Pubdate: Sun, 09 Feb 2014
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited
Page: 38


It was with great foresight that a Conservative backbench MP stood up
during a parliamentary debate in the House of Commons in 2002 and
pleaded with the then Labour government to rethink its commitment to
the "war on drugs". "I ask the Labour government not to return to
retribution and war on drugs. That has been tried and we all know that
it does not work."

Contributions like this have been all too rare from British
politicians, particularly at a time when the debate about the merits
of prohibition has changed so radically in recent years. That is most
evident in the Americas, both North and South.

Over the past five years, Latin American support for the "war on
drugs" has ebbed away. The so-called "drug-producing" nations have
tired of bearing the brunt of the violence as they attempt to
eliminate the supply of drugs to the "drug-consuming" nations to the

In Latin America the war on drugs presents a different order of threat
than that posed in the US and Europe. The threat is an existential one
because prohibition has the effect of driving profits and power into
the hands of murderous cartels. They corrupt, challenge and often
destroy the institutions of the state  the police, the judiciary and
the body politic. Colombia very nearly succumbed to the cartels during
a decade when drugrelated violence tore the heart out of the
institutions of the state and left many civilians dead. Politicians,
public prosecutors and members of the judiciary were ruthlessly
targeted. Many of the politicians who escaped death only did so
because they were in the pay of the cartels. Welcome to the war on

Guatemala and Honduras are the new battle spaces, facing exactly the
same challenges as Colombia did. No wonder Latin Americans are tired
of paying such a high price. In recent years the presidents of
Colombia and Guatemala - and international bodies and reports such as
the Organisation of America States and the Global Commission on Drug
Policy - are speaking with one voice: the war on drugs can never be
won; we need to look at alternatives.

And while prohibition in the west poses its own challenges and creates
its own misery, it is not a threat to the very fabric of the state.
But since their citizens - largely - create the demand that fuels the
war on drugs they have a moral responsibility that they have
shamefully failed to acknowledge.

But the debate is changing in North America - as Kasia
Malinowska-Sempruch makes clear in other pages today - and public
opinion is driving significant policy changes. American states are
introducing - or considering - a licensed, regulated market for
marijuana. Since January, people can buy marijuana in Colorado for
recreational purposes. Washington State will soon follow suit.

An indication of the new direction of travel came last month at the
World Economic Forum when the Republican Texas governor Rick Perry
said: "After 40 years of the war on drugs, I can't change what
happened in the past. What I can do as the governor of the second
largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us
toward a decriminalisation and keeps people from going to prison and
destroying their lives, and that's what we've done over the last decade."

Last October, the head of the US Justice Department, Eric Holder,
said: "As the so-called 'war on drugs' enters its fifth decade, we
need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been
truly effective... Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and
incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many

But in Britain we have heard nothing from frontline political figures.
Until now, which is why Nick Clegg's intervention is a welcome one and
may start a debate on the merits or otherwise of the war on drugs.

The onus is on those who support prohibition to make the case for
prolonging a war that has evidently failed. Political figures in the
UK and Europe need to engage with the changing tide of public opinion
in the Americas and investigate whether market alternatives may
provide a better solution than prohibition.

Perhaps the Conservative backbencher who entered the debate in 2002
and declared the war on drugs a failure would care to re-enter the
debate? Especially as he is now the prime minister.
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MAP posted-by: Matt