Pubdate: Wed, 9 Sep 2009
Source: Stabroek News (Guyana)
Copyright: 2009 Reuters
Author: Bernd Debusmann, Reuters


A Loud Silence

There are times when silence can be as eloquent as words. Take the
case of Washington's reaction to announcements, in quick succession,
from Mexico and Argentina of changes in their drug policies that run
counter to America's own rigidly prohibitionist federal laws. No US
expressions of dismay or alarm.

Contrast that with three years ago, when Mexico was close to enacting
timid reforms almost identical to those that became effective on
August 21. In 2006, shouts of shock and horror from the administration
of George W Bush reached such a pitch that the then Mexican president,
Vicente Fox, abruptly vetoed a bill his own party had written and he
had supported.

What has changed? Was it a matter of something happening in August,
when most of official Washington is on holiday? Or was it a sign of
greater American readiness to rethink a war on drugs that has, in
almost four decades, failed to curb production and stifle consumption
of illicit drugs? And that despite law enforcement efforts that
resulted in an average of around 4,700 arrests for drug offences every
single day since the beginning of the millennium. (Just under 40
percent of those arrests are for possession of marijuana).

Or was it a matter of more countries realising that, as drug reform
advocate Ethan Nadelmann puts it, "looking to the United States as a
role model for drug control is like looking to apartheid-era South
Africa for how to deal with race." Nadelmann heads the Drug Policy
Alliance, one of several groups lobbying for reform of US drug policies.

Under the Mexican law that took effect in August, it is legal to
possess small, precisely specified amounts, for personal use, of
marijuana, heroin, opium, cocaine, methamphetamine and LSD. In
Argentina, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional criminal
sanctions for the possession of small quantities of marijuana for
personal use. The ruling opened the door to legislation similar to

Brazil decriminalised drug possession in 2006; Ecuador is likely to
follow suit this year. In much of Europe, drug use (as opposed to drug
trafficking) is treated as an administrative offence rather than a
criminal act. America's hard-line approach has helped to make the
United States the country with the world's largest prison population.

Advocates of more flexible policies say they feel the winds of change
beginning to rise in the administration of Barack Obama, a president
who has admitted that in his youth, he smoked marijuana frequently and
used "a little blow"(of cocaine) when he could afford it. But hopes
for a break from long-standing orthodoxy might be premature, even
though a recent Zogby poll showed 52 percent support for treating
marijuana as a legal, taxed and regulated drug.

Amsterdam's schizophrenic pragmatism "As regards to legalization, it
is not in the president's vocabulary and it is not in mine," Obama's
drug czar, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske said in July.
"Marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefits."

Oddly, he made the statement in California, where an estimated 250,000
people can legally buy marijuana with a letter of recommendation from
their physician. The drug is used for a variety of illnesses, from
chronic pain to insomnia and depression. There is extensive academic
literature on the medical benefits of marijuana.

Medical opinion, however, conflicts with the congressionally-mandated
job description Kerlikowske inherited when he took up the post. It
says that the director of the Office of National Drug Policy, the
White House group in charge of drug war strategy, must "oppose any
attempt to legalize the use of a substance listed in schedule I of
section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act."

Schedule I of the act, which took force in 1970 during the
administration of Richard Nixon, the president who formally declared
"war on drugs", places marijuana alongside powerfully addictive drugs
such as heroin. The wrong-headed classification matches that of an
international treaty, the 1961 United Nations Single Convention of
Narcotics Drugs. The convention is a major obstacle for signatory
countries that want to legalize drugs.

No country has actually done that. Even the Netherlands, the Mecca of
marijuana aficionados, operates on a system best described as
schizophrenic pragmatism. Amsterdam's "coffee shops" are allowed to
have 500 grammes of marijuana on the premises and sell no more than 5
grammes per person to people over 18. The runners who re-supply the
shops routinely carry more than the legal quantity and violate the
law. So do importers.

While the failure of the drug war and the prohibitionist ideology that
drives it have been analysed in great detail in scores of sober
assessments by academics and government commissions, there have been
few studies of the "how to" of legalization. What, for example, would
happen to the criminal mafias that are now running a violent illicit
business with a turnover estimated at more than $300 billion a year?

Some drug traffickers would switch to other criminal activities and it
is realistic to expect increases in such areas as cyber crime and
extortion, according to Steve Rolles, Head of Research of the
Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a British think tank. "But the big
picture will undoubtedly show a significant net fall in overall
criminal activity in the longer term," he said in an interview.
"Getting rid of illegal drug markets is about reducing opportunities
for crime."

Rolles is author of the optimistically titled "After the war on drugs:
Blueprint for Regulation," a book scheduled for publication in
November and meant to kickstart a debate on what he sees as something
of a blank slate   the specifics of regulation for currently illegal

On a global scale, nothing much can happen unless there are changes in
the world's largest and most lucrative market for drugs, the United
States. If they happen, they won't happen fast. "I see this as a
multi-generational effort, with incremental changes," said Nadelmann,
who has been involved in drug policy since he taught at Princeton
University in the late 1980s. "But for the first time, I feel I have
the wind in my back and not in my face." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake