End 'war on drugs' now
Far more harm and social destruction has been caused by the West's anti-drug laws than by the actual misuse of narcotics, says Eddie Ford
By any measure, the 24-page report published on June 2 by the 19-member Global Commission on Drug Policy is a scathing indictment of the madness that is the current ‘war on drugs’, and especially the role played in it by the United States. Far from reducing the supply and use of drugs, or curbing the power of organised crime, it has had the opposite effect - with total predictability, of course. Yet those who insist on conducting this ‘war’, as the report notes, know full well that it is a doomed venture, but pretend to the world that victory is within sight.
So in no uncertain terms, the commission declares that the policy of drugs prohibition has “failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”. As a direct consequence, it has created the conditions for “rampant lawlessness” and hence acted to “fuel” organised crime - providing those gangsters with the right business attitude and entrepreneurial skill-set a golden opportunity to make fabulous profits in a very short time-span: the illegal market in drugs enriches such individuals to the tune of some $300 billion or more a year. A lifestyle you can get used to.
Naturally, like any good businessmen, they will use all means possible to get a lead on their competitors in the market place and keep generating a good rate of return on their investments. For instance, on May 15 27 people in a north Guatemalan farm were slaughtered (mainly decapitated) as part of a longstanding turf war between the Mexican drugs cartel, the Zetas, and the Guatemalan syndicate, the Leones - the victims being ordinary farm labourers who had the misfortune to be employed by someone who had stolen a 2,000-kilo shipment of cocaine from the Zetas. The killing of the farmworkers was the latter’s way of collecting the bill in what is a tough, very competitive market. Needless to say, such killings and massacres are not uncommon.
In this way, various drugs syndicates and cartels have become formidable worldwide organisations with the ability to take on the state machine - and survive (the Zetas were able to avoid the Guatemalan authorities and slip back undetected into Mexico after their hard day’s work of debt-collecting). Thus the commission report cites United Nations estimates that from 1998 to 2008 the worldwide use of opiates increased by 35%, whilst cocaine use rose by 27% and cannabis by 8.5%. Not to mention the small fact that the ‘war on drugs’ costs billions of dollars every year to wage. Hence last year alone the US federal government spent over $15 billion, or $500 per second, while state and local governments forked out at least another $25 billion. This year the total ‘anti-drugs’ bill so far amounts to just under $18 billion. As for the UK, the chairman of the bar council, Nicholas Green, recently commented that drug-related crime costs the UK economy around £13 billion a year in terms of police resources, recidivism, public health, etc. An obscene waste of money in what is purported to be an age of austerity.
The commission, quite correctly, calls for an end to the “criminalisation, marginalisation and stigmatisation of people who use drugs, but who do no harm to others” - and goes on to exhort leading figures in political and public life to “have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately”, which is that “the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem” and that “the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won”. Instead, the authors state, what is urgently needed on this issue is a “paradigm shift” - citing the more liberal or enlightened drugs policies of Portugal, Holland and Australia as positive evidence of the “human and social benefits of treating drug addiction as a health rather than criminal justice problem”.
Portugal is a particularly instructive example, historically having one of the highest levels of hard drug use - and abuse - on the continent, the number of heroin-users in 2000 measuring between 50,000 and 100,000 (and a correspondingly high level of HIV/Aids infection). But in 2001 it became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for ‘personal possession’ of drugs - defined as up to 10 days’ supply, including cocaine, heroine and LSD. Prison sentences were replaced with therapy and treatment. Far from becoming a magnet for drugs tourism though, after five years of decriminalisation, Portugal found that the illegal use of drugs by teenagers had significantly declined, rates of HIV infection sharply fell and the numbers of people requesting therapy to get off drugs had more than doubled. A definite and measurable success in terms of public heath and general societal well-being.
From all this, the commission recommended that governments should “explore” the legislation of cannabis/marijuana and other controlled substances and in general “experiment” with “legal models” that would undermine organised crime syndicates. Through the “sensible regulation” of drugs policies based on “empirically proven” methods, the report concludes, we can begin to reduce crime, lead to overall better health and promote economic and social development. In short, abandon the crazy ‘war on drugs’ now.
No-one can accuse the Global Commission on Drug Policy of being bombed-out hippies hoping for one more trip. The team includes the former UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, and three former presidents (of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia). Then there is the former head of the US Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, the current prime minister of Greece, George Papandreou, former US secretary of state George Schulz and the European Union’s former foreign policy chief, Javier Solana. Even the Daily Mail would have problems portraying these people as irresponsible libertines hell-bent on the destruction of the moral foundations of civilisation.
However, the ‘official’ response to the commission’s report was typically obdurate. The US and Mexican governments described its findings and recommendations as “misguided” and “unhelpful” - unlike the ‘war on drugs’ which has brought nothing but destruction and misery, and innocent people getting their heads hacked off by ruthless criminals. A White House spokesperson mendaciously asserted that “making drugs more available” will “make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe” - as if the commission was proposing to flood the market with yet more drugs rather than their conscious regulation in a crime-free environment.
Just as disingenuously, US national security spokesman Alejandro Poire said that the legalisation of drugs would be an “insufficient and inefficient” step, given the international nature of the illegal drugs trade - when logic surely dictates that it is precisely due to the international nature of drugs trafficking that it has to be controlled and regulated on an international scale. The US can no more rid itself of the scourge of drugs rackets alone than can Guatemala or Mexico, therefore to be truly viable the policy of decriminalisation/legalisation has to be carried out on a cross-continental level. Poire also made the curious statement that “to think organised crime in Mexico means drug-trafficking overlooks the other crimes committed such as kidnapping, extortion and robbery” - curious, given that a high preponderance of these sort of criminal activities are obviously drug-related in some shape or form. But clearly the US administration, and others, are monstrously determined - in defiance of all rationality - to blindly pursue the ‘war on drugs’ regardless of the human or financial cost.
On the same day that the commission’s report was published, The Guardian published a full-page advertisement-cum-open letter announcing the launch of a new campaign for the “immediate decriminalisation of drug possession”. The campaign, headlined “Drugs - it’s time for better laws”, has been organised by the drugs charity, Release, and was timed to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act - though in reality it is more accurate to say that for the last 40 years the far greater problem has been the misuse of drugs laws than the actual abuse of drugs.
This high-profile campaign is headed by an assortment of actors, academics, lawyers and former chief constables and the signatories call for a “swift and transparent” review into the “effectiveness”, or not, of the government’s current drugs policies and laws - making the worthy point that all the past 40 years has produced is a rapid growth in illicit drug use in Britain and noting the significant harm caused by the application of the criminal law to the personal use and possession of drugs. This results in the situation where nearly 80,000 people last year were found guilty or cautioned for the possession of illegal drugs - most of whom were young, black or poor - and where over the past decade more than a million people have ended up with a criminal record as a result. They included 44,058 people who were arrested and found guilty of possessing cannabis and a further 11,000 for simple possession of other class ‘B’ and class ‘C’ drugs such as amphetamines and tranquillisers.
Just like the commission, the Release open letter laments a policy which is “costly for taxpayers” and “damaging for communities” - observing that “criminalising people who use drugs leads to greater social exclusion and stigmatisation”, which in turn makes it “much more difficult for them to gain employment and to play a productive role in society”. A needless vicious circle, which leads to a “society full of wasted resources” and where the only real winners are the criminals raking in the lucrative profits thanks to the present policy of drugs prohibition. Commendably, one of the signatories, Richard Branson, implored the government to adopt “more humane and effective” ways to reduce the (potential) harm caused by drugs - that “treats people with addiction problems like patients and not criminals”. Sentiments echoed by Sting, who urged David Cameron to think of more “imaginative ways of addressing drug use in our society”.
True to form though, the government made clear that it had no interest in being either “imaginative” or “humane” when it comes to drugs policy or the criminal law in general. “We have no intention of liberalising our drugs laws,” a home office official stridently announced, then wheeled out the well-worn tautological argument that “drugs are illegal because they are harmful” - to which the obvious rejoinder is that drugs are made harmful because they are illegal. But for our home office apparatchik “giving people a green light to possess drugs through decriminalisation is clearly not the answer”.
Communists, on the other hand, unambiguously call for the full legalisation of all drugs - not just the supposedly ‘soft’ ones like cannabis. Not because we naively believe that ending the ‘war on drugs’ is some sort of universal panacea that will instantly usher in a society of perfectly adjusted, well-rounded, non-alienated individuals. No, our call for legalisation is principally motivated by the desire not to make a bad situation worse. Huge swathes of the population are criminalised by the current prohibitive drugs laws.
In the US, of course, this has reached barbaric proportions: arrests for drug law violations this year are expected to exceed the 1,663,582 that occurred in 2009. The various law enforcement agencies made more arrests for drugs violations than for any other offences in 2009 - an estimated 1.6 million, or 13% of the total number. The prison population has grown by an average of 43,266 inmates per year since 1995 - and around 25% are there for drug law violations. Furthermore, those receiving custodial sentence for drugs crimes are disproportionately black - so whilst blacks constitute 14% of regular drug users in the US, they constitute 37% of those arrested for drug offences and 56% those detained in hellish state prison as a result. Clearly the ‘war on drugs’ is more like a war on society - fundamentally no different from the ‘war on booze’ during the dark days of prohibition (1920-33).
The lifting of drugs prohibition would ensure that the gangsters’ lucrative businesses would be ruined at a stroke - no more get-rich-quick profits to be made. Legalisation would also have the instant practical benefit of allowing for quality control, such as we now have with that totally legal drug, alcohol - which by scientific or objective analysis is a highly dangerous substance deserving of class ‘A’ status (or higher). Plainly, it is the adulteration of drugs by so many profit-hungry dealers and gangs that is the primary cause of damage and death. Just as you can ‘drink responsibly’, so you can smoke cannabis or ingest LSD and Ecstasy responsibly. In other words, drug consumption should be socialised.
Human beings have always taken drugs for stimulation or relaxation, whether for positive or negative reasons - to make us feel happy or to take the pain away. From that broader historical perspective, drug-taking of various sorts has never been abnormal or deviant - far from it. Mind-altering substances have always held an appeal, to one degree or another. There is absolutely no rational or logical reason to believe that this will change in the foreseeable future, including the communist future.
- See the Drug War Clock for a second-by-second update: www.drugsense.org/cms/wodclock
- The Guardian June 2.