Pubdate: Sun, 27 May 2001
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Phillip Knightley
Bookmark: (Losing the War on Drugs)


Three years into the government's 10-year strategy to fight drugs, the war 
is over. The government lost. Not only is Britain awash with drugs, but 
they are more affordable and more easily available than ever before. The 
time has come to face the fact that drugs have become just another part of 
our leisure activity.

British kids spend as much on Ecstasy as the whole nation spends on tea and 
coffee. Cocaine is almost as freely available as alcohol and is nearly as 
popular. And it is not just the young, the trendy or the socially deprived 
who are recreational drug users.

Everyone's at it. Just a cursory study of the backgrounds of people 
mentioned in drug-related stories in the national newspapers turned up the 
following occupations: plumbers, photographers, psychiatrists, doctors, 
receptionists, accountants, actors, dancers, chefs, waiters, investment 
bankers, PR executives, television producers, models, footballers, airline 
cabin crew, policemen, solicitors, barristers and journalists.

No one wants to admit any of this because the subject is a political, 
emotional, religious, social and economic minefield. No one even wants to 
discuss the fact that the war is over and that we need to consider what we 
do now. This is because accepting defeat would involve admitting that the 
whole drugs war - both here and in America - has been a sham. A strategy to 
bring the drugs trade under control has always been available, but this 
strategy is not acceptable in the new global economic order.

If London and Washington were serious about the drugs war they would hit 
the drugs barons where it hurts - in their pockets. They could use their 
powers to regulate banking and the international electronic money transfer 
system to halt the movement of illegal monies. But they would also have to 
eliminate all off-shore banks and tax havens as legitimate hide-outs for 

But, of course, they cannot do that because legitimate business in Britain 
and America does not want the off-shore tax havens closed. The hypocrisy of 
the drugs war is that Washington and London say that they are waging war on 
drugs when they know that there are more important issues - namely banking 
and free trade.

The accumulated profit from drugs, estimated at $500 billion, sloshes 
around the world banking system until it can be laundered, and the 
money-laundering capital of the world is London. True, the government has 
authorised the Bank of England, the British Bankers' Association, Customs 
and Excise, the Serious Fraud Office, Scotland Yard, the City of London 
Police, the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service - all 
liaising through the National Criminal Intelligence Service - to crack down 
on drugs-money laundering. But where are the 10-year sentences for drug 
barons and the financial services advisers who helped them wash their 
money? Their absence is explained officially as the difficulty in defining 
legally at what point dirty money becomes clean.

But there is another, unofficial reason. City institutions welcome the 
flood of drugs money into Britain, arguing that it is safer for it to be 
laundered and then go into legitimate financing rather than move around 
unaccountably in the black economy. And it's good business.

And here we are at the crux of why we lost the drugs war - economics and 
the theory of the market. Everyone underestimated the power of the profit 
motive on the supply side and the appeal of drugs on the demand side. All 
the police, armies, secret services, prisons and executions in the world 
cannot buck a market where the tax-free profit on a kilo of cocaine is 
20,000%. All the drugs education in the world cannot overcome the fact that 
many people find in drugs enormous pleasure and feel that the state has no 
moral authority to deny them that pleasure - even if there are health risks.

Another reason the anti-drugs campaigners lost the war was that their 
strategy was wrong. They should have said, "Mind-bending drugs have been 
part of human culture since time immemorial. Why, as recent as the early 
years of the 20th century, heroin and cocaine were legal and popular - 
Coca-Cola was originally made with cocaine. True, the world might be a 
better place if nobody took anything that could harm them. But since they 
seem determined to do so, we need to learn to live with drugs in such a way 
that they do the least possible damage. Let's work out what this way might be."

Instead they embarked on a crusade that was based on racial and religious 
bigotry. American racial contempt for the Chinese became focused on their 
opium-smoking habits, and the Protestant missionary societies in China and 
the Women's Christian Temperance Union set out on a moral campaign to 
protect the white world from the horrors of opium.

Even today, the war against drugs remains in many ways a religious matter 
rather than a law-and-order one. The anti-drug lobby speaks of drug-taking 
as "evil . . . immoral . . . a sin . . . an offence against God that can 
result in the loss of your soul". Yet how can a campaign be a moral one 
when, as the Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman says, "It leads 
to widespread corruption, imprisons so many, has so racist an effect, 
destroys our inner cities, wreaks havoc on misguided and vulnerable 
individuals and brings death and destruction to foreign countries?" He 
might have added: how can the campaign be a moral one when it so terrifies 
American doctors that they turn away from their patients' cries of pain and 
refuse to prescribe morphine for them in case they run foul of the Drug 
Enforcement Administration for over-prescribing?

With the war over, where do we go from here? How about licensed sales 
outlets for drugs, a sort of drugs off-licence, where initially cannabis 
and Ecstasy would be on sale at reasonable prices. There would be a minimum 
age for purchase, just as there is now for alcohol and tobacco. The drugs 
would be supplied by licensed manufacturers to ensure the purity and safety 
of the product. Driving under the influence of drugs would carry the same 
penalties and stigma as driving under the influence of alcohol.

Drugs off-licences would save Britain the UKP 800m a year spent on 
enforcing anti-drug laws. If the drugs were taxed at the same rate as 
alcohol and tobacco they would provide the Treasury with revenue of at 
least UKP 1 billion a year. They would cut the prison population by 10% at 
a stroke, reduce crime and violence and put the drug bosses out of business.

I have little hope that such a scheme will be adopted. It is too logical 
and, as the American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz has pointed out, it is 
useless to present facts and logic to the anti-drugs lobby. He says the war 
on drugs is a mass movement characterised by demonising certain objects and 
persons - "drugs . . . addicts . . . traffickers" - as the incarnations of 
the devil. Hence there is nothing to be gained by trying to point out to 
its supporters that the anti-drugs lobby has lost the war. "Since he wages 
war on evil, his very effort is synonymous with success."

Phillip Knightley debates the world-wide drugs problem with a panel of 
commentators that includes Rosie Boycott and the Sunday Times columnist 
Melanie Phillips, at the Sunday Times Hay Festival, today, May 27, at 1PM.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager