Pubdate: Wed, 18 Apr 2012
Source: Edmonton Journal (CN AB)
Copyright: 2012 The Edmonton Journal
Page: A25
Author: Dan Gardner


It's Time For Canada To Take A Sober Look At New Policies

On the weekend, at the Summit of the Americas, Prime Minister Stephen 
Harper expressed doubt about the war on drugs. "I think what 
everybody believes and agrees with, and to be frank myself, is that 
the current approach is not working, but it is not clear what we should do."

It's admirable for a politician to admit uncertainty. And rare. 
Especially for a politician who has never expressed anything less 
than unshakable conviction in the Reaganite nostrums of drug 
prohibition. But Harper had good reason to be a little shaken.

The summit was held in Cartagena, Colombia, and the host, Colombian 
president Juan Manuel Santos, put the war on drugs at the top of the 
agenda. It was the only topic of discussion at the final meeting. And 
although we don't know in detail what was said - it was a closed-door 
discussion - the broad outlines are clear.

The war on drugs isn't working. Santos and other Latin American 
leader have said so, in public, repeatedly. Drug production is 
suppressed in one country so it surges in another. Trade routes are 
cut o so more are created. Kingpins are jailed or killed and dozens 
of would-be kingpins open fire - precisely the sort of "success" that 
has created more than 50,000 corpses in Mexico since 2006.

And all the while, corruption rots institutions from within as 
traffickers give politicians, judges, and police officers the awful 
choice of "silver or lead."

And for what? The standard metrics for measuring success are price 
and purity: when drug supply is successfully restricted, the price of 
drugs goes up while the purity goes down. But over the last 30 years 
- - as Canada and other nations poured literally hundreds of billions 
of dollars into suppression, interdiction and enforcement - the price 
of cocaine and other illicit drugs plummeted while purity soared.

In 1998, the world's leaders gathered for a United Nations General 
Assembly special session, at which they pledged to "eliminate or 
significantly reduce" the production of illicit drugs by 2008. "There 
are naysayers who believe a global fight against illegal drugs is 
unwinnable," said the UN'S top drug cop. "I say emphatically they are 
wrong." By 2008, illicit drug production was bigger than ever.

But even that doesn't capture the full scale of the failure. Consider 
that in 1971, the year U.S. President Richard Nixon coined the term 
"war on drugs," the vast majority of Canadians and Americans had 
never seen or smelled marijuana, let alone smoked it, and only a 
determined e ort could locate drugs like heroin and cocaine in shady 
parts of a few major cities.

Today, after 41 years of global war, the illicit drug trade's 
distribution and retail network puts Fedex and Walmart to shame.

In Latin America, where "war on drugs" is not a metaphor, a leader 
would have to be completely ignorant to think the current approach is 
anything but a catastrophic failure. But only retired officials said 
so in the past. The former president of Colombia. The former 
president of Brazil. The former secretary general of the United 
Nations (Javier Perez de Cuellar, a Peruvian). Current officials 
never seriously questioned the status quo. They couldn't. The U.S. 
government would blackball them if they did.

The fact that Santos and others are speaking out is a historic 
change. So far, the United States has been respectful, with President 
Barack Obama saying that while he opposes legalization it's a 
legitimate discussion to have.

Something has changed. And Santos has caught the moment perfectly.

At the Summit of the Americas, Santos got the leaders to ask the 
Organization of American States to undertake a comprehensive review 
of drug policies and options for change. The outcome of that review, 
a Santos adviser told the Guardian, "could mean anything from blanket 
legalization to a new and different war on drugs. We just do not know 
until we have the data, investigate every option with open minds, and 
have the full picture drawn up by experts who know the terrain, and 
are not motivated by interest, ideology or emotion. Whatever it is, 
it must be real change, based upon new paradigms."

That review may not sound like much but it could be a big deal if done right.

As crazy as it sounds, governments have poured spectacular amounts of 
money into drug prohibition with little or no analysis of what good 
it's doing. That was the basic conclusion of a 2001 National Academy 
of Sciences report that looked at the $30 billion a year the U.S. was spending.

A report the same year from Canada's auditor general was even more scathing.

The federal government didn't have defined goals, or any way to 
determine if they were being met. It didn't even know how much it was 
spending. (The AG guesstimated the feds alone spent half a billion 
dollars a year. The provinces and cities spent much more, although 
how much more "is not known.")

The word that best sums up the whole mess cannot be printed in this 
newspaper. Let's just say that this is, as the British might put it, 
a cock-up of colossal proportions.

And let's not fool ourselves into thinking that we have seriously 
discussed this. We haven't.

Marijuana decriminalization is a worthy subject but it's trivial in 
the big scheme. Same with supervised injection sites and the one or 
two other drug related items that have received some media attention 
and political debate.

In reality, drug policy is enormously complex and entangled with 
major problems - organized crime, terrorism, insurgency, corruption, 
disease, social deprivation, inequality - that span the globe. It 
also has a long history that few people know, which explains why so 
many politicians propose "changes" that are actually very old ideas 
that failed in the forgotten past.

Colombia's president has the right idea. We must, first, accept that 
the status quo is a mess. That doesn't mean committing to any 
particular change. It just means acknowledging what is obviously true.

Then we need research. We need the history of how we got here. We 
need myths to be swept away. We need the essential statistics and the 
best available research. And then we need to lay out the options for change.

Drug policy is routinely presented as a choice between the war on 
drugs and corner stores selling heroin to kids. That's nonsense.

There is a vast array of regulatory options between these two 
extremes. We need to lay them out.

With luck, the OAS report will do all that. But even if it does it 
will be missing much of what Canadians need to know. Which is why we 
need our own royal commission.

Yes, we had the Le Dain Commission of 1972. But that was before AIDS 
and globalization and the modern war on drugs. It was another world.

We need a royal commission. Tom Mulcair is in favour. And the prime 
minister? If what he said was sincere, he should be, too. And act accordingly.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart