Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Independent becomes the latest national UK newspaper to back legalisation

Does the media follow public opinion or lead it? Probably a bit of both, but it is clear that the climate around drugs policy is changing in the public political and media spheres, and the momentum for change is building.

As we described yesterday, quite aside from the unabating stream of supportive op-eds, The Observer, The Guardian and Sunday People, (and the Daily Record in Scotland) have now all recently taken editorial lines in their leaders critical of the drug war and supportive of  moves towards the legal regulation of drugs.

Today it is the turn of The Independent in a leading article "Mexico's stark reminder of the cost of prohibition" which details the now familiar horrors of the War on Drugs before saying:

"The President was obliged to send in the troops because the poorly paid Mexican police had been infiltrated by the cartels; even so, reports suggest that in some areas the latter's power is, if anything, growing. By this reading, the violence suggests merely that turf wars are becoming more vicious, for a larger slice of an ever more lucrative market. In short, Mexico and the US are losing the drug war...

Which brings us back to the root of the problem. If Americans lost their taste for drugs, the Mexican cartels would be out of business. That, however, will not happen; indeed the forbidden nature of drugs may make them more attractive. So why not legalise them? The argument has been powerfully made before and will be so again, but probably to no avail. Sadly the barbaric drug wars will continue."

This is backed up by a front page and double page spread, with an excellent opinion piece by Johan Hari; "Violence breeds violence.The only thing drug gangs fear is legalisation" which concludes:
"Yet Mexico is being pressured hard by countries like the US and Britain – both led by former drug users – to keep on fighting this war, while any mention of legalisation brings whispered threats of slashed aid and diplomatic shunning.

Look carefully at that mound of butchered corpses found yesterday. They are the inevitable and ineluctable product of drug prohibition. This will keep happening for as long as we pursue this policy. If you believe the way to deal with the human appetite for intoxication is to criminalise and militarise, then blood is on your hands.

How many people have to die before we finally make a sober assessment of reality, and take the drugs trade back from murderous criminal gangs?"

The Independent editorial's pessimistic appraisal that "the barbaric drug wars" will inevitably continue is misplaced. They will not; no policy as self evidently counterproductive as the drug war can stand the sort of scrutiny it is now receiving for ever. Like the targets of many of the large scale social justice movements of the last century, what once seemed immovable can unravel far more quickly than anyone expects once a tipping point is reached.

Four national UK newspapers have adopted unambiguous pro-reform editorial positions within three weeks. We could be nearer the tipping point than you imagine.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Media Review: Prof Ian Gilmore calls for decriminalisation and regulation to be considered

Transform issued a press release last Monday about Sir Ian Gilmore's comments in his final Newsletter as president of the Royal Society of Physicians:

"I feel like finishing my presidency on a controversial note. I personally back the chairman of the UK Bar Council, Nicholas Green QC, when he calls for drug laws to be reconsidered with a view to decriminalising illicit drugs use. This could drastically reduce crime and improve health. Drugs should still be regulated, and the argument for decriminalising them is clearly made by Stephen Rolles in the latest edition of the BMJ."
The press release led to a huge amount of media coverage and debate in print and broadcast media over the following days, with Transform at the heart of much of it; having broken the story and with the BMJ piece on Transform's 'Blueprint for Regulation' specifically cited. Amongst the coverage detailed below, especially in the following days, were some very significant developments. 

Print coverage on the day included:
during the following days:
"Politicians could prepare public opinion for change by a public assessment of what Britain's war on drugs has achieved. It should ask whether better results could have come by a less damaging route. A policy that results, via the Afghanistan poppy harvest, in financial support for the Taliban, boosts international organised crime and is the underlying problem for more than half of the UK prison population will require some defending.

Decriminalisation would not be an answer in itself. Legalisation is no quick fix. But prohibition's defenders need to show how, against its dire results, their policy can still be justified."

  • Arguably more significantly was the interest of the tabloids: Gilmore had a very welcome opportunity to speak to a wider audience when given space for an editorial piece in the Sun, titled 'treat addicts like patients, not cirminals' (when it first appeared online, missing the point entirely, it was daftly titled 'treat junkies like patients, not criminals' - we are not sure which ran in the print version)
  • At the weekend the Sunday People - hardly famed for its progressive position on drug policy - went further, dedicating a two page spread to the drug law reform debate, quoting Transform, listing famous supporters of reform, and detailing Portugal's experience with decriminalisation. Better still, they joined the Observer and Guardian in taking a clear editorial position in favour of reform,  their 'Voice of the People' leader column titled 'Time for a new look at drug laws':  
"When the Misuse of Drugs Act was passed in 1971 our politicians, lawyers and medical experts still dreamed of creating a drug-free society.

If we locked up all dealers and users the market would dry up... wouldn’t it?

Forty years on it is clear that the war on drugs was a naive policy that failed miserably and injured more people than it protected.

The huge profits of the international drugs trade fund terrorism, drive crime, and wreck lives across the globe.

But jailing users does nothing to break the cycle of those who commit crime to fuel their habit.

Now, at last, the Government is ­looking at the bigger picture and considering radical plans to decriminalise hard drug use. As we reveal today, 12,000 addicts could be moved out of jails and into hospitals to be treated as patients and not criminals.

Top doctors believe it is the only way to cut crime, improve health and save public money. But it will be a hard pill to swallow for the thousands of victims of druggie muggers and burglars who steal to fund their habit.

It’s a bold move. But if Ministers are finally having a “mature debate” on drug strategy they then need to discuss the “L” word. Legalisation. Criminalising some drugs while ­allowing a free market in others, such as alcohol and nicotine, makes no sense.

Our leaders need to think the ­unthinkable and consider bringing the entire drug industry, from production to use, out of the shadows and under ­legitimate controls.

Could we allow adults to buy limited supplies of drugs from licensed and regulated outlets and tax them as ­highly as possible without creating a black market?

Legalisation may spark an initial ­increase in the number of adults who use drugs, albeit in safer and healthier circumstances. But should adults be ­allowed to make that choice – when many already choose to wreck their lives, quite legally, with alcohol?

Tough questions – but the Government must seize the moment and ask them."

OK, so not exactly how Transform might argue it but we have to welcome the fact that this -mostly reasonable- editorial appeared in a national paper new to the reform position and, like the Sun coverage, is reaching much wider audience than the same Guardian and Observer readers, most of whom are already sympathetic to the drug law reform position. The positive tabloid coverage in particular is a sure sign that this debate is moving into the mainstream and moving in a positive direction.

Broadcast media 

On the Tuesday the story broke, Steve did 17 broadcast interviews and Danny did 10, in addition to the various interviews Gilmore himself gave, and a further 7 picked up by our colleagues over at Release. Highlights of Transform's coverage included appearances on
  • BBC Breakfast TV (live interview)
  • SKY breakfast news (pre-recorded interview for news segment)
  • BBC Radio 4's Today program (quotes and Today audio clip on BBC coverage)
  • 5 Live breakfast (pre-record for new segment), and 5 live morning debate (with David Raynes)
  • BBC News Channel (debate with Neil McKeggany)
  • SKY lunchtime news
  • Talk Sport radio
  • BBC Radio Wales (debate with Ian Oliver)
  • BBC World Service (international broadcast)
  • BBC News International TV (international broadcast - debate with David Raynes again)
The following day there was an additional appearance on CNN International, a 'Connect the World' half hour special on drug policy and law reform, with Steve debating former DEA agent Bob Stutman.

In addition there was plenty of blog action around the issue, all attracting many comments (mostly positive) - notably including:
There was also a steady stream of op-eds, including efforts from:
And even some satire from the Daily Mash legalise drugs, says some crazy president of the Royal College of Physicians.

Critical voices were, of course, also in evidence but curiously muted - the sense being that the media were struggling to find many. If there were pro drug war op-eds in any of the nationals we must have missed them. There were some quotes in the news coverage, however; In a widely quoted comment by Keith Vaz MP he stated that the legalisation of drugs "would simply create the mistaken impression that these substances are not harmful, when in fact this is far from the truth". This rather facile misconception about what a public health approach to drug regulation would entail is exactly the same one that he carried through the mostly awful 2010 Home Affairs Select Committee report on cocaine.

The Home Office response was even more inadequate, and missed the point to a such a staggering degree as to not deserve or warrant any further scrutiny:
'Drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis are extremely harmful and can cause misery to communities across the country. The government does not believe that decriminalisation is the right approach. Our priorities are clear; we want to reduce drug use, crack down on drug related crime and disorder and help addicts come off drugs for good.'
 In a Mirror news piece (nominally about a separate 'legal highs' story that this blog will return too at a later date) we also learn that:

Leading doctors argue prohibition of heroin and cocaine has failed and they should be decriminalised and allowed for use under licence and tomorrow the Government will launch a major review of Britain's drugs laws. Home Office Minister James Brokenshire will rule out new legalisation but call for a more "mature debate" on how to control drugs.
You can only laugh (somewhat bitterly) at the Minister's concept of what constitutes a 'mature debate', one in which entire policy arenas he does not approve of are closed down before the debate has even begun. This despite the genuinely mature debate - one in which all options are on the table - that is happening in the real world (note links above for example), and being encouraged by the President of the Royal College of Physicians (not to mention the President of Mexico), and indeed Broke nshires own Prime Minister (albeit a while back). For the record decriminalisation of personal use, certainly non-prosecution of users, was also in the Lib Dem manifesto. They have been strangely and disappointingly silent during all this.
There was a predictably critical blog post from Kathy Gyngel from the Center for Policy Studies, but it is a lacklustre and scatter gun affair by her standards (see the comments for some critique of the factual analysis). 

Overall - this has been a hugely positive few days for the UK debate. Its always hard to gauge how much impact events like this have; maybe it was just a silly season story on a slow news day.  But it feels like part of a much more significant shift in the debate that has taken place over the last couple of years and appears to be accelerating- one in which the law reform arguments are being increasingly well understood for the principled pragmatic position they represent. Even Drugscope, usually very cautious in the debate, this week made a welcome call (in the Times) for decriminalisation to be considered (repeating a call they made back in 2001 but have been very quiet about since).

Small steps as ever, but the direction of travel is the right one. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

US: National Black Police Association Endorses Marijuana Legalization/Regulation initiative

Below is a press release issued yesterday by the US based Law Enforcement Against Prohibition detailing the newly announced support of the National Black Police Association for California Prop 19 ballot initiative that would legalise and regulate non-medical cannabis production and sale for over 21s in the state (details here). This follows the support of California's National Association for the Advancement of Black People backing the initiative last month.

The latest announcement has already been covered in the New York Times , LA Times and others

CONTACT: Tom Angell - (202) 557-4979 or media//at//leap//dot//cc

National Black Police Association Endorses Marijuana Legalization

African American Cops Say California's Prop. 19 Will Protect Civil Rights & Public Safety

SACRAMENTO, CA -- A national organization of African American law enforcement officers has announced its endorsement of Proposition 19, California's initiative to legalize marijuana.

The National Black Police Association (NBPA), which was founded in 1972 and is currently holding its 38th national conference in Sacramento, is urging a yes vote on legalization this November 2.

"When I was a cop in Baltimore, and even before that when I was growing up there, I saw with my own eyes the devastating impact these misguided marijuana laws have on our communities and neighborhoods. But it's not just in Baltimore, or in Los Angeles; prohibition takes a toll on people of color across the country,
" said Neill Franklin, a 33-year veteran police officer and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an international group of pro-legalization cops, judges, prosecutors and corrections officials who have been organizing to support Prop. 19. "This November, with the National Black Police Association's help, Californians finally have an opportunity to do something about it by approving the initiative to control and tax marijuana."

On Thursday, Franklin spoke alongside California NAACP president Alice Huffman at the NBPA conference on a panel about criminal justice issues like marijuana legalization.

Many cops and civil rights leaders are now speaking out against marijuana prohibition because it is not only ineffective at reducing marijuana use and results in the arrest and incarceration of people of color at a highly disproportionate rate, but also because making marijuana illegal has created a lucrative black market controlled by violent gangs and cartels. LEAP has organized a group of more than 30 California police officers, judges, prosecutors and other criminal justice professionals who support Prop. 19.

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and its 30,000 supporters represent police, prosecutors, judges, FBI/DEA agents and others who want to legalize and regulate drugs after fighting on the front lines of the "war on drugs" and learning firsthand that prohibition only serves to worsen addiction and violence.

According to NBPA, there are 80,000 black law enforcement officials in the U.S.

For more information, visit or

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reconsidering addiction: a film about Bruce Alexander's remarkable 'rat park' experiment

Seven minute trailer for an upcoming documentary by Jennifer DiCresce on Bruce Alexander's Rat Park experiment:


The Following discussion on Rat Park by Mike Jay (reviewing Alexander'sbook the 'Globalisation of Addiction') was originally posted on this blog in January 2009:

Bruce Alexander is best known - though deserves to be much better known - for the 'Rat Park' experiments he conducted in 1981. As an addiction psychologist, much of the data with which he worked was drawn from laboratory trials with rats and monkeys: the 'addictiveness' of drugs such as opiates and cocaine was established by observing how frequently caged animals would push levers to obtain doses. But Alexander's observations of addicts at the clinic where he worked in Vancouver suggested powerfully to him that the root cause of addiction was not so much the pharmacology of these particular drugs as the environmental stressors with which his addicts were trying to cope.

To test his hunch he designed Rat Park, an alternative laboratory environment constructed around the need of the subjects rather than the experimenters. A colony of rats, who are naturally gregarious, were allowed to roam together in a large vivarium enriched with wheels, balls and other playthings, on a deep bed of aromatic cedar shavings and with plenty of space for breeding and private interactions. Pleasant woodland vistas were even painted on the surrounding walls. In this situation, the rats' responses to drugs such as opiates were transformed. They no longer showed interest in pressing levers for rewards of morphine: even if forcibly addicted, they would suffer withdrawals rather than maintaining their dependence. Even a sugar solution could not tempt them to the morphine water (though they would choose this if naloxone was added to block the opiate effects). It seemed that the standard experiments were measuring not the addictiveness of opiates but the cruelty of the stresses inflicted on lab rats caged in solitary confinement, shaved, catheterised and with probes inserted into their median forebrain bundles.

Yet despite (or perhaps because of) their radical implications for the data that underpin addiction psychology, the Rat Park experiments attracted little attention. Alexander's paper was rejected by major journals including Science and Nature, and eventually published only in the respectable but minor Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior. Although the experiments have subsequently been replicated and extended, they still inform the science of addiction only at its margins. The Globalisation of Addiction is Alexander's attempt to draw out their full implications for our understanding of addiction, and to chart a course towards forms of treatment that can transform their findings into practice.

His analysis begins with a radical reconception of addiction itself. Throughout the 20th century, as the science and treatment of addiction have developed into vast academic and professional industries, its underlying nature has stubbornly refused to coalesce into any sort of consensus. Is it a physiological condition marked by metabolic responses such as tolerance and withdrawal, a condition produced simply by exposure to 'addictive' drugs? Or is it a psychological affliction, the product of an 'addictive personality' - or, alternatively, a moral weakness, a failure of willpower and abrogation of social responsibilities? And how do these clinical views of addiction relate to the ever-expanding meanings of the term in the wider culture?

For Alexander, all these seemingly disparate accounts are united by their focus on the individual addict; but even a cursory historical and cultural survey reveals that the incidence of addiction is essentially a social phenomenon. Many historical and indigenous cultures have lacked even the concept of addiction - but many of these same cultures, once their traditional structures have been disrupted by conquest or colonisation, have been destroyed by it. All across the Americas, the Pacific and Australia, hundreds of 'demoralised' cultures have descended into vicious spirals of addiction, usually to alcohol, in many tragic cases wiping themselves out entirely. The root causes of addiction, then, must run deeper than any individual pathology: they must be sought in a larger story of cultural malaise and 'poverty of the spirit' that forces individuals, often en masse, into desperate and dysfunctional coping strategies.

Once addiction is recognised as a consequence of broader social currents, it becomes clear that the problem is far more widespread than the professional focus on drugs allows. Uncontrolled and chaotic appetites are extensively diagnosed across our culture not merely for illicit drugs, alcohol and nicotine but for other substances (food), other consumer activities (shopping, gambling), and other sources of emotional support such as romantic love. 'Addictive' is a slogan of enticement used to sell online gaming, exercise programmes and women's magazines. Even successful and high-functioning individuals can often be accurately described as addicted to money, power or status. Throughout the 20th century, these extensions of the concept of addiction were typically marginalised on the grounds that, unlike illicit drugs, these were mainstream activities that generated dysfunctional behaviour only in a minority of subjects. But alcohol has always been both mainstream and addictive, and it is increasingly clear that illicit drugs are used widely without necessarily generating addiction. Any attempt to get to the root of the problem must recognise that addiction is rampant not merely among a subculture of problem drug users but across society at large.

Alexander's search for the drivers behind the modern explosion in addiction leads him to consider the parallel spread of free market societies. Along with their obvious economic benefits, free markets also bring a widespread increase in what he terms cultural 'dislocation'. What were once elaborately reciprocated cultural transactions are reduced to simple commercial exchanges, and 'the competitive marketplace becomes the matrix of human existence'. Social fabrics are loosened as economic winners and losers polarise into their respective ghettoes, and traditional networks of trust are replaced by often brutal demarcations between neighbourhoods and social classes. It is our now endemic culture of competitive, zero-sum individualism that has, in the phrase of Alexander's title, globalised addiction over the last 50 years.

It is, he acknowledges, too simplistic to blame capitalism itself: the fundamental problem, dislocation, can equally be generated by feudalism , communism or any other political system. Nevertheless, a consumer society systemically erodes the sovereign remedy against addiction which, following Erik Erikson, Alexander terms 'psychosocial integration'. This has long been recognised as a necessity for social functioning: even Charles Darwin, whose theory is typically used to support competitive free market ideology, insisted that generating 'social and moral qualities' was a crucial factor in human evolutionary success. Psychosocial integration eliminates the hyperfocused pursuit of individual gratification that manifests as addictive behaviour, and balances individual autonomy with social belonging. Dislocation, though its effects are concentrated among the poor and socially excluded, has pervasive effects on society as a whole, which is why levels of happiness and wellbeing stubbornly refuse to rise in proportion with purchasing power. The greatest modern triumph over drug addiction, in China during Mao's Great Leap Forward from 1949-1955, took place against a background of material poverty but intense social cooperation in rebuilding a shattered society.

This analysis has helped Alexander to understand the successes and failures of treatment programmes in his professional world in Vancouver, where alcoholism and violence remain an intractable problem among many native Canadian Indians. Dislocation, rather than poverty, is their ultimate cause: communities resettled on unfamiliar land can be subsidised to the point where a 4x4 sits in every drive and a satellite dish on every roof, but still manifest higher levels of addiction than those which are allowed to remain in their homelands and follow their traditional subsistence strategies. In the arresting motto adopted by British Columbia's successful aboriginal community projects, 'Culture is Treatment'.

Once addiction is reconceived as a symptom of the dislocation embedded in modern cultures, the practical measures required to manage it become vast in scope. Treatment of addicts needs to become more holistic, and interwoven into a far wider spectrum of social programmes. Education and treatment need to lose their narrow focus on illicit drugs and alcohol, and to encompass addiction in all its forms. Although the prohibition of drugs is a major contributor to social dislocation, legalisation is far from a panacea: the majority of addictions, after all, are to legally available products. (The greatest benefit of legalisation, perhaps, would be to allow communities to determine their own drug policies, thereby providing a crucial lever for increasing psychosocial integration.) Faith-based treatments, whether Christian or more broadly spiritual, have an important role to play: St. Augustine's Confessions remains a powerful template for the addiction recovery narrative, and membership of faith groups can provide an effective antidote to dislocation. Political activism, both global and local, is a tool of social empowerment that can benefit addicts and addiction professionals alike.

All these strategies are eminently sensible, but remain hard to patch into the treatment of addiction as currently constituted. We may accept Alexander's persuasive case that drug addiction, properly understood, is a scapegoat for broader social dysfunction, but it is by no means obvious how to respond effectively. Like it or not, treatment remains focused on individuals, for whom his analysis holds limited explanatory power. Alexander does not deny the existence of personal tendencies to addiction, which may include genetics and neurochemistry, but maintains that they are often marginal factors and poor predictors of individual risk: overall, interventions are more effective at the social level than the personal. But these underlying causes are far easier to identify than to address. Our societies are profoundly structured around the need for individual autonomy; and personal freedom must, on some levels, always include the freedom to become addicted.

The Globalisation of Addiction is a considerable work, highly ambitious in its scope, impressive in its multidisciplinary scholarship, clear in its structure and generous in its references. It is both its strength and its weakness that it integrates addiction so convincingly into broader issues of social and political reform. Like Rat Park, it offers a fundamental critique of the 20th century view of addiction, but also demonstrates how dominant are the processes and structures that drive it.

Published with permission from Mike Jay. Mike is a writer and historian (See ) and a trustee of Transform Drug Policy Foundation.

Originally published on
Article copyright 2009 Mike Jay

The Globalisation of Addiction is available on Amazon with a readable excerpt.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Consider Drug Regulation" says ex-president of Royal College of Physicians

The following press release was issued by Transform at 00:00 Tues 16th of August 2010

This post will be updated with media coverage (see below)

"Consider Drug Regulation" says ex-president of Royal College of Physicians

In his final Bulletin, the outgoing President of the Royal College of Physicians, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore wrote:

"I feel like finishing my presidency on a controversial note. I personally back the chairman of the UK Bar Council, Nicholas Green QC, when he calls for drug laws to be reconsidered with a view to decriminalising illicit drugs use. This could drastically reduce crime and improve health. Drugs should still be regulated, and the argument for decriminalising them is clearly made by Stephen Rolles in the latest edition of the BMJ."

His comments come in the wake of a flurry of calls for reform from health professionals, in the lead up to the publication of the Vienna Declaration, an international manifesto for reform, which calls for drugs to be decriminalised in order to promote individual and public health.

Danny Kushlick, Head of External Affairs at Transform Drug Policy Foundation said:
"Sir Ian's statement is yet another nail in the coffin of the war on drugs. The Hippocratic Oath says 'First do no harm'. Physicians are duty bound to speak out if the outcomes show that prohibition causes more harm than it reduces. Sir Ian is justly fulfilling his role by calling for consideration of the evidence for legal control and regulation."

Kushlick concluded:
"With a Prime Minster and Deputy Prime Minister both longstanding supporters of alternatives to the war on drugs, at the very least the Government must initiate an impact assessment comparing prohibition with decriminalisation and strict legal regulation."


Danny Kushlick, Head of External Affairs, 07970 174747

Notes for Editors:

  • David Cameron calls for debate  legalisation:

As a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into drug misuse in 2002 - Cameron voted in favour of recommendation 24:
"We recommend 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 (paragraph 267)."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On domestic and international fronts, reform calls gather mainstream support

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.
The first piece in the news section united these recent developments. Titled 'War on drugs: why the US and Latin America could be ready to end a fruitless 40-year struggle', with the subheading: 
'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 marijuana

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.'
Finally, 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: 
'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 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.
The editorial shows an unusual level of insight for a media discourse more often preoccupied with populist parochial concerns:
'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.

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.'
before ending with a direct appeal to the UKs new leaders:

'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.

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'.
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;
 '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.

  • Mexico
The statement by president Calderon is particularly significant. Whilst he has distanced himself from actually supporting legalisation and regulation (unlike his predecessor), the fact he called for a debate is still critically important - he simply would not have done this were it not a real option."It is a fundamental debate," he said, adding that  "You have to analyse carefully the pros and cons and key arguments on both sides."  (This is, of course, precisely what an Impact Assessment approach would deliver). Bear in mind that this statement comes from a Mexican president receiving 100s of millions in US military and financial assistance to fight the cartels (albeit alongside the drug-money-funded river of illegal small arms flowing South across the.border that are fuelling it).Tragically it has taken  the catastrophic failure of his flagship policy to spur him to this latest concession, all visualized in horrific detail in this excellent blog post by Diego Valle

Sources: Homicide data from INEGI, population data from CONAPO.
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 'the War on Drugs has been an utter failure'. 

The endorsement of legalisation and regulation by Calderon's predecessor Vincente Fox has only 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."

 Vincente Fox

Read the whole thing - in Spanish - on his blog. Again it is welcome to see prohibition rightly being positioned as the radical solution, and the term 'legalisation' being associated with regulation. Interestingly, these comments are not dissimilar to ones he made in 2001 whilst president, although like Calderon he caveated his analysis by highlighting the difficulties of a unilateral move.

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.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Our Drugs War : Channel 4 documentary series

On Monday 2 August at 8:00pm the first of a three-part series on Channel 4 'Our Drugs War' will be broadcast.


Unashamedly anti-prohibitionist in tone, the excellent first part (1 hour) can now be viewed online here.

Here's a link to the article by Angus MacQueen, the series producer in the Observer - 'Why do we so wilfully cover up the failure of the war on drugs?'

This is coverage from the Scottish SUN: 'We will NEVER win the war on drugs'