passage:
“In reading the history of nations, we find…their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object and go mad in its pursuit…We see one nation suddenly seized from its highest to lowest members, with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple; and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears, to be reaped by its posterity. “
The book goes on to describe in detail the stories of:
John Law and The Mississippi Scheme.
The South-Sea Bubble
The age of Alchemy
Witch Burning Mania
And many more historical tales of collective mania and delusion.
I honestly belief if he was alive today to re-write the book, the biggest chapter would be on Harry J Anslinger and his crazy crusading war on drugs that currently lives on long after his own death. The evidence in favour of ending the war on drugs is so overwhelming that it is not even a debate anymore with the serious credible academic community. Along with ‘Chasing the Scream,’ by Johann Hari, there has been two other incredible books that clearly illustrious the evidence for and against this war. ‘Drugs without the hot air,’ by Professor David Nutt and ‘High Price,’ by Dr. Carl Hart.
Every country that has embarked on reducing their commit to the war on drugs has reaped social, health and crime reduction benefits. Holland unlike the UK has virtually no deaths from contaminated mdma pills as it has a free anonymous and confidential pill testing policy at dance clubs and festivals. Switzerland dramatically reduced drug overdose deaths by setting up heroin clinics. Portugal reduced crime and teenage drug used by widespread decriminalization of personal drug possession. Colorado’s state department balanced its’ financial books by taxing and regulating recreational and medical Marijuana.
There have been some surprising benefits too. California passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996 effectively legalising cannabis use. In that time road traffic accidents and deaths amongst young male drivers has reduced as they substitute some of their alcohol consumption for marijuana consumption. Alcohol is much more potent at instilling a desire and inability to drive fast in users than marijuana.
Now let’s look at the UK. Could we benefits from reducing young people dying from taking ‘bad,’ pills at music festival? Could we benefit from reducing drug overdose deaths amongst heavy users? Could we benefit from reducing drug related crime, burglary and muggings? Could we benefit from reducing reckless driving amongst young men? Could the NHS and community pharmacy benefit from another reliable revenue source?
When I discuss these findings and numerous more in favour of ending the war on drugs with colleagues, friends and family members, I am always baffled by how many are still not convinced ending the war on drugs is a smart move. This has always confused me until recently when I read the Ivy League, MBA cult classic text, ‘Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion,’ by Robert B. Cialdini Ph.D.
Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence are as follows:
When someone does us a favour or gives us a gift, we feel a need as humans to try and repay that favour and reciprocate that gift. This is why companies give free samples, first month of service free etc. Watch as the election gets closer the government will try buy, your vote with a minor tax break gift.
Commitment (and Consistency)
Once we commit to someone or an idea we don’t like to change course even when new information suggests we should. We feel a need to remain consistent in our commitments. This is why I believe people struggle to change their mind about the war on drugs. This is why Communists states persisted for decades after the idea clearly was failing. This is why voters continue to vote for the traditional parties after years of disappointment. This is why people find it hard to turn their backs on their idols when they commit heinous crimes. This maybe why we are still pursuing neo liberal capitalism even though we know it leads to inequality, worsening personal health and environmental damage.
This principle relies on people’s sense of “safety in numbers.” The main reason anyone buys a certain product is because everyone else does. Marketeers know this and exploit this. They love to show you other people buyer their product. Queues outside Apple stores. Do you want to know, how many people watched the X Factor last week? “everybody is doing it.” Etc. Celebrity endorsement, are the ultimate social proof. This guy uses our product, you should too.
This one is obvious. We are more likely to listen to people who we like the look of. People who look and talk and think like us. It has been shown that we are more likely to believe and listen to people who have similar sounding names to us. O’Briens sandwich chain is very successful in Ireland. When the entrepreneur was setting it up, he looked in the phonebook and went with the most popular surname in the area he was setting up his first store. These tricks do work.
We feel a sense of duty or obligation to people in positions of authority. How often have you seen a Doctor in an advertisement? Tobacco companies used to use Doctors in their ads. For further reading google the Milgram experiment. Michael Portillo did a great documentary for the BBC on these experiments a number of years back.
This principle says that things are more attractive when their availability is limited or when we stand to lose the opportunity to acquire them on favourable terms. For instance we might buy something immediately if we’re told it’s the last one or that a special offer will soon expire. This principle also helps explain the paradox of luxury. Where demand for a product increases when the price increases.
So are you in favour of the war on drugs?
Is your position based on a rational assessment of the pros and cons?
Or are you being persuaded by one of the six principles of influence?