Pubdate: Thu, 27 Feb 2003
Source: Independent  (UK)
Copyright: 2003 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Author: Johann Hari
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Harm Reduction)
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


Wherever There Is A 3,000 Per Cent Profit Margin, People Will Be Prepared 
To Take Extraordinary Risks.

The United Nations International Narcotic Control Board (INCB) has attacked 
one of the few progressive drugs reforms introduced by any British 
government since the disastrous tide of prohibition began to roll across 
the world in the 1960s. The downgrading of cannabis - a drug which more 
than half of all British citizens under the age of 30 have tried - from 
Class B to Class C, earmarked for this Easter, was the barest minimum that 
could be done in a country where even The Daily Telegraph, Peter Lilley and 
The Economist support legalisation. Yet the INCB has condemned it as a move 
made by a government "intimidated by a vocal minority that wants to 
legalise illicit drug use". This "vocal minority" includes, according to a 
2001 ICM poll, more than half of all British people when it comes to cannabis.

The INCB is among the world's most hardline exponents of drug prohibition. 
Whenever a country moves in the direction of greater tolerance and reducing 
harm, the INCB is there to beat it with a big stick. Despite its 
disingenuous attempt yesterday to claim to speak on behalf of African 
nations, it is effectively a puppet of the United States, a nation whose 
drugs record speaks for itself. The latest US Department of Health found 
last year that despite endless "crackdowns" over two decades, 87 million 
Americans have used illegal drugs, and nearly a million regularly use the 
most hardcore of all, crack cocaine.

The intellectual poverty of the prohibitionists is so obvious that it no 
longer merits serious discussion. They are not interested in evidence from 
the real world; they are simply blinkered ideologues. Yet the INCB still 
tries to enforce the catastrophic US model across the globe. Any nation 
that tries to liberalise its drugs policy finds itself, as Britain has, 
under intense US/UN pressure.

Through the INCB, they oppose even the most basic harm-reduction tactics, 
such as injecting rooms where heroin addicts can inject under supervision 
in case they overdose; needle exchanges (to avoid HIV infection); heroin 
prescription (proven to reduce property crimes, because addicts no longer 
need to steal to fund their habit); and ecstasy testing in clubs, combined 
with education about the drug (which could save the lives of the few people 
who do die using ecstasy). As Danny Kushlick, director of the increasingly 
influential Transform Drugs Policy Institute, explains: "There is now a 
serious tension emerging between the US approach to drugs - which is being 
aggressively forced on the world - and the European harm-reduction 
philosophy which is gradually emerging. Portugal has effectively 
decriminalised personal possession of all drugs; and in Spain and Italy, 
personal possession is now only a civil offence."

At the moment, the European approach remains - just - within the boundaries 
of the international drug-control treaties, regulated by the UN, that were 
set up in successive waves in 1961, 1971 and 1988. Even these changes are 
achieved mostly by exploiting clauses about medical necessity. For example, 
needle exchanges, which test the ultra-prohibitionist spirit of the 
treaties, are justified by the Dutch with reference to the clauses about 
individual health. But no European country can move towards full 
legalisation of production and supply while remaining within the treaties' 
constraints. Sooner or later, there will be a blatant challenge to the 
treaties by a European country that wants to travel this path, although 
massive diplomatic pressure will be exerted to rein it back.

The US-imposed constraints on South America are even greater. In Colombia, 
40 per cent of the national economy is based on the international trade in 
drugs. The distorting effect on the entire country is immeasurable, with 
billions sloshing around in illegal funds, corrupting both politics and the 
administration of law. This is exacerbated by a US policy of mass-spraying, 
with noxious herbicides, of fields suspected to be used for cocaine-related 
crops. Tens of thousands of acres of land belonging to poverty-stricken 
small farmers have been destroyed, the environmental damage is devastating, 
and yet the policy is so ineffective that since it began the cocaine yield 
from Colombia has trebled.

The idea that the drugs market can be stamped out is a fantasy. A kilo of 
cocaine is worth UKP 1,000 in Colombia, but, because of the massive 
inflationary effects of prohibition, it is worth UKP 30,000 by the time it 
reaches the streets of London. Wherever there is a 3,000 per cent profit 
margin, people will be prepared to take extraordinary risks. This market 
will not die.

Legalising the supply and distribution networks of drugs, however, would 
put the huge sums of money generated by this industry into the hands of 
legitimate businesses and - most importantly - through taxation into the 
hands of governments that urgently need more money for the provision of 
basic health and education.

The INCB approach, in contrast, is a guarantee of poverty in South America 
and mass property crime in Britain. The Government has unflinchingly taken 
the condemnation of this unaccountable body for even its very moderate 
change. This should embolden it to confront the prohibitionists again and 
move faster towards the European model that will - one day soon - replace 
the current anarchy and criminality of the drugs world with regulation, 
legality and sanity.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager