Wednesday, 11 February 2009

uk: legalizing drugs will stop violence


Johann Hari: Obama and the lethal war on drugs

The death toll in Tijuana, Mexico, is now higher than in Baghdad

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

With the global economy collapsing all around us, the last issue President Barack Obama wants to talk about is the ongoing War on Drugs. But if he doesn't – and fast – he may well have two collapsed and haemorrhaging countries on his hands. The first lies in the distant mountains of Afghanistan. The second is right next door, on the other side of the Rio Grande.

Here's a starter for 10 about where this war has led us. Where in the world are you most likely to be beheaded? Where are the severed craniums of police officers being found week after week in the streets, pinned to bloody notes that tell their colleagues, "this is so that you learn respect"? Where are hand grenades being tossed into crowds to intimidate the public into shutting up? Which country was just named by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff as the most likely after Pakistan to suffer a "rapid and sudden collapse"?

Most of us would guess Iraq. The answer is Mexico. The death toll in Tijuana today is higher than in Baghdad. The story of how this came to happen is the story of this war – and why it will have to end, soon.

When you criminalise a drug for which there is a large market, it doesn't disappear. The trade is simply transferred from chemists and doctors to gangs. In order to protect their patch and their supply routes, these gangs tool up – and kill anyone who gets in their way. You can see this any day on the streets of London or Los Angeles, where teen gangs stab or shoot each other for control of the 3,000 per cent profit margins on offer. Now imagine this process on a countrywide scale, and you have Mexico and Afghanistan today.

Drugs syndicates control 8 per cent of global GDP – which means they have greater resources than many national armies. They own helicopters and submarines and they can afford to spread the woodworm of corruption through poor countries right to the top.

Why Mexico? Why now? In the past decade, the US has spent a fortune spraying carcinogenic chemicals over Colombia's coca-growing areas, so the drug trade has simply shifted to Mexico. It's known as the "balloon effect": press down in one place, and the air rushes to another.

When I was last there in 2006, I saw the drug violence taking off and warned that the murder rate was going to rocket – but I didn't imagine it would reach this scale. In 2007, more than 2,000 people were killed. In 2008, it was more than 5,400 people. The victims range from a pregnant woman washing her car, to a four-year-old child, to a family in the "wrong" house watching television. Today, 70 per cent of Mexicans say they are frightened to go out because of the cartels.

The cartels offer Mexican police and politicians a choice: plato o plomo. Silver or lead. Take a bribe, or take a bullet. Juan Camilo Mourino, the Interior Secretary, admits the cartels have so corrupted the police they can't guarantee the safety of the public any more. So the US is trying to militarise the attack on the cartels in Mexico, offering tanks, helicopters and hard cash.

The same process has happened in Afghanistan. After the toppling of the Taliban, the country's bitterly poor farmers turned to the only cash crop that earns them enough to keep their kids alive: opium. It now makes up 50 per cent of the country's GDP. The drug cartels have a bigger budget than the elected government, so they have left the young parliament, police force and army riddled with corruption and virtually useless. The US reacted by declaring "war on opium".

The German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that the NATO commander has ordered his troops to "kill all opium dealers". Seeing their main crop destroyed and their families killed, many have turned back to the Taliban in rage.

What is the alternative? Terry Nelson was one of America's leading federal agents tackling drug cartels for over 30 years. He discovered the hard way that the current tactics are useless. "Busting top traffickers doesn't work, since others just do battle to replace them," he explains. But there is another way: "Legalising and regulating drugs will stop drug market violence by putting major cartels out of business. It's the one sure-fire way to bankrupt them, but when will our leaders talk about it?"

Of course, the day after legalisation, a majority of gangsters will not suddenly join the Hare Krishnas and open organic food shops. But their profit margins will collapse as their customers go to off-licences and chemists, so the incentives for staying in crime will largely end. We don't have to speculate about this. When alcohol was legalised, the murder-rate fell off a cliff – and continued to drop for the next 10 years. (Rates of alcoholism, revealingly, remained the same.) No, Obama doesn't want to spend his political capital on this. He is the third consecutive US President to have used drugs in his youth, but he knows this is a difficult issue, where he could be tarred by his opponents as "soft on crime".

Yet remember: opinions are febrile in a depression. At the birth of the last great downturn, support for alcohol prohibition was high; within five years, it was gone. The Harvard economist Professor Jeffrey Miron has calculated that drug prohibition costs the US government $44.1bn per year – and legalisation would raise another $32.7bn on top of that in taxes if drugs were taxed like alcohol. (All this money would, in a sane world, be shifted to drug treatment.)

Can the US afford to force this failing policy on the world – especially when it guarantees the collapse both of the country they are occupying and their own neighbour?

Drug addiction is always a tragedy for the addict – but drug prohibition spreads the tragedy across the globe. We still have a chance to take drugs back into the legal regulated economy, before it's too late for Mexico and Afghanistan and graveyards-full of more stabbed kids on the streets of Britain. Obama – and the rest of us – have to choose: controlled regulation or violent prohibition? Healthcare or warfare?

To join the fight to legalise drugs, good organisations to join are Transform or Stop the Drug War.

The Big Question: Do we need a new debate about relaxing drugs policy in Britain?

By Ed Howker

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Why are we asking this now?

Today, the Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) publishes a report proposing the downgrading of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) or "Ecstasy" from a Class A to Class B substance with the same legal penalties for possession and dealing as crack-cocaine and heroin. Only last month, however, the Home Office reiterated its intention to maintain the drug's status as Class A – on 4 January – so the report is likely to have very little effect on government policy. It comes hot on the heels of the ACMD's recommendation that cannabis should remain a Class C drug, even though the Government reclassified it as a Class B substance last month. Both drug debates expose the growing chasm between the Government and their scientific advisers, a point underscored by the recent furore concerning the head of the Advisory Council Professor David Nutt and the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith – who herself used cannabis in her youth.

What did Professor Nutt do wrong?

In an article for the latest edition of the Journal of Psychopharmacology Professor Nutt stated: "There is not much difference between horse riding and Ecstasy," explaining that horse riding accounts for more than 100 deaths a year while Ecstasy use is linked to some 30 deaths a year – up from 10 a year in the early 1990s. The point he was exploring was why certain practices are considered acceptable by society and others are not. "This attitude," he wrote, "raises the critical question of why society tolerates – indeed encourages – certain forms of potentially harmful behaviour but not others such as drug use".

These seemingly innocuous questions were greeted by outrage. The Home Secretary called on him to apologise to families who have lost loved ones to Ecstacy – though not those who have lost loved ones to horse riding – and the ACMD moved to distance itself from the comments. On Monday he issued a statement saying: "I am sorry to those who may have been offended by my article. I would like to apologise to those who have lost friends and family due to Ecstasy use."

Was the Home Secretary's response reasonable?

Plenty of people think not. Danny Kushlick, head of policy at Transform, the drug think tank, argues that Jacqui Smith is helping to close down public debate on drugs: "The first casualty of any war is truth and the war on drugs is no exception. The Church of Prohibition is based on faith and a perverse idea of creating security, especially for young people. It is so overwhelmingly counterproductive that only propaganda can sustain support for it. Consequently, anyone who throws honesty, truth, reality or evidence into the debating ring must be vilified as being a traitorous heretic."

Have these kind of attacks happened before?

Yes. Three years ago the Chief Constable of North Wales Police, Richard Brunstrom, stated that Ecstacy was "no more dangerous than aspirin" and that he would "campaign hard" for heroin to be legalised. He also stated that drugs laws were out of date and that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 should be replaced by a new "Substance Misuse Act". There were immediate and repeated calls for his resignation. Other police chiefs have argued that too much time is spent dealing with cannabis use. Last year, Simon Byrne, Merseyside's assistant chief constable and ACPO spokesman on policing cannabis, said forces had agreed with the Government's original decision to downgrade the drug because of the "disproportionate time spent by frontline officers in dealing with offenders in possession of small amounts of cannabis".

So is prohibition working?

Probably not. The UK has one of the most punitive sentencing structures for drugs in Europe. The possession of an illegal drug is punishable by a prison sentence of between two and seven years. It is very difficult to establish how effective this policy is. Since 1971, when the Misuse of Drugs Act was enacted, there has never been any rigorous official assessment of its efficacy. What we do know is that 30 years ago there were around 1,000 "hard" drug addicts. Today there are around 270,000.

Where do the political parties stand?

The Government, though previously committed to the downgrading of cannabis, has now uprated it. The thrust of Home Office drugs policy, however, is the identification of users and pushers through neighbourhood policing, and improving prison treatment programmes. It also seeks to extend international agreements to intercept drugs and help addicts to complete treatment.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats seek to re-classify cannabis as a Class C drug, and Ecstasy as a Class B drug. They also want to end imprisonment as a punishment for possession for own use of any Class B or C drug.

The current aim of Conservative drugs policy is to pursue an effective abstinence-based approach, weaning hard-drug addicts off methadone through residential rehabilitation. However, the Tory leader David Cameron once had a more flexible approach. In 2002, while a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, he co-authored a review of UK drug policy which recommended: "that the Government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways – including the possibility of legalisation and regulation – to tackle the global drugs dilemma." Mr Cameron is now not persuaded by legalisation.

Do we need a new public debate on drugs?

Almost certainly. Danny Kushlick, at Transform, says, "Most drug 'debates' are mismatched discussions between those who are opposed to fundamental reform and those in favour of sensible evidence-based policy making – leading to much heat and little light. One way out of the impasse would be for the Government to commission an independent impact analysis of legal regulation and prohibition, in order to provide more grist for the debating mill."

Haven't we heard these kind of calls before?

All too frequently. To give one example, ahead of the 1998 UN session on drugs, an open letter was sent to the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan calling for an honest debate: "Too often those who call for open debate, rigorous analysis of current policies, and serious consideration of alternatives are accused of 'surrendering'. But the true surrender is when fear and inertia combine to shut off debate, suppress critical analysis, and dismiss all alternatives to current policies. Mr secretary- general, we appeal to you to initiate a truly open and honest dialogue regarding the future of global drug control policies."

It was signed by more than 100 political and community leaders from around the world including the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Labour MP Austin Mitchell. Asked if he believed that there had been any improvement, Mr Mitchell said yesterday: "Things have gone from bad to worse, there is no possibility of an honest discussion now. Anyone who sticks their head above the parapet and calls for a rational consideration of the drug laws gets it shot off and kicked around by a horde of lunatics."

Should we finally end the war on drugs?


* Strict drugs policies needlessly turn law-abiding citizens into criminals

* The drugs war means that illegal psychotropic substances become more valuable than gold. And it becomes impossible to stop supply

* The war on drugs drives use and production underground, making it impossible for government to regulate


* Recent polling indicates that the number of British young people taking recreational drugs is falling – the war is working

* We cannot legally condone the use of substances that have such detrimental effects on society

* If the Government weakens its stance then it is admitting defeat

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