Pubdate: Sat, 1 Aug 2009
Source: Financial Times Weekend Magazine (UK)
Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 2009
Author: Matthew Engel
Note: Matthew Engel is a regular contributor to FT Weekend Magazine


Carlisle Racecourse, near the border between England and Scotland, is 
not usually regarded as one of the world's great centres of 
progressive thought. It is not even one of the great centres of 
British horse racing. But in a hospitality room there in June, the 
director of public health for Cumbria, Professor John Ashton, 
startled a room full of local delegates at a conference entitled 
"Tackling Drugs, Changing Lives" by calling for total legalisation. 
"The war on drugs has failed," he said. "We need to think 
differently." He said that heroin, and everything else now banned, 
should be available over the counter in chemists' shops.

At any rate, he certainly startled the reporter from the Carlisle 
News & Star who made a splendid splash with the story, giving just a 
paragraph to the counter-argument from Detective Superintendent Paul 
Carter of Cumbria Police. "Class A drugs destroy the fabric of 
people's lives," he responded. "We have to do everything we can to 
get people away from drugs like heroin and cocaine." Well, "Cop Backs 
Drug Laws" hardly sounds like news, does it? But actually it is 
Carter who seems increasingly out of step.

For decades many academics and professionals have regarded the 
current blanket prohibition on recreational drugs (though not alcohol 
or tobacco) as absurd, counter-productive and destructive. But there 
has never been any political imperative for change, and a thousand 
reasons to do nothing.

For nearly 40 years, since the habits established in the 1960s took 
root in society, there has been a stand-off. Across the free world, 
and most of the unfree, anyone seriously interested in smoking, 
snorting, swallowing or injecting illegal substances can acquire the 
wherewithal with a little effort, and proceed without much fear of 
retribution, particularly if they are wealthy enough. Police and 
politicians say they are interested in punishing the suppliers and 
not the users. This is an intellectual nonsense, but it has suited 
everyone who matters. The drug users don't care; governments have 
felt no pressure to attempt a politically dangerous reform; and above 
all it suits the international gangsters who control the drug 
business, which offers massive rewards and for them minimal risks.

But 2009 has seen a change: among the academics and professionals who 
study this issue, from Carlisle Racecourse to the think-tanks of 
Washington, there is growing sense that reform is possible and 
increasingly urgent. The argument is not that drug use is A Good 
Thing. It is that the collateral damage caused by the so-called war 
on drugs has now reached catastrophic proportions. And even some 
politicians have started to think this might be worth discussing. The 
biggest single reason (as with so much else this year) is the Obama 
Effect. In one way, this may be short-lived since the president's 
reputation will eventually be tarnished by reality. But the chief 
barrier to reform has been that the international agreements barring 
the drugs trade have been enforced primarily by threats of 
retaliation from the White House.

Obama is the third successive president believed to have used illegal 
drugs: Bill Clinton famously did not inhale; in a conversation that 
was secretly taped when he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush 
didn't deny that he had smoked marijuana or used cocaine; Obama has 
admitted using both dope and "a little blow". Unlike the other two, 
he is also on record as favouring decriminalisation of cannabis and 
more generally addressing the problem. The president having other 
preoccupations, there is no sign of him proposing the Do What The 
Hell You Like Bill to Congress any time soon. There is every sign 
that the blanket ban on other people's initiatives has been partially lifted.

Obama has also come to power amid a growing sense of alarm about the 
US prison population. Nearly four million Americans are either 
physically in jail (including almost 5 per cent of all black males) 
or under some form of state or federal jurisdiction. About 20 per 
cent of these are listed as having committed drug offences. But this 
must be a gross underestimate of reality. I recently asked a British 
judge what percentage of the defendants in his court were there for 
drugs-related crimes: not just direct breaches of the drug laws, but 
also crimes committed by those whose behaviour was affected by drug 
use or who were trying to obtain money to buy them. He thought for a 
moment then said: "Sixty per cent. And most of the rest involve 
alcohol." We may assume that, in the more drug-pervasive American 
culture, the figure would be higher than this.

At the same time, Americans have seen on the nightly news the brutal 
wars between -Mexican drug gangs reach their border. And afterwards 
they have watched The Wire, which has given them a serious dose of 
daily inner city reality. Some observers see the collective shrug 
that greeted the admission of dope-smoking by the Olympic swimming 
hero Michael Phelps as a sign that attitudes are changing in middle America.

What would be less clear to TV watchers is the extent to which, under 
harsh and prescriptive sentencing guidelines, the wrong criminals are 
locked up. According to Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy 
Studies in Washington: "There have been judges who've been literally 
in tears because they have been forced to sentence girlfriends of 
low-level dealers to 20 years. Perhaps they fielded a call for their 
boyfriends. And then the kingpin walks out in six months depending on 
how much information they've given."

. . .

Attitudes are certainly changing elsewhere. Several countries, 
especially in South America, are starting to flirt with 
liberalisation Portugal decriminalised all drug use in 2001 and the 
policy is said to have widespread acceptance. Now the former 
president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, has called for the 
decriminalisation of cocaine and says that many serving politicians 
quietly agree with him.

The South American shift ties in with a growing belief that the 
US-backed policy of coca eradication has been useless if the crop 
disappears from one remote valley, it pops up in another. Meanwhile, 
the once trumpeted poppy-eradication mission in Afghanistan is 
increasingly perceived as a strategy that could strengthen the 
Taliban by curbing overproduction. "We're fighting over minimally 
processed agricultural commodities," says Tree. "Heroin, cocaine and 
marijuana are incredibly cheap to produce. There is an inexhaustible 
resource of poor farmers to grow these crops and an undiminished 
supply of consumers. The more we increase law enforcement the greater 
the risk-reward for the traffickers. It's an exercise in futility."

Tree is by no means a lone voice in the Washington policy nexus. Jim 
Webb, -the Democratic senator for Virginia, said in April that the 
issue of marijuana legalisation should be "on the table". There is 
interest too from rightwing libertarians such as the Texas 
congressman and sometime presidential candidate Ron Paul. Indeed a 
leading pro-reform voice in Washington is the Cato Institute, usually 
associated with the Republicans. And the campaign is backed by 
well-organised pressure groups.

It is hard to find coherent advocates on the other side of the 
argument. On the web, I came across Drug Watch International, based 
in Omaha, promising "current information ... to counter drug advocacy 
propaganda". The lead item on its site dates from 2002. I did track 
down its president, Dr John Coleman, formerly an undercover agent at 
what is now the Drug Enforcement Administration. He proved an amiable 
interviewee who offered me an intriguingly contrarian defence of the 
American alcohol prohibition years: unpopular though the law was, 
- ---drink-related diseases fell. The drug prohibition, he felt, also worked.

"In the US, the levels of drug use in most categories are lower than 
in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. There's a lot of social change, a lot of 
ageing out," he said. "We have a more intelligent law enforcement 
system. The confiscation laws are very effective. I don't think we 
should be surprised if public policies work. We do have drug 
problems, I'm not minimising them. But if we ignore the progress 
we've made, we're short-changing ourselves."

It is the practical men who seem most disposed to support the status 
quo. The most eloquent I discovered was back in Carlisle - Paul 
Carter, the cop at the racecourse conference. "I joined the police 28 
years ago and I went to the deaths of many young people who had 
overdosed on heroin, particularly, and each one is an utter tragedy. 
I think there are fewer now and that we are beginning to make a difference.

"There's a cycle of life when you're on heroin when you're either 
asleep or not aware of what's going on around you. If society 
sanctioned that effect on another generation, what does that say about us all?"

The policy wonks arguing for change have not, as a rule, attended a 
dead body in a dingy flat, but the macro-argument tends to lead in 
another direction even among senior police officers like Norm 
Stamper, the former police chief of Seattle, who told The New York 
Times: "We've spent a -trillion dollars prosecuting the war on drugs. 
What do we have to show for it? Drugs are more readily available, at 
lower prices and higher levels of potency. It's a dismal failure."

. . .

The drug laws were dingy from the start: Congress made marijuana 
illegal in 1937 after a farcical debate, due to pressure from 
- -western farmers who wanted their Mexican labourers to work harder. 
The user community keeps discovering "legal highs", governments 
promptly ban them whereupon their popularity increases.

In Britain, there is something close to despair among academics about 
the political process. Drugs are classified A, B and C, allegedly 
according to the degree of harm. But the theory ignores the immutable 
constitutional provision that laws are subject to the approval of the 
editor of the Daily Mail. Cannabis was downgraded from B to C and 
then back again, to meet the government's political needs; this had 
no effect on either suppliers or users.

Ecstasy (which alarms the Mail) is deemed a class A drug, the most 
dangerous rating, although - according to a major study published by 
The Lancet in 2007- it ranks 18th in degree of harm among 20 
well-known substances, ahead only of poppers and khat (both legal) 
and well behind alcohol and tobacco (ditto). "We're supposed to have 
evidence-led policy formulation," says Mike Levi, professor of 
criminology at Cardiff University, "but it often doesn't happen in 
the drugs area."

At the conferences Levi attends, the argument has shifted. "The 
question of a more rational drug policy is certainly being debated. 
There aren't many old-fashioned zealots for the old methods of drug 
control even in the police, who are more open to change than recent 
home secretaries. But however good an idea it might be in the 
abstract it would take a more mature political and media conversation 
about it before it is likely to happen. Always keep ahold of nurse, 
for fear of finding something worse, that's where we are now."

In Britain, with its top-down system of government, a notionally 
left-of-centre but illiberal administration and a hysterical press, 
reform is improbable, although Gordon Brown recently had a brief 
meeting with Danny Kushlick, from the pro-legalisation group 
Transform. But there is a new atmosphere in the US, where the change 
in emphasis in Washington is enough to allow initiatives to come from 
below. Already, dope-smoking is de facto legal in California thanks 
to the lifting of the ban on medical marijuana. Purchase requires a 
prescription - but anyone who wants a joint but can't find a 
Californian medic who thinks it will help backache just isn't trying. 
This system may well spread.

Strangely, all this is happening just as Holland, the country that 
has been out on a limb for years with its coffee-shop culture, is 
beginning to row backwards. Once again, though, it may well be an 
anomaly. The Dutch are starting to tire of their exceptionalism and 
the drugs tourism that has resulted, just as they have tired of their 
liberal immigration policies. And the coffee shops have fallen foul 
of the indoor-smoking taboo.

Drug use generally in Holland seems to be low. But then you can prove 
almost anything with selective use of drug statistics: it is also low 
in Sweden, which is surprisingly stern. The main source for these 
stats is the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which maintains a huge 
bureaucracy to fight the drug problem, or at least to collect 
astonishingly detailed statistics: 3.8 per cent of Scots aged 15-64 
use cocaine every year; 21.5 per cent of the same cohort of Ghanaians 
use cannabis; opium prices in the Phongsaly and Huaphanh provinces of 
Laos range between $556 and $744 per kilo ... You might think that, 
knowing all this, they might be able to do something.

The UNODC's executive director, Antonio Maria Costa, has been the 
chief proponent of continued prohibitionism. But, even as he 
introduced his 2009 report which, as ever, trumpeted evidence of 
success, he seemed a little rattled, repeating the new White House 
line about treatment rather than enforcement while warning that 
legalisation would be "a historic -mistake". He went on: "Proponents 
of legalisation can't have it both ways. A free market for drugs 
would unleash a drug epidemic, while a regulated one would create a 
parallel criminal market. Illicit drugs pose a danger to health. 
That's why drugs are, and must remain, controlled."

. . .

Of course drugs need to be controlled, just as alcohol, tobacco, 
firearms, prescription drugs, food additives and indeed UN 
bureaucrats with massive budgets need to be controlled. But the whole 
point is that illicit drugs are not controlled. The international 
- -pretence of prohibition sees to that. One of the major arguments 
advanced for continuing the ban on -cannabis is that the currently 
available strains of the drug do not offer the gentle highs of the 
hippie years but are intensively cultivated and far more potent, with 
potentially serious psychological effects. The analysis is correct, 
according to my stoner friends. But the logic is 180 degrees wrong. 
Imagine a total ban on tobacco, which is no longer so unthinkable. 
Among the consequences would be an immediate return to the unfiltered 
full-strength gaspers of the 1950s, just as American alcohol 
prohibition produced moonshine. One benign -consequence of drug 
legalisation would be that users would have a guarantee of quality 
and strength/mildness: an end to heroin flavoured with brick dust 
(many believe adulteration is the real killer), and the type of 
- -marijuana they actually want.

But the case for legalisation is not about allowing baby-boom couples 
to enjoy a joint after a dinner party without drawing the curtains or 
being obliged to visit a dodgy bloke called Dave. Decriminalisation 
or even legalising cannabis on its own would achieve little. 
Something more radical is required. The crucial issue concerns the 
supply chain: the way prohibition has enriched and empowered 
gangsters, corrupt officials and indeed wholly corrupt narco-states 
across the planet. It was a point made -eloquently by the Russian 
economist Lev Timofeev, when interviewed by Misha Glenny for his book 
about global organised crime, McMafia. -"Prohibiting a market does 
not mean destroying it," Timofeev said. What it means is placing a 
"dynamically developing market under the total control of criminal 
corporations". He called the present situation a threat to world 
civilisation, which international public opinion had failed to grasp.

Proper reform means legitimising production and supply, precisely so 
it can be controlled. Would it unleash a drug epidemic worse than the 
one we now have? Well, it would be an unusual child of the 1960s who 
did not mark the moment with a celebratory joint. But the novelty 
would soon wear off. And from then on, the places where it is easiest 
to obtain drugs would no longer be the inside of jails and inner-city 
school playgrounds.

Imagine a situation - as John Ashton started to do at Carlisle 
Racecourse - where all drugs were sold in pharmacies licensed for the 
purpose. Taxation could be set at a level that brought in revenue but 
still made illegal dealing uncompetitive. For the more dangerous and 
addictive drugs there would be compulsory medical supervision. 
Identity checks and strict record-keeping would be required. There 
would be laws (which could actually be enforced) against advertising, 
adulteration, use in public, driving under the influence and supply to minors.

In what way would that be worse than the present situation?



Sumerian text refers to the poppy as "hul gil", "plant of joy"


First recorded use of cannabis in Chinese medicine

c. 0AD

Psychotropic effects of cannabis mentioned in Chinese texts


First medical account of the coca plant

c. 1660

Thomas Sydenham, "the father of English medicine", standardises 
laudanum tincture of opium as a cure-all

1800 Napoleon bans his troops in Egypt from following the local 
custom of smoking hashish


Opium trade legalised in China after the end of the second opium war


Freud recommends cocaine for various ailments

1886 John S. Pemberton invents Coca-Cola, containing cocaine and caffeine


Cocaine removed from Coca-Cola

1909 US bans import of opium for non-medical uses


Opiates banned internationally under Hague Convention


US regulates use of cocaine


Utah becomes first US state to ban cannabis


Opiates and cocaine banned in UK

1922 Diary of a Drug Fiend is published, a fictional account of addiction

1928 Recreational use of cannabis banned in UK


Film Reefer Madness is released


US effectively bans cannabis


LSD banned in UK


"Legalise Pot" rally held in Hyde Park


Ecstasy banned in UK


US starts funding coca crop eradication in South America


US first lady Nancy Reagan begins "Just Say No" campaign


Crack cocaine becomes widespread in US cities


Bill Clinton says he smoked marijuana, but did not inhale


Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar dies in a police shoot-out in 
Medellin, Colombia. Four years earlier, Forbes magazine had listed 
him as the seventh-richest person in the world, with a personal 
fortune close to $25bn


UN secretary-general Kofi Annan announces 10-year plan for real 
progress to eliminate drug cultivation


Portugal decriminalises drug use


UK government downgrades cannabis from class B to class C, making it 
officially less harmful


UK restores cannabis to class B, against the recommendations of its 
scientific advisers 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake