Pubdate: Sat, 23 Feb 2013
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2013 The Economist Newspaper Limited


At last, drug prohibition is being challenged by fresh thinking

UNTIL recently it seemed that nothing would disturb the international
consensus that the best way to deal with narcotic and psychotropic
drugs is to ban them. Codified in a United Nations convention, this
policy has proved impervious to decades of failure. Drug consumption
has not, in most parts of the world, fallen. Prohibition inflicts
appalling damage, through the spread of organised crime, the needless
deaths of addicts exposed to adulterated drugs and the mass
incarceration of young men.

Officials in two American states, Colorado and Washington, are
pondering how to implement their voters' decisions in referendums last
November to legalise marijuana (cannabis). A dozen countries in Europe
and the Americas have deemed the possession of some drugs no longer to
be a criminal offence. A few Latin American presidents want a rethink
of the "war" on the supply and trafficking of drugs.

Several forces are bringing change. First, public attitudes are
starting to shift. Americans have seen that the widespread
availability of marijuana for ostensibly medical use has not led to
mass addiction. Polls show that around half now support full
legalisation. In Britain, a poll this week found a similar proportion
in favour of decriminalising cannabis possession.

Latin America is also tiring of trying to suppress production. That is
not surprising: in several countries, the death toll associated with
efforts to combat the drug business has risen to the level of a
conventional war. Mexicans complain that the notion of "shared
responsibility" proclaimed by international bureaucrats means that
their people get killed whereas the United States, with its soft gun
laws, arms the traffickers, launders their money and consumes their

Changes in the drug market, meanwhile, are undermining the idea that
the problem can be dealt with only at an international level.
Synthetic drugs, such as amphetamines and Ecstasy, are now more widely
used than cocaine and heroin. Scientists dream up new "highs", while
the law lags. As a result, the neat distinction between "consumer",
"supply" and "transit" countries has broken down: the United States
and Europe are big producers of cannabis and synthetics, while Brazil,
formerly a "transit" country, is now the world's second-biggest
consumer of cocaine. That is leading to experimentation with drug
policy at a national and state level.

The Economist has long argued that prohibition is illiberal in
principle and harmful in practice, and that the least-bad way of
dealing with drugs is to legalise and regulate their production and
consumption. But we recognise that it takes a brave politician to face
down the moral panic that surrounds the issue. This new thinking,
though limited, is therefore welcome. Legalising consumption allows
drug use and addiction (by no means the same thing) to be treated as
the public-health issues they are. That in turn means applying the
principle of harm reduction, for example by providing clean needles to
addicts to prevent the spread of HIV.

But decriminalising consumption does nothing to break the grip of
gangsters over the drug business. For that to happen, production and
distribution also need to be legalised. That is why the experiment
under way in the United States is so important. Colorado and
Washington now have the chance to create a legal but regulated market
in marijuana, similar to those for tobacco or alcohol. Their
referendums approved sales of drugs through regulated outlets only,
and not to minors. The states now need to design a way of taxing
cannabis that discourages consumption while avoiding the creation of a
black market.

This experiment has three potential benefits. It should help to
determine whether legalisation boosts drug use. It will undermine
Mexican drug gangs, which earn perhaps $2 billion a year from cannabis
exports to America. And it might provide a model for regulating other,
harder, drugs.

The feds should stand back

A threat hangs over the scheme: in 2005 the Supreme Court upheld the
federal ban on marijuana for medical use, even in states where this
was legal, because of the risk that the drug would leak to other
states. The danger of leakage will increase once this experiment gets
under way. So it is encouraging that Barack Obama has said that he
does not see prosecution of pot smokers in Colorado and Washington as
a "top priority", which means that he plans to do nothing for the
moment. Since most of the benefits of legalisation will take a while
to show up, it is to be hoped that he will hold his nerve.

One immediate consequence is that the United States will be in breach
of the UN Convention. Good. It should now join Latin American
governments in an effort to reform that outdated document to allow
signatories room to experiment. Imposing a failed policy on everybody
benefits nobody.
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