Pubdate: Fri, 10 Sep 2010
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Page: 33 of the Main section
Copyright: 2010 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Simon Jenkins


The West's Refusal to Countenance Drug Legalisation Has Fuelled 
Anarchy, Profiteering and Misery

It is wrecking the government of Mexico. It is financing the Taliban 
in Afghanistan. It is throwing 11,000 Britons into jail. It is 
corrupting democracy throughout Latin America. It is devastating the 
ghettoes of America and propagating Aids in urban Europe. Its 
turnover is some UKP200bn a year, on which it pays not a penny of 
tax. Thousands round the world die of it and millions are 
impoverished. It is the biggest man-made blight on the face of the earth.

No, it is not drugs. They are as old as humanity. Drugs will always 
be a challenge to individual and communal discipline, alongside 
alcohol and nicotine. The curse is different: the declaration by 
states that some drugs are illegal and that those who supply and use 
them are criminals. This is the root of the evil.

By outlawing products - poppy and coca - that are in massive global 
demand, governments merely hand huge untaxed profits to those outside 
the law and propagate anarchy. Repressive regimes, such as some 
Muslim ones, have managed to curb domestic alcohol consumption, but 
no one has been able to stop the global market in heroin and cocaine. 
It is too big and too lucrative, rivalling arms and oil on the 
international monetary exchanges. Forty years of "the war on drugs" 
have defeated all-comers, except political hypocrites.

Most western governments have turned a blind eye and decided to ride 
with the menace, since the chief price of their failure is paid by 
the poor. In Britain Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Gordon Brown felt 
tackling the drugs economy was not worth antagonising rightwing 
newspapers. Like most rich westerners they relied on regarding drugs 
as a menace among the poor but a youthful indiscretion among their 
own offspring.

The full horror of drug criminality is now coming home to roost far 
from the streets of New York and London. In countries such as 
Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, drugs are so endemic that 
criminalising them merely fuels a colossal corruption. It is 
rendering futile Nato's Afghan war effort, which requires the 
retraining of an army and police too addicted either to cure or to 
sack. Poppies are the chief source of cash for farmers whose hearts 
and minds Nato needs to win, yet whose poppy crop (ultimately for 
Nato nations) finances the Taliban. It is crazy.

The worst impact of criminalisation is on Latin America. Here the 
slow emergence of democratic governments - from Bolivia through Peru 
and Columbia to Mexico - is being jeopardised by America's 
"counter-narcotics" diplomacy through the US Drug Enforcement Agency. 
Rather than try to stem its own voracious appetite for drugs, rich 
America shifts guilt on to poor supplier countries. Never was the law 
of economics - demand always evokes supply - so traduced as in 
Washington's drugs policy. America spends $40bn a year on narcotics 
policy, imprisoning a staggering 1.5m of its citizens under it.

Cocaine supplies routed through Mexico have made that country the 
drugs equivalent of a Gulf oil state. An estimated 500,000 people are 
employed in the trade, all at risk of their lives, with 45,000 
soldiers deployed against them. Border provinces are largely in the 
hands of drug barons and their private armies. In the past four years 
28,000 Mexicans have died in drug wars, a slaughter that would 
outrage the world if caused by any other industry (such as oil). 
Mexico's experience puts in the shade the gangsterism of America's 
last failed experiment in prohibition, the prewar alcohol ban.

As a result, it is South American governments and not the 
sophisticated west that are now pleading for reform. A year ago an 
Argentinian court gave American and British politicians a lesson in 
libertarianism by declaring that "adults should be free to make 
lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state". Mexico 
declared drugs users "patients not criminals". Ecuador released 1,500 
hapless women imprisoned as drug mules - while the British government 
locks them for years in Holloway.

Brazil's ex-president Fernando Cardoso and a panel of his former 
judges announced emphatically that the war on drugs had failed and 
that "the only way to reduce violence in Mexico, Brazil or anywhere 
else is to legalise the production, supply and consumption of all 
drugs". Last month, Mexico's desperate president, Felipe Calderon, 
acknowledged that his four-year, US-financed war on the drug cartels 
had all but failed and called on the world for "a fundamental debate 
on the legalising of drugs".

The difficulty these countries face is the size of the global 
industry created by the west to meet its demand for drugs. That 
industry is certain to deploy lethal means against legalisation, as 
the alcohol barons did against the ending of prohibition. They have 
been unwittingly sponsored for decades by western leaders, and 
particularly by the United Nations which, with typical fatuity, 
declared in 1998 that it would "create a drug-free world" by 2008. 
All maintained the fiction that demand could be curbed by curbing 
supply, thus presenting their own consumers as somehow the victims of 
supplier countries.

The UN's prohibitionist drugs czar, Antonio Maria Costa, comfortably 
ensconced in Vienna, holds that cannabis is as harmful as heroin and 
cocaine, and wants to deny individual governments freedom over their 
drug policies. In eight years in office he has disastrously protected 
the drug cartels and their profits by refusing to countenance drug 
legalisation. He even suggested recently that the estimated $352bn 
generated by drug lords in 2008-09 helped save the world banking 
system from collapse. It is hard to know whose side he is on.

The evil of drugs will never be stamped out by seizing trivial 
quantities of drugs and arresting trivial numbers of traders and 
consumers. That is a mere pretence of action. Drug law enforcement 
has been the greatest regulatory failure in modern times, far greater 
in its impact on the world than that of banking. Nor is much likely 
to come from moves in both Europe and America to legalise cannabis 
use, sensible though they are. In November Californians are to vote 
on Proposition 19, to give municipalities freedom to legalise and tax 
cannabis. One farm in Oakland is forecast to yield $3m a year in 
taxes, money California's government sorely needs.

This will do nothing to combat the misery now being visited on 
Mexico. The world has to bring its biggest illegal trade under 
control. It has to legalise not just consumption but supply. There is 
evidence that drug markets respond to realistic regulation. In 
Britain, under Labour, nicotine use fell because tobacco was 
controlled and taxed, while alcohol use rose because it was 
decontrolled and made cheaper. European states that have 
decriminalised and regulated sections of their drug economies, such 
as the Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal, have found it has 
reduced consumption. Regulation works, anarchy does not.

In the case of drugs produced in industrial quantities from distant 
corners of the globe, only international action has any hope of 
success. Drug supply must be legalised, taxed and controlled. Other 
than eliminating war, there can be no greater ambition for 
international statesmanship. The boon to the peoples of the world 
would be beyond price. 
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