The column below by Transform's head of External Affairs, Danny Kushlick, was published today on thejournal.ie website under the title: Prohibiting drugs hasn’t worked – so why are we still trying?
PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL Santos of Colombia spent two days in London last week. He stated quite categorically that “cocaine is killing my country”, and that cocaine users should refrain because they are contributing to the mayhem in Colombia.
This line of argument emerged from a campaign developed in Colombia called Shared Responsibility. His rhetoric is especially interesting because in the Observer he recently called for a debate on the legalisation of cocaine. So what exactly is he saying, and why is it relevant for the people of Ireland?
First, let’s be absolutely clear – it is not cocaine, or cocaine use per se that is killing his country. The chaos and violence emerges from the cocaine market prospering under global prohibition. This is what creates the violence surrounding its production and supply; in precisely the same way that the prohibition of alcohol did in the US in the twenties. So Santos finds himself in a double bind: whilst he and his government have been highly critical, they are necessarily political supporters of the global war on drugs, a venture initiated and heavily backed by the US and other key allies.
The global prohibition of certain drugs (not alcohol or tobacco of course) for non-medical use came into being with the signing of the United Nations Single Convention on Drugs of 1961. The economics of prohibition means that commodities that are mere plants at the point of production, become worth more than their weight in gold by the time they reach Western consumers. There are now an estimated 250 million illegal drug users worldwide.
Tragically and predictably, by the mid 80s, organised criminals, insurgents and paramilitaries the world over had built huge empires on the extraordinary profits (with margins as high as 3,000 per cent) gifted to them by the prohibition. To confuse matters, the war on drugs was now conflated with the war on organised crime. And so the ‘Drug Problem’ was made manifest.
‘The people of Ireland are tacitly supporting the policy that is killing Colombia’
Most UN member states (including Colombia) are signatories to the UN Single Convention on Drugs – including the Republic of Ireland. And that is why Mr Santos’s statement about cocaine is of direct relevance to Irish people. The people of Ireland are tacitly supporting the policy that is killing Colombia.
But it is not just Colombia. Prohibition – the global war on drugs, is killing many others in Afghanistan, Guinea Bissau and Mexico (where over 40 000 have died in drug related violence since 2006). Ireland is a party to prohibition in principle and in law We are all in this together – it is a shared irresponsibility.
A poll earlier this year, commissioned by the European Commission sought the views of young people on drug policy throughout the EU. The highest levels of support for legalisation were from the citizens of Ireland and France, with 21 per cent saying that legalisation is one of the most effective ways of dealing with drugs.
There is clearly a mood to change policy and law, and at the very least to begin a debate on alternatives. So, why can’t a genuine, high-level debate begin? Fear and ignorance amongst both voters and politicians clearly underlie much of the stasis holding the current policy in place, but ‘politics’ is at least as important.
It is instructive to look at the drug policy trajectory of two world leaders – Barack Obama and David Cameron. Both are former users of illegal drugs and both held reform positions before they reached high office. Once in high office their views apparently shifted to more hawkish, populist positions.
‘Alternative views cannot be tolerated’
The fact is that the long standing system of prohibition has created an environment in which alternative views cannot be tolerated, resulting in the increasingly understood ‘retirement syndrome’, whereby recently retired government officials fall over each other to call for legalisation – freedom from political office allowing them to speak their minds.
Irish support for reform is reflected in the work of Paul O’Mahoney’s, The Irish War on Drugs: The Seductive Folly of Prohibition, in the politicking of Independent TD Luke “Ming’’ Flanagan, and the thoughtful policy development of Sinn Fein. In a recent news story, junior health minister Róisín Shortall – who is in charge of Ireland’s drugs strategy – said she had an “open mind” in relation to Portugal’s decriminalisation model. She said she was “particularly interested” in the country’s “yellow card” system, which warns users about their behaviour and tries to steer them away from drugs.
However, if Ireland is to free itself from the shackles of a policy developed in a bygone era, one which preceded the sixties drug culture and the widespread normalisation of recreational drug use, it will require politicians to step up to the mark and call for reform.
Mr Santos’s position is not completely coherent. He is fighting a war on drugs at the same time as calling for a debate about ending it. However, he has taken a courageous stance in calling for a debate on legalisation and regulation (to understand what this might mean see Transform’s groundbreaking book After the war on drugs – Blueprint for Regulation). He has shown leadership, but undoing the global prohibition will take more than that.
In order to transform drug policy into one that is effective, just and humane, UN member states will need to develop a coalition willing to act in concert to challenge the status quo. They will need to call on their peers to Count the Costs of the War on Drugs and explore the alternatives. This is about turning shared responsibility into something more than rhetoric. Putting in place a system of state regulation and control is no panacea.
However, Ireland can share the responsibility for global drug control and support President Santos in raising the debate on legalisation and regulation. Remaining silent on the issue at national and international levels is no longer an option for Ireland or for any other UN member state, for whom the status quo means support for the killing of Mr Santos’s country.
Danny Kushlick is the head of external affairs at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation. For more information, you can visit Transform’s website, blog, subscribe to their Facebook page or follow them on Twitter.