Thursday, September 24, 2009

Calls for reform grow

This month we have seen a plethora or articles in UK newspapers calling for an end to prohibition. There have been so many we thought we’d bring you the best of them in one blog.

The articles are written by a variety of people including a former chief constable, a well-known British philosopher and the former President of Brazil not to mention a number of journalists.

This increase in the number of articles in the British press reflects a change that is going on globally. As a number of Latin American countries move towards decriminalisation, it is sad that the UK government is so far behind in its thinking.

First up was Simon Jenkins in the Guardian who argued that the War on Drugs was ‘moral idiocy’ and praised the Latin American governments for their courage in admitting that current policy has failed.

He said,

‘The underlying concept of the war on drugs, initiated by Richard Nixon in the 1970s, is that demand can be curbed by eliminating supply. It has been enunciated by every US president and every British prime minister. Tony Blair thought that by occupying Afghanistan he could rid the streets of Britain of heroin. He told Clare Short to do it. Gordon Brown believes it to this day.

This concept marries intellectual idiocy – that supply leads demand – with practical impossibility. But it is golden politics. For 30 years it has allowed western politicians to shift blame for not regulating drug abuse at home on to the shoulders of poor countries abroad. It is gloriously, crashingly immoral.’

Days later in The Observer, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil, summarised the report he and the former presidents of Colombia and Mexico co-authored.

‘It is time to admit the obvious. The "war on drugs" has failed, at least in the way it has been waged so far. In Latin America, the "unintended" consequences have been disastrous. Thousands of people have lost their lives in drug-associated violence. Drug lords have taken over entire communities. Misery has spread. Corruption is undermining fragile democracies…

‘The core conclusion of the statement is that a paradigm shift is required away from repression of drug users and towards treatment and prevention. The challenge is to reduce drastically the harm caused by illegal narcotics to people, societies and public institutions.’

British philosopher John Gray got in on the act in The Guardian a few days later arguing that ‘the case for legalising all drugs is unanswerable.’

He wrote,

‘A decade or so ago, it could be argued that the evidence was not yet in on drugs. No one has ever believed illegal drug use could be eliminated, but there was a defensible view that prohibition could prevent more harm than it caused. Drug use is not a private act without consequences for others; even when legal, it incurs medical and other costs to society. A society that adopted an attitude of laissez-faire towards the drug habits of its citizens could find itself with higher numbers of users. There could be a risk of social abandonment, with those in poor communities being left to their fates.

‘These dangers have not disappeared, but the fact is that the costs of drug prohibition now far outweigh any possible benefits the policy may bring. It is time for a radical shift in policy. Full-scale legalisation, with the state intervening chiefly to regulate quality and provide education on the risks of drug use and care for those who have problems with the drugs they use, should now shape the agenda of drug law reform.’

Just days later, the Executive Director of the UNODC wrote an article in the Observer disputing these arguments. He initially focussed on the claim made by John Gray and many others including Transform, that the costs of prohibition outweigh the benefits.

Costa wrote,

‘Some even say that the costs of prohibition far outweigh the benefits (although there is no body count of people who haven't died thanks to drug control versus those who have been killed in the crossfire).’

He then went on to argue that,

‘Maybe western governments could absorb the health costs of increased drug use [that he assumes would occur once drugs were legalized], if that's how taxpayers want their money to be spent.

‘But what about the developing world? Why unleash an epidemic of addiction in parts of the world that already face misery, and do not have the health and social systems to cope with a drug tsunami?

‘Critics point out that vulnerable countries are the hardest hit by the crime associated with drug trafficking. Fair enough. But these countries would also be the hardest hit by an epidemic of drug use, and all the health and social costs that come with it. This is immoral and irresponsible.’

A few months ago we had a comment posted on the Transform blog refuting this argument.

‘Was it just me or did someone else pick up the massive contradiction underlying the WDR's main argument for continued prohibition? In section 2.1 of the report, the UNODC crowd pretty much concedes that a legalize-tax-and-regulate framework would work...but only in developed countries. Developing countries are thought unable to impose meaningful taxes and regulations on a legal drug industry, and therefore, would see their consumption levels explode. Thus, global prohibition must continue for the sake of poor countries (the condescension is almost unbearable).

‘Yet those same developing countries are expected to, simultaneously,: a) successfully interdict supply; b) reform police forces and judicial systems; c) fight corruption in the face of massive illegal profits; d) address the problem of slums and dereliction in cities; e) close open drug-markets; f) provide universal access to drug treatment; etc. etc. If the governments of developing countries are considered too weak to tax and regulate small national drug markets, why would anyone think them capable of performing that daunting list of tasks? The contradiction is so glaring that my eyes hurt.’

On the same day, and in the same newspaper, that Costa, wrote his piece, Tom Lloyd, a former chief constable, argued that the War on Drugs was a ‘not only very expensive and misdirected activity, but counterproductive and harmful’.

‘More recently, I have been working abroad and the problems that exist worldwide are recognised at the highest levels, with most acknowledging the harmful unintended consequences [including Costa himself] of the current approach. A huge criminal market (with enormous financial incentives) has been created using corruption and violence to make its huge profits.

‘Efforts to destroy crops only destroy peasant farmers' livelihoods and the environment, while the poppy fields and coca plants spring up elsewhere, with producers adapting to meet the demand. Growing other crops is futile if the demand for drugs remains.

‘Our limited resources are directed towards this futile "war" while public health, which is clearly the first principle of drug control, remains an impoverished baby brother.’

He went on to call on

‘police leaders throughout the world to challenge the status quo and focus resources on serious, organised criminals, not blighted users, and to focus on harm reduction not some pie-in-the-sky dream of a drug-free society. Where they lead, politicians will follow.’

In the same edition of The Observer there was a leader article calling for ‘a new drugs policy’ and arguing for an honest evaluation of the current drugs laws.

‘The entire framework of the debate must change. In Britain, we operate with laws that start from the premise that drug use is inherently morally wrong, and then seek ways to stop it. Instead we must start by evaluating the harm that drug use does, and then look for the best ways to alleviate it; and we must have the courage to follow that logic wherever it leads.’

This has been Transform’s position from the start. Now is the time to assess the impacts of the current policy and look to a future where drug use is not a moral issue but a public health issue where drugs are controlled and regulated by governments not gangsters.


Anonymous said...

While I am the strongest advocate of legalisation I know, there was not really a plethora of articles in UK newspapers. The Guardian had lots of articles. That's it. Would be great if this becomes increasingly common across the broadsheets though.

Anonymous said...

I think we should encourage a national vote on the drug policy issue and see how the public really feel!
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