Pubdate: Sun, 01 Nov 2009
Source: This Magazine (Canada)
Copyright: 2009 Red Maple Foundation
Author: Katie Addleman


Addicted To Failure

The War on Drugs has funnelled billions into the pockets of criminals,
and drug use is higher than ever. Time to kick the habit

Shortly after Vancouver was named the host of the 2010 Olympics, Naomi
Klein was seething about injustice again. "The Vancouver-Whistler
Olympic bid presented the province of British Columbia as a model of
harmonious, sustainable living, a place where everyone gets along,"
she wrote in 2003. After 9-11, the city had sold itself to the
International Olympic Committee as the "Safety and Security
Candidate.a place where nothing ever happens." It was a false image,
and Klein feared that the darker realities of life in B.C. would
remain unexposed to the international community.

She needn't have worried. Six years later, just as the world was
turning an eye on Vancouver in advance of the coming Olympic carnival,
the city was full of guns. The murder rate between January and March
was unprecedented: 47 shootings, 19 of them fatal-twice as many as
five years previous.

The U.K.'s Sunday Times ran an article calling Vancouver "Murder
City." Vancouver police chief Jim Chu summed up the situation for a
panicking public: "There is a gang war, and it's brutal."

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime released its 2009 World Drug Report
in late June, naming the west coast of Canada as a hub of the
international drug trade and B.C.'s organized crime groups as largely
responsible. By this time, the violence had died down and not much
attention was paid to connecting this new information about B.C.'s
pivotal role in world drug traffic and the war that Chu had identified
three months earlier.

The link between gang warfare, the manufacture and export of illicit
drugs, and the fact of those drugs' very illegality was, meanwhile,
barely mentioned at all. After years of attacking the symptoms of the
(increasingly ludicrously named) "war on drugs," it's time to stop and
consider what would actually end the murders, gang wars, smuggling,
petty arrests, and drug-related deaths that afflict us. The answer is
to attack the root of the problem: prohibition itself.

In October 2007, six men were found dead in an apartment in the
Vancouver neighbourhood of Surrey. The 48 investigators charged with
solving the crime appealed to the public and the victims' families,
asking for any information that could lead to arrests.

It was obvious to everyone that four of these six murders weren't

The two remaining victims had been caught in the crossfire and killed
accidentally. These were executions. Vancouver had long supported a
substantial criminal economy, but the case of the Surrey Six marked
the beginning of a precipitous rise in gang-related violence.

In the
months that followed, the headlines of local papers became increasingly
macabre; by the time I arrived in Vancouver at the end of 2008, I felt I'd
landed in Gotham City: Three Slayings Within 24 Hours, the papers screamed;
Man Gunned Down in East Vancouver; Grieving Mom Begs for Public's Help; Four
Fatal Shootings Lead Cops to Expect More. At the beginning of 2009, one year
before the Olympics would make Vancouver the focus of every news outlet in
the world, people were being shot on a nearly daily basis.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded with the hardline approach
typical of conservative politics: more convictions, longer sentences.

The proposed legislation called for more of the same, its coup de
grace being a mandate that all gang-related killings be called
first-degree murder and carry minimum jail terms of 25 years.

Harper announced his proposal in Vancouver at the end of February,
affecting a "we'll take care of it" demeanour that aimed to calm the
public and the international media, who were now swarming on the story
of Gangland Vancouver. There was nothing to worry about, he said. The
escalating violence shouldn't concern those planning to attend the
2010 Olympic Games. (They'd install 15,000 police officers, working
morning to night!) Later that day, Cory Stephen Konkin, 30, was shot
in his car in Maple Ridge. He was followed by four more murder victims
in the five days that followed.

"They have to appear to be doing something," says Jerry Paradis of the
Harper government's fledgling recourse. "They can't just admit they
are at a loss on how to deal with the issue." Paradis, who served as a
judge on the Provincial Court of British Columbia between 1975 and
2003, has become an outspoken critic of governments' law and order
policies, and particularly their proven ineffectiveness in preventing
gang violence.

He points to the various "task forces" that have been created and
re-created over the years as examples of this failure-when one proves
ineffectual, it is replaced by another that looks remarkably similar:
the Integrated Gang Task Force, implemented in 2004, was followed in
2007 by the Violence Suppression Team. The violence not having been
suppressed, Premier Gordon Campbell is now allocating funds to
identical squads in Kelowna and Prince George, to be developed over
the next three years at a cost of $23 million per year.

Paradis points to the failed anti-gang measures of the United States,
which bear a strong resemblance to those our own government would
adopt. "The federal and many state penal systems that adopted
mandatory minimums are withdrawing from that approach," he says. "In
California, devotion to quick-fix measures like three-strikes laws and
widespread minimums have nearly bankrupted the government, while
having no perceptible effect on crime."

Why do we continually fall back on tactics that don't work? Aside from
the share of votes garnered through "tough on crime" posturing, gangs
are exceedingly problematic to combat. "Their airtight culture, their
shifting alliances, and, most important, the fear they spread make
gangs exceedingly difficult to successfully investigate and
prosecute," says Paradis. "Surveillance, infiltration, and
intelligence seem to be the keys-and those can be extremely delicate
and costly." No government in the world has the resources necessary to
quash gang activity through these conventional means. Policy makers
need to put on their creative thinking caps, and then ready themselves
for a revolution. The solution to the problem-legalization-is nothing
if not divisive.

The concentration of violence was unprecedented in Vancouver. But gang
violence is nothing new; gangs are volatile entities, their
hierarchies often disrupted by death or imprisonment, their members
sensitive to power fluctuations occurring in like organizations all
over the globe.

When a cartel boss flaps his wings in Mexico City, a typhoon of
violence can erupt in Surrey, B.C. According to a study on organized
crime in British Columbia prepared by the RCMP's Criminal Analysis
Section in 2005, as of that year there were 108 street gangs operating
in B.C. Today's estimates place the number higher, at 160. And it will
continue to rise; there's money enough to support hundreds of these
organizations. It's not hard to turn a dime when you're invested in
the world's most lucrative market.

Michael C. Chettleburgh, a criminal policy consultant in Ottawa and
Canada's foremost authority on street gangs, posits that gang life
offers various attractions-camaraderie, protection, a shared sense of
identity, power-but that the opportunity to make vast amounts of money
is undoubtedly its primary allure. "The desire for money and the
desire to make money quickly, by whatever means possible, are the
combined drivers of street-gang activity," he writes.

Street gangs derive their income from myriad illegal activities, but
selling drugs is far and away their greatest profit source. (Studies
conducted by the RCMP, CSIS, and the Fraser Institute, among others,
consistently produce findings to this effect.) Though the worth of any
black market is impossible to calculate exactly, the UN puts the
yearly value of the worldwide drug trade at somewhere between US$150
and US$400 billion. That's one-eighth of the world's international
trade, according to UN studies.

Only the textile industry yields similar gains.

"This kind of gang violence is always very cyclical," Const. David
Bratzer told me in the measured, helpful tone of a schoolteacher, when
I reached him at his home in Victoria and asked for his take on the
current crisis. "It's related to control of the black market for drugs.

A lot of times, when you see this kind of violence, it's because
something has been destabilized: a leader's been arrested or shot, and
now his subordinates or other groups are fighting to control that
black market and all those tax-free profits." Whether violence is up
or down at a given moment is inconsequential; it will continue to rise
and abate in endless waves as long as there are gangs, and there will
be gangs as long as organized crime is profitable.

Still, in the early months of 2009, politicians and police were
compelled to offer more pointed explanations for the latest explosion.

Most spoke broadly of internal power struggles or disruptions to the
drug supply, while some, like RCMP Supt. Pat Fogarty, placed the blame
squarely on the ongoing Mexican drug war. None of this reasoning is
invalid, but it skirts the larger truth: people were dying, and
killing, for money.

Or, more accurately, enough money to buy a country.

Ounce for ounce, marijuana is worth more than gold, and heroin more
than uranium. Yet it's only as a direct result of international policy
that drugs are so valuable; if they weren't illegal, they'd be worthless.

Prohibition floats the drug trade by raising potential profits to
astronomical levels, and the drug trade in turn floats the gangs who
control it. "Because of . their illegality and associated criminal
sanctions," writes Chettleburgh, "those willing to trade in them-drug
cartels, organized crime syndicates, so-called narco-terrorist groups
and street gangs-can demand high prices and derive great profits."

Great profits is an understatement. Everything in the drug trade is
profit. Manufacturers, who buy from farmers, incur virtually no overhead.

They're buying plants-weeds, in fact-that will grow nearly

 From the point of production to the point of purchase, the value of
their product can increase by as much as 17,000 percent.

By contrast, the markup on retail goods is generally closer to 100

This is what Canada, and all other governments who support prohibition
policy, fail to grasp: drug dealing is a profession, and its potential
earnings guarantee an endless supply of hopeful employees.

Harsher criminal penalties haven't stopped it, and won't stop it,
because the number of dealers will never diminish.

Locking up one doesn't remove one from the street; it creates a job
opening that hundreds of people are waiting to fill. In his wildest
imaginings, Stephen Harper could not envision an effective deterrent
to this fact.

"You're talking about a profession where people accept a risk of being
murdered, execution-style, as an occupational hazard," said Bratzer.
"How is a mandatory minimum sentence going to deter a person who
already accepts the risk of being shot and having their body dumped in
a car?"

In British Columbia, the marijuana trade alone accounts for five
percent of the GDP, placing it alongside forestry and mining in
economic significance. It employs 250,000 people and is worth $7
billion annually.

Police have busted thousands of grow-ops in eradication campaigns over
the past 10 years, finding particular success with the Electric Fire
Safety Initiative, a four-year-old project that partners B.C. Hydro
with the fire department and the RCMP to track down growops through
notable spikes in private electricity usage.

Yet the industry continues to thrive.

The number of plants in B.C. is actually proliferating; the RCMP
estimates there are currently 20,000 province-wide. The webpage of the
City of Richmond, B.C., includes helpful hints for landlords wishing
to prevent their properties from becoming marijuana farms.

The Criminal Intelligence Service of British Columbia confirms
"marijuana cultivation is the most pervasive and lucrative organized
crime activity" in the province, but goes on to remind us that local
methamphetamine production is nothing to pooh-pooh; it's making a
strong push to the top, "expanding at a rate similar to the early
growth of the marijuana industry." It's little wonder that the
province can support so many gangs.

And while, in Chettleburgh's words, Canadians demonstrate a "robust
interest" in consuming illicit drugs (a 2004 study by the Canadian
Centre on Substance Abuse leaves little room for interpretation), it
must be noted that 90 to 95 percent of the illegal drugs produced in
Canada are eventually sold in external markets.

This is not unique to Canada, but representative of the

The drug market is borderless, and links every crime ring in the world
to every other: grow-ops in Canada are guarded by American guns, which
are sold to Canadians to finance purchases of cocaine, which is sold
to Mexicans by Colombian manufacturers, and then ferried across the
border by American importers, who trade it with Canadians for
B.C.-grown marijuana, who sell it for guns to protect their growops,
ad infinitum.

Variations on the model are unlimited; supply lines and products
traded change along with profit margins, power structures, and
government patrol barriers.

What remains constant is a competitive economic system, controlled by
people under immense pressure and concerned only with profit potential.

Violence is the natural by-product of such a system-in Vancouver, in
Phoenix, in Ciudad Juarez. It is a global problem.

Jack Cole is the executive director of Law Enforcement Against
Prohibition, an international organization comprised of police chiefs
and officers, former mayors and governors, criminal justice policy
experts, MPs, retired senators and judges, and the former attorney
general of Colombia, among others. Its mandate is to legitimize a
fringe position on drug policy: legalize. Legalize everything.

"I'd say this is about business as usual," Cole said of the violence
raging from Mexico to Canada. We had finally gotten the chance to
speak; Cole travels endlessly for LEAP, within the U.S. and
internationally, presenting to professional, civic, religious, and
governing bodies, including the UN, on the proven dangers of
prohibition and the necessity of ending it. He estimates that he has
given his speech, "End Prohibition Now," more than 800 times. The
International Harm Reduction Association selected it as one of the
world's finest documents on policing and harm reduction.

Our conversation had been preceded by numerous emails.

The last one, genial as always, concluded, "Attached are some of the
things that would not exist if we had legalized regulation of drugs."
I opened the attachment. It was an article from a recent issue of the
London Telegraph. "Henchman of Mexican Drug Lord Dissolved 300 Bodies
in Acid," read the headline.

I didn't read any further.

Cole's position was clear enough.

When we spoke the next day I was surprised by his tone: warm, patient,
patently American. It made his pro-legalization talk all the more
intriguing. "It was worse than this at given times in the past," he
said. "In Colombia, for instance.

Most people weren't following it, but when you look at the number of
people murdered in Colombia back in late '80s and early '90s . I mean,
the drug cartels actually attacked the federal courthouse, and for
several days held hostages there.

They killed a whole bunch of judges." For all of the apocalyptic talk
at the beginning of the year, gang violence was not, internationally,
the worst it had been-just the closest to home. "The fact of the
matter is, that all this would end, it would all be over within a day,
if we legalized and regulated these drugs," Cole said.

Not everyone agrees.

Darryl Plecas, a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the
University of Fraser Valley and the RCMP Research Chair in Crime
Reduction, argues widely for continued prohibition and prosecution of
producers and traffickers. "Things are changing, thanks very much,
without a change in policy on prohibition," he told me when I reached
him on the ferry from Vancouver Island to the mainland. "Cocaine,
crystal meth-we wiped that problem off the planet.

It's vanished.

There were all kinds of people using meth, then there was an all-out
assault [by government and law enforcement agencies]. What it takes is
clever education." The UN World Drug Report naming Canada as one of
the largest exporters of crystal meth had not yet been released at the
time of our conversation.

Plecas, who has twice participated in the prestigious Oxford Round
Table, an annual forum on public policy at Oxford University, also
takes a moral stance against legalization, arguing the harmful effects
of drugs on users and their communities. "Do we want to facilitate,
condone that?" he asks. When I put forward the standard argument that
marijuana has proven less harmful than alcohol, he responds that there
is "mounting medical evidence of the harms of marijuana use. Nobody's
getting schizophrenia from drinking. You can backtrack from
alcoholism. You're not returning from schizophrenia."

This, in effect, is the centre of the prohibitionists'

Drugs are not just dangerous, but demonic; if they weren't, it would
be very hard to justify their illegality. "People have, to some
extent, been hoodwinked by the misinformation put out there by the
prohibitionists," says Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist who has been
studying the unintended consequences of prohibition for 15 years.
"This is the claim that drug use is very, very horribly bad for you,
the implication that it's always and necessarily bad for you, as
opposed to the more accurate view that, like alcohol, dose makes a
difference and lots of people can use in moderation and use
responsibly," he says. "They don't seem to want to think about the
fact that some people misuse alcohol and do stupid things, but
millions of people don't misuse alcohol and use it in moderation. And
they assume that somehow drugs would be different, that we would only
get the extreme cases.

But the evidence doesn't suggest that. I don't know why more people
don't recognize that."

So while Plecas says prohibitionists "should get their moral compass
out," Miron, Cole, and a growing number of politicians, economists,
criminologists and police officers (particularly in the wake of
President Obama's election to the White House, as the new
administration is seen as more amenable to logic) are putting forward
the idea that legalization represents the most ethical solution to the
drug problem.

It is founded on a singular fact, irrefutable in the face of a century
of gathered evidence: prohibition has made everything worse.

 From crime to corruption to instances of overdose, prohibition has
left us less safe, sicker, and poorer than before, and all at
tremendous expense.

Governments everywhere have essentially spent billions ramping up
social ills. It is one of the hideous ironies of our age.

As drugs and their use predate prohibition, the social implications of
the policy can be easily traced.

The first instance of anti-drug legislation in Canada was the
Anti-Opium Act, passed in 1908. British Columbia was then roughly 20
percent Chinese. One year earlier, an anti-Asian riot had torn through
Vancouver, and the practice of placing head taxes on Chinese
immigrants, first instituted in 1884, was at its peak. The Anti-Opium
Act was plainly born of racist sentiment masquerading as a public
safety initiative, as drug use in general was hardly stigmatized
during this period. Throughout the Victorian era, one could dabble in
cocaine, morphine, and heroin, whether instructed to do so by a doctor
or no (physicians regularly prescribed all three), without wandering
outside the border of mainstream practice.

In his book Chasing Dragons: Security, Identity, and Illicit Drugs in
Canada, author Kyle Grayson writes that "public disapproval of opium arose
not from the effects of the drug itself, but rather from its association
with a group perceived as biologically and culturally inferior." Opium was
identified with Chinese immigrants and labourers, and, worse than that, with
the corruption of white women at the hands of Chinese opium merchants.

While other drugs were an acceptable good time, opium was foreign,
un-Christian, and threatening. "It is important to remember that the
publicly stated rationale for the Opium Act, the legislation that made
further acts possible, did not have to do with the potentially harmful
effects of opium. Rather, it was based on reports of the narcotic's
'dire influence'-specifically, on reports that young white women had
been found in an opium den."

By 1911, as Canadians were first starting to carve out a cultural
identity, drug use of all kinds had begun to be seen as "improper,"
not "Canadian," and a symptom of moral deterioration. This new
conception, spearheaded by culturally conservative journalists and
politicians, led to the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, a broader version
of its predecessor, which included a clause permitting for the later
addition of other drugs.

In 1923, marijuana made the list. No reason was given.

The trend continued, and the production, sale, and consumption of
opium, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana were all eventually entirely
criminalized, with other narcotics similarly banned as they appeared.

The result?

Just over 100 years after the misinformed creation of Canada's first
drug law, production is up, usage is up, crime is up, prices and
ill-gotten profits are up. Prohibition has had none of its intended
effects, and has instead served its targets.

There is a kind of poetic justice here: we've seen that prohibition
was based on a bogus theory, and as befits all ill-founded practices,
it failed demonstrably.

The solution is to end it. We've lost much to fear campaigns ("Drugs
kill!") and plain delusion ("We can achieve a drug-free world!"), but
the population can be re-educated. The majority of the Canadian public
already supports legalized marijuana, but a 2009 Angus Reid Strategies
poll indicates that only eight percent favour legalization of hard

We are uneasy with the idea of the government supplying the public
with drugs; there are too many attendant moral questions.

But legalization, though not ideal, remains what the Economist calls
the "least bad policy." The trouble will be getting the public to
vocally support it, and finding politicians willing to stand for it.
"There has to be some fundamental change in people's attitudes toward
drugs," says Miron. "It's not obvious where that change will come
from, unless a mainstream politician or a mainstream figure, a
respected figure, stands up and says, 'This policy's idiotic.'"

Nowhere is the sale and production of drugs a legal

Prohibition remains a fact of life in every country in the world, but
the decriminalization policies of some places-most notably
Switzerland, Portugal, and the Netherlands-are so comprehensive as to
give us an idea of what life in a drug-law-free zone might look like.
The Swiss have been treating heroin as a health problem since 1994.
There were 23 clinics in the country where addicts could go up to
three times a day to inject government-supplied heroin in 2007. The
drug is provided on a sliding monetary scale.

If an addict can pay for it, he or she does; if not, it's free. The
crime rate went down by 60 percent.

Portugal shocked the international community and its own citizens when
it decriminalized the possession of all drugs in 2001, becoming the
first country in Europe to do so. A report published earlier this year
by the Cato Institute, a U.S.-based think tank, concluded that the
policy change had led to lowered instances of drug trafficking,
sexually transmitted diseases, and overdose deaths, and an increase in
the number of adults registered in addiction treatment programs. In
the Netherlands, where soft drugs have been all but legal since 1976,
the per capita usage of marijuana and hash is half what it is the U.S.
Studies also suggest that the Netherlands per capita usage of hard
drugs and homicide rates are one-quarter less than those of the U.S.

While we don't have examples of successful legalization to look to,
most policy makers, researchers, consultants, and activists envision
it as combination of governmental drug production and distribution and
harm-reduction initiatives. The government would manufacture the
products, standardizing them for purity; supply them to the public in
government-operated stores like the LCBO or B.C. Liquor. and use the
profits from taxation to treat and ease addiction through
rehabilitation programs and safe-injection sites. "There are lots of
different ways it could be implemented," says Miron. "It could be
implemented by medicalizing it, meaning change the rules so that
medical provision was not much supervised, so doctors could prescribe
relatively freely, in which case just as many people can go and get
Prozac; if they go to a psychiatrist and act as though they need it,
people will be able to go to doctors and say, 'My back hurts,' or 'I
have anxiety,' and be able to get prescriptions for morphine or
methadone or marijuana or whatever.

But it would still be open to the views of the enforcers about whether
or not to allow wide-scale medical distribution. I think the better
model is alcohol-sold by private companies, advertised, subject to age
restrictions and some taxes, but just a legal commodity like anything
else. There's no reason it has to be treated any differently than
Starbucks or Budweiser."

Whatever the model we choose, drugs cannot continue to be treated as
they are. We've avoided it as long as possible, but it's time to look
the ethical maze in the mouth and navigate our way through it, because
to continue to pretend that we can extricate ourselves from this war
through the traditional crime-and-punishment avenues of the Canadian
justice system is to continue to line the pockets of those who would
slay us in Surrey, if only by accident. 
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