Pubdate: Sun, 09 Feb 2014
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Nick Clegg
Page: 36


Last Week, Nick Clegg Was in Colombia, Where He Witnessed Dramatic
Measures to Combat the Grip of Drug Lords.

Meanwhile, in the US, a Dramatic Shift in Public Opinion From Left and
Right Is Creating Alternatives to Prohibition

I want to end the tradition where politicians only talk about drugs
when they've left office because they fear the consequences

If Britain were fighting a war where 2,000 people died every year,
where increasing numbers of our young people were recruited by the
enemy and our opponents were always a step ahead, developing new
weapons faster than we could combat them, there would be outcry and
loud calls for change. Yet this is exactly the situation with the "war
on drugs" and for far too long we have resisted a proper debate about
the need for a different strategy.

Last week, I travelled to Colombia with the largest delegation of UK
businesses ever to visit the country. Our bilateral relations are
growing stronger, exports are increasing and British businesses are
making deals that will pay dividends for many years. Colombia is a
country now realising its great potential, but it is also a country
still coming to terms with its past. That includes, with its
neighbours, still suffering from the debilitating and socially
corrosive effects of the global drugs trade.

Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, has already shown the kind
of courageous leadership that the world needs to tackle this issue. He
sponsored last year's influential drugs report produced by the
Organisation of American States (OAS). In Bogota last week, we
discussed the study's findings and the call for more research of this
kind, which approaches the drugs problem without preconceptions. We
agreed on the need to widen the debate beyond the false choice between
rapid legalisation of all drugs or military crackdown. Neither can
solve the problem.

For Colombia, part of the solution is economic growth and reducing
poverty. That is why it was so refreshing to be there announcing new
business deals, a new direct flight to London and an expansion of
educational co-operation.

To build on the progress it has made, Colombia's people need jobs.
Young men need to know they can earn a living outside of the criminal
gangs that have dominated their communities. Only then will the
control and power of the cartels begin to wane.

The country now has a young, enthusiastic and creative generation
entering the work force. They have to be given the freedom to succeed
and set a new course for their country. This is why the peace process
with Farc is so important. It has the potential to end one of the
longest and most deadly conflicts in the world. This will take courage
and compromise. But to have security there must also be zero tolerance
for violations of human rights. I welcomed President Santos's
commitment to this and to end the violence and harassment that have
scarred Colombia's past.

The country is ready for change and I detected a significant shift in
the public mood. I met former child soldiers, once recruited by
guerrilla and paramilitary groups, and now enrolled in government
programmes that help them start a new life. These were young men, who,
at the age of 12, were forced into a horrific life. The criminal gangs
had such a hold on communities that boys could only survive by joining

It was an incredible experience to talk to them and hear that for the
first time they dared to imagine a brighter future, free from
violence. They were studying, had access to healthcare and had jobs.
Two were training to be nurses and another was going into the priesthood.

I also met representatives of Colombian human rights NGOs and Peace
Brigades International: courageous individuals working to construct a
more tolerant, inclusive society. All were clear about the central
role of the drugs trade in perpetuating conflict and violence and the
need to build a better future.

These experiences hammered home to me the reality that drugs are a
global problem with victims all around the world. We can only tackle
the harm they cause by working together with international partners
such as President Santos and his government in Colombia.

Many people in Britain and the rest of Europe will still be unaware of
the impact drug use in western nations has on countries on the
frontline of the drugs trade. It is only right, then, that we play a
part in helping to find a solution.

It is why I am a firm believer in the need for a royal commission in
Britain and why I am so disappointed at my coalition partner's refusal
to engage in a proper discussion about the drugs problem.

We should be led by the evidence of what works, not guesswork. That is
why the OAS study is so significant and why Liberal Democrats in
government are conducting a study of international alternatives. This
is the first proper UK government report examining the different
approaches in other countries.

I believe there is an increasing critical mass of international
voices, in Latin America and in Europe. They are saying we've got to
think anew and mustn't be limited by our blinkered view about what the
approach was in the past.

No country can solve this problem alone. The UN has agreed to hold a
special session on drug law reform in 2016. It cannot come soon
enough. The current UN drugs conventions badly need revising. I want
European countries to work together to agree a common position in
favour of reform to take to that discussion in 2016. The UK can lead
the debate in Europe and Europe can lead the debate in the world. But
we must be prepared to start afresh with a new mindset and be prepared
to do things differently.

The status quo is failing. One in five young people has admitted
taking drugs in the last year. Cocaine use has more than trebled since
1996. Every time someone dies of an overdose, it should shame our
political class. One thing we must do is break the link between
addiction and crime. If we treat addiction as a health issue, we can
free the addicts from the criminal gangs that blight their lives and
our communities.

I want to end the tradition where politicians only talk about drugs
reform when they have left office because they fear the political
consequences. This has stifled debate and inhibited a proper
examination of our approach.

We need to bring this issue out into the open and to be led by the
evidence of what works. We owe it to our young people, to the families
torn apart by addiction and to the states that look to us for
leadership and advice. We can help countries such as Colombia break
the stranglehold of the drug lords once and for all.

The choice we have to make now is how we do things differently.
Repeating the mistakes of the past is not the way to solve this
problem in the future. Put simply, if you are anti-drugs, you should
be pro-reform.
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MAP posted-by: Matt