Pubdate: Mon, 19 May 2014
Source: Business Day (South Africa)
Column: Straight Talk
Copyright: 2014 Business Day.
Author: Mark Barnes
Page: 10


I'VE never taken any leisure drugs. I never will - well, maybe to end 
some unbearable terminal disease, but otherwise, no. But there are 
many people who do take drugs for pleasure, and there always will be. 
I don't support the use of drugs, but the current laws and their 
enforcement haven't fixed the problem, in fact, they may have made 
things worse.

The war on drugs has actually been a failure many ways with many 
unintended consequences and lots of collateral damage.

A couple of weeks ago an academic report was published by the London 
School of Economics, titled "Ending the Drug Wars", calling for a new 
approach. The report has been endorsed by no fewer than five 
economics Nobel Prize laureates, Britain's deputy prime minister, 
Nick Clegg, and George Shultz, former secretary of state of the US - 
quite some support!

The numbers aren't the only things that matter, but they're 
overwhelming. The market for drugs in the US is about $300bn. If that 
money had to be brought out of the shadows the Federal Reserve could 
stop its bond-buying programme!

Estimates vary considerably depending on what you're counting but the 
one thing that's consistent, is that they haven't changed much over 
the last decade.

The US spends about $50bn a year on drug wars and it arrests about 
1.5-million people a year for drug offences.

About 70,000 people have been killed in Mexico's drug war and related 
deaths add a huge number to this. One major cause is a result of HIV 
passed on among addicts through dirty needles. Another is overdoses. 
Yet another is unclean cuts and mixtures.

It is self-evident that making drugs illegal has had its 
consequences, and the alternatives have to be debated.

Some parts of the world have taken the brave step of legalising drugs 
across the board, no exceptions. Such apparently off-the-wall 
strategies have often proven to be inspired, despite being 
counterintuitive. Europe has taken a far more "liberal" line than the 
rest of the world, in a field where attitudes vary in the extreme.

More than a decade ago Portugal decided to legalise - perhaps 
decriminalise is a better word - all drugs. It took the view that its 
citizens would be better off if they worked with the problem, rather 
than fought it. Their efforts and their budgets went into 
rehabilitation efforts, providing clean syringes and clean drugs, and 
compassionate treatment programmes. What happened? Drug use is down 
generally, significantly, against the odds. As important is the fact 
that collateral damage has all but disappeared. As a population, the 
Portuguese are much better off.

At the other end of the spectrum we find countries such as Thailand, 
Russia and Iran where sentences for drug taking or dealing or 
possession range from labour camps to execution. If you saw Midnight 
Express, the 1978 movie based on the true story of an American 
student caught smuggling drugs out of Turkey, you've got the picture.

In the US the lawmakers also claim success. If you include marijuana, 
drug use is down by half since the 1970s - although the population is 
up and 120-million people in the US admit to using drugs, whether 
they get caught or not. But even the US is loosening the rules. 
Colorado led the way with legalising cannabis and has taken the lead 
again with the passing of the "Right to Try" law that allows 
terminally ill patients to try experimental drugs not yet approved by 
the authorities.

Somewhere in the middle we find the countries which have the laws but 
exercise a high degree of leniency in their application, particularly 
as they relate to dope smoking. Where does this leave us? There can 
be no doubt that the use of addictive drugs for pleasure 
("recreational use" - don't you just love it?) is ultimately damaging 
to society and most often destroys, really destroys, the lives of 
many millions of young people. There can likewise be no doubt that 
governments need to do something about it.

But it is abundantly clear that it is not always the blunt and 
obvious action that solves the problem, that often solutions are 
counterintuitive, but clever, and that such solutions require 
leadership and unity of purpose to see through the obvious scepticism 
and criticism they inevitably face at first.

I think we should work with it, not fight it. You simply cannot 
criminalise a widespread social phenomenon. In rugby, the best way to 
tackle a man bigger than you, bearing down upon you with the 
intention of running through you and doing you grievous bodily harm, 
is to get him to fall with his own weight, to use his own momentum to 
bring him down.

The trouble with making illegal activities that enjoy widespread 
acceptance in society (like alcohol used to be in the days of 
prohibition) is that you force the activity underground, increasing 
the price and decreasing substantially the quality of people you have 
to deal with to get your fix. Manage it, don't ban it.

If the punishment doesn't match the crime then the worst elements of 
society prevail.

Of course, the application of leniency requires an even higher 
quality of leadership than simply applying force to apply the law.

That is, after all, the measure of our civilisation, the measure of 
our advancement as a human species.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom