Monday, April 21, 2008

Drugs Prohibition - Child protection or Protection Racket

The following article from Danny Kushlick, will appear in the May issue of Oxford University's student magazine 'Oxford Forum'. It'll be a companion piece to an article by Dr Raj Persaud in which he declares that smoking skunk is like playing Russian Roulette.

Drugs Prohibition - Child protection or Protection Racket

“To prevent them from turning to drug misuse, they must also be protected from drug dealers and the pressures of living in neighbourhoods where drugs are too often an everyday reality.”
“…we will prevent young people from using drugs by maintaining prohibition which deters use…”
UK Government’s Updated Drug Strategy 2002

“To punish the evil of drug pushers who poison our children: I want the tough new powers…”
“…we will send out a clear message that drugs are never going to be decriminalised.”
Gordon Brown’s speech to Labour Party Conference, Sept 2007

Protection racket – an extortion scheme whereby a powerful entity coerces other less powerful entities to pay protection money which allegedly serves to purchase "protection" services against external threats. (Wikipedia)

Many times over the last ten years the Government has repeated its assertion that being ‘tough on drugs’ means backing prohibition to the hilt. But is it protecting those it claims to, or is it a racket?

All the evidence shows that illegal drug use has increased massively under prohibition. In 1971 when the Misuse of Drugs Act came into force there were about 5000 heroin users. There are now over 300 000. Hundreds of thousands more use cocaine and ecstasy and millions regularly smoke cannabis. None of these users has access to minimum standards in quality control or product information (including levels of concentration or safer use guides).

Entire nation states have become politically and economically destabilised as a result of becoming dependent upon the illegal drugs trade; witness Afghanistan, Colombia, SE Asia and the Caribbean.

The economics of prohibition are simple: a totally deregulated supply chain that is heavily demand-led creates a situation where very low value agricultural produce becomes literally worth more than its weight in gold at the point of retail. Profit margins of 16 000% attract organised crime and paramilitary organisations. Peasants are forced to grow opium and coca for the cartels and warlords in order to survive and poverty stricken individuals in transit countries become drug mules to make an ‘easy’ buck.

At the consumer end, turf wars become endemic and property crime soars as dependent users resort to property crime to support their habit. (It is now estimated that in the UK half of all property crime and half of the prison population exists because of fundraising to support a heroin or crack habit.) The Home Office estimates the crime costs of heroin and crack use at £16 billion a year. Added to which the UK illegal drug trade is estimated to be worth £7 billion a year. The estimate for the global turnover in illegal drugs each year is $320 billion.

During the general election campaign in 2001 I asked Tony Blair at a public event whether prohibition created more crime than it solved. His answer: “I’m terrified for my kids.” This is a prime example of the way that fear is used to create the perception of a great threat to the section of society that is generally recognised as being the most vulnerable and therefore, the most in need of protection. Any evidence that shows that the current regime might increase harm to this group must be dismissed through politicians’ articulation of an imminent terror. One has to ask, who and what exactly is being protected by prohibition? It certainly isn’t the children running drugs on UK and US sink estates or the children of opium and coca growing peasants, for whom Gordon Brown’s heart so obviously bleeds.

Given that prohibition demonstrably puts children (and adults) at increased risk, for whom does the racket work? As described above, it is the global regime of prohibition that creates what appears to be an external threat. The Government (wittingly or not) maintains that ‘threat’ and then ‘extracts’ further money to pay for the continued enforcement of the prohibition. Lastly it ‘extracts’ far more again for the costs of the collateral damage that accrues from pursuing a war on drugs. And so it goes.

But the racket doesn’t end there. Our taxes spent on pursing prohibition effectively pay for the populist grandstanding of power hungry politicians, for whom drug war rhetoric is high value political capital. The racket also fills the coffers of enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies and the anti-drugs military forces. As explained above, global prohibition effectively acts as a price support mechanism for illegal drugs and provides a monopoly supply for organised crime. Under the auspices of the ‘war on drugs’ the US engages in imperial adventurism in parts of the world in which it wishes to have influence.

The brilliance of this racket is that anyone wanting to quit paying ‘protection money’ will be vilified as being ‘soft on drugs’. This analysis becomes even more obvious in the political parties, as those who depart from the status quo are whipped back into drug war ‘racketeering’.

This is not to suggest that prohibition is based upon a conspiracy of government agencies to extract money from unwitting tax payers. The prohibition ‘racket’ arises from an historical accretion of influences that have created perverse opportunities for some very powerful entities that will make the most of the situation, for as long as they can. But the status quo is not tenable in the longer term.

The argument for legally regulating drugs is counterintuitive, does not lend itself to simple sound bites and is no panacea for promoting children’s wellbeing. However, legal regulation is the “least worst” solution, the only effective, just and humane system for managing the trade and use of powerful psychoactive drugs. Increasingly the prohibition racket is being exposed to the light and this, combined with prohibition’s inherent ability to produce precisely the opposite of what is claimed for it, make it a very fragile policy.

Transform believes that we could put these ‘racketeers’ out of business within a decade. Then, perhaps we could explore how we might better protect our children.


Derek Williams said...

A good article up to the point where you wrote:

The argument for legally regulating drugs is counterintuitive, does not lend itself to simple sound bites and is no panacea for promoting children’s wellbeing.

How about "Illegal drugs are not controlled drugs"? That's not a bad sound bite, it's true and gets right to the heart of child protection!

Also I think you're falling into the trap of accepting prohibition as the natural state, which is not the case.

Prohibition is a law introduced in order to achieve certain outcomes. As you correctly argue, it has failed to do that, therefore the issue is not so much the introduction of a new regime of legalisation, more repeal of a failed regime of prohibition.

Anonymous said...

Just one factual point: drug destabilising many countries - yes, the whole of SE Asia - no; some of the most vibrant economies in the world are there (for good or bad) and this is not based on the drugs trade.

Danny K said...

Derek, you miss the point.
The prohibitionist position is at face value simple and appealing: 'Drugs are bad, so ban them' That is a compelling argument and one that is backed up by decades of propaganda. The sound bite you quote is nowhere near as simple and actually requires some unpacking. And the regualtion position which is, drugs are sometimes good and sometimes bad for you, but because supply is always better looked after by democratic institutions, does not a soundbite constitute.
Anonymous, why can't you say who you are? Precisely.