There have been two very positive developments for drug law reform in the last few days: On Sunday, The Observer newspaper ran a series of pro reform news and comment features alongside arguably the most unambiguous call for a debate on alternatives to the drug war, including regulation, yet to emerge from a UK broadsheet. Meanwhile, the previous week witnessed the debate making a significant step forward in Mexico when President Calderon joined calls for a debate on legalisation as a response to the country's growing crisis, followed by a clear call for legalisation and regulation by his presidential predecessor Vincente Fox - both statements receiving massive international media coverage.
- The Observer.
'Mexico's president Felipe Caldéron is the latest Latin leader to call for a debate on drugs legalisation. And in the US, liberals and right-wing libertarians are pressing for an end to prohibition. Forty years after President Nixon launched the 'war on drugs' there is a growing momentum to abandon the fight'
The coverage then describes some of the developments in the Americas, from the Mexican president's recent comments through to the growing cannabis law reform activity in California and elsewhere in the US.
A second piece in the Observer is a drug law reform op-ed (also using the Mexican presidential comments as its launch pad) titled 'Drugs: the problem is more than just the substances, it's the prohibition itself' by Maria Lucia Karam, a retired Brazilian judge and board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Using examples from Brazil she argues that:
'Prohibition consigns the drug market to criminalised actors not subject to oversight of any kind. Legalisation would mean regulation and regulation is the best way to control the dangers of drug use, while cutting the cartels off at the knees'.and that:
'Latin America is advancing the debate, but even in the US there are efforts to undo the damage of prohibition, the most prominent being California's effort to legalise marijuanaFinally, and most significantly, the sentiments in the two features are endorsed in a powerful leader editorial titled 'A unique chance to rethink drugs policy' aimed squarely at the UK's coalition government, its subtitle clearly stating that 'Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg are perfectly placed to launch a national debate on whether we should try legalisation'. It begins with a withering critique of the drug war:
Hopefully, the thousands of Mexicans, Brazilians and people from other parts of the world who have been killed in the insane "war on drugs" will not have died in vain. Their deaths are already showing that it is time to put an end to all the pain and harms caused by drug prohibition; it is time to legalise and regulate the production, the supply and the consumption of all drugs.'
'If the purpose of drug policy is to make toxic substances available to anyone who wants them in a flourishing market economy controlled by murderous criminal gangs, the current arrangements are working well.
If, however, the goal is to reduce the amount of drugs being consumed and limit the harm associated with addiction, it is surely time to tear up the current policy. It has failed.
This is not a partial failure. For as long as courts and jails have been the tools for controlling drugs, their use has increased. Police are powerless to control the flow. One recent estimate calculated that around 1% of the total supply to the UK is intercepted.
Attempts to crack down have little impact, except perhaps in siphoning vulnerable young people into jails where they can mature into hardened villains. When a more heavyweight player is taken out, a gap opens up in the supply chain which is promptly filled by violent competition between or within gangs. Business as usual resumes.The editorial shows an unusual level of insight for a media discourse more often preoccupied with populist parochial concerns:
The same story is told around the world, the only difference being in the scale of violence. Writing in today's Observer, retired judge Maria Lucia Karam describes the grim consequences of a failed war on drugs in the cities of Brazil: thousands of young people murdered every year by rival dealers and police.
Few nations are untouched by what is, after all, a multibillion pound global industry. Importing countries, such as Britain, must cope with the social effects of addiction and end up squandering the state's resources on a Sisyphean policing task.
But that suffering is mild compared to the destructive forces unleashed on exporting countries. Mexico, from where cartels supply a range of drugs to lucrative US markets, has paid an extraordinary price for the illicit appetites of its rich neighbour. The border region has become a militarised zone with violence at the level of a guerrilla insurgency.
'Prohibition entails a double dishonesty. First, there is the pretence that the supply and demand can be managed by force. But anyone who has experienced addiction knows that banning a substance restricts neither access nor desire. Usually, it makes matters worse, bringing otherwise law-abiding people into contact with professional criminals. Most addicts, meanwhile, say their problems start with the need to annihilate feelings of despair or memories of trauma. Prosecuting them for those problems solves nothing.before ending with a direct appeal to the UKs new leaders:
The second pretence of prohibition is that drugs can be addressed within single national jurisdictions. Plainly, they cannot. The UK hosts a retail market for products that are cultivated and processed around the world. Around 90% of the heroin on British streets starts out as poppies in Afghanistan. So revenue from UK drug use funds corrupt officials, warlords and the Taliban, undermining Nato's military operation. Rarely is the connection made in public.'
'By its very nature as a coalition, encompassing a broad spectrum of political views, the new government is well placed to inaugurate a free-thinking national debate on an issue that has been constrained by policy blinkers.The position is a useful and pragmatic one, acknowledging the failure of the current policy and inviting an evidence based debate on alternatives, much as the IDPC call for Impact Assessments of drug policy supported by Transform, has done over the past year. David Cameron, it is worth repeating, made a not dissimilar call in 2001 when on the Home Affairs Select Committee he supported the recommendation 'that the Government initiates a discussion within the [UN] Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma'. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have long been far more pragmatic and forward looking on drug policy. So as the Observer editorial notes 'The unthinkable is creeping into the realm of the plausible', continuing;
Neither David Cameron nor Nick Clegg seems much in awe of political taboos. Both men, in fact, seem to take pleasure in breaking them. But their ability to do so with impunity lasts for as long as there is goodwill towards their project.
This is a moment in which a political leader could steer the drugs debate out of its current dead-end track and towards something more meaningful and more likely to deliver what the public ultimately wants: safer, healthier, happier communities.
It is far from certain that decriminalisation, regulation or legalisation would work. But they should be examined as options, for it is absolutely certain that prohibition has failed'.
'American society is slowly coming to terms with the fact that drugs are part of its everyday reality and that control might be more effective if use was allowed within the law, not forced outside it. That debate must be opened in Britain and the recent change of government provides a rare opportunity.'We should perhaps not hold our breaths, but the mere fact that such a discourse is taking place in the mainstream media, with language and analysis now routinely being deployed that would have been seen as extreme and radical only a few years ago, shows how far we have moved.
2009 estimate based on execution rates
Even Calderon's qualifying comments that followed the initial statement days later are revealing. He stated that "If they [drugs] are not legalised in the world, or at least the United States, it's absurd because the price of drugs is not determined by Mexicans, it's determined by consumers in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago or Texas,".
This is a long way from saying that legalisation and regulation is absurd in principle. Rather he is qualifying the call by saying, rightly, it would be problematic to move unilaterally given the centrality of the US market to Mexico's illicit trade. This very clearly leaves the option open regards bilateral reform with the US - something no longer a complete fantasy given the movement towards cannabis law reform in much of the US, particularly California, which holds a referendum on legalisation and regulation of non-medical cannabis this November.
It is also worth bearing in mind that despite contradictory noises from the new New US administration (progressive on public health in some respects, but still hawkish on supply side enforcement) Obama is on the record saying that
added further weight to the calls for a debate. He says (as reported by Reuters):
"Legalization does not mean that drugs are good ... but we have to see (legalization of the production, sale and distribution of drugs) as a strategy to weaken and break the economic system that allows cartels to earn huge profits,"
"Radical prohibition strategies have never worked."
This is about more than the growing line of ex-presidents though - Cameron, Clegg, Obama, Calderon; all give a clear sense that the intellectual journey, accepting the failure of the drug war and need for reform, has been travelled - the concerns are political ones rather than practical or philosophical ones. As the environment becomes increasingly hostile to profligate and counterproductive drug war expenditure, and the case for reform gains increasing mainstream traction perhaps the political climate will soon allow for real change to happen, and the Observer is right that we really do have a unique chance to rethink drug policy.
It has also been welcome to see Transform's 'After the War on Drugs, Blueprint for Regulation' getting extensive and positive coverage in one of Mexico's leading newspapers El Universal; see here in original Spanish, and (not brilliant) Google translated English version. Transform were also invited to contribute a comment piece on Blueprint to one of Mexico's most influential Policy Magaznes, Nexos, earlier this year.