Pubdate: Sun, 10 Apr 2016
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Los Angeles Times
Author: Johann Hari
Note: Johann Hari is author of "Chasing The Scream: The First and 
Last Days of the War on Drugs."


The Decades-Old Consensus Built on Punishment Is Crumbling.

Once a decade, the United Nations organizes a meeting where every 
country in the world comes together to figure out what to do about 
drugs - and up to now, they've always pledged to wage a relentless 
war, to fight until the planet is "drug-free." They've consistently 
affirmed U.N. treaties written in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly by the 
United States, which require every country to arrest and imprison 
their way out of drug-related problems.

But at this year's meeting in New York City later this month, several 
countries are going to declare: This approach has been a disaster. We 
can't do this anymore. Enough.

The drug war is now the subject of a raucous debate within the U.S. - 
and if you look at the stories of three influential people who will 
speak on behalf of their countries for change at the U.N., they might 
sound strangely familiar. The reasons why U.S. citizens are rejecting 
the war on drugs are, it turns out, also the reasons why it is being 
rejected all over the world, from the Caribbean to Europe to South America.

In August 2014, the justice minister for Jamaica, Mark Golding, had 
to make a phone call no government official ever wants to make. He 
had to explain to a mother that her son was dead. Mario Deane was 
picked up on the street because he was smoking a spliff, put into 
custody and beaten to death.

It was, for Golding, a moment that made him realize he could no 
longer support his country's drug laws. All over the world, the 
criminalization of cannabis has been used as an excuse to harass 
unpopular minorities (in Jamaica's case, the poor), and, he told me, 
it has "worsened the relationship between those young men and law 
enforcement." So he persuaded the Cabinet to decriminalize cannabis 
for personal possession. "We wanted to take ganja out of the 
picture," he says, "as a medium through which the police would use 
hard or heavy policing against younger men."

Existing U.N. drug treaties allow decriminalization of drugs in small 
amounts for personal use. But they don't allow countries to create 
regulated structures for buying and selling drugs, which would drive 
the drug-dealing gangs out of business. Jamaica is therefore still 
required to wage a futile war on people who sell cannabis, and 
farmers who grow it, meaning there is still an armed conflict between 
police and the young men whom they accuse of dealing.

"A country should be in a position to design its own regime," Golding 
will argue at the U.N. "The eradication of drugs hasn't happened, 
despite decades of war waged on it." It is, he believes, unjust: "Why 
is it that people can buy a bottle of rum or a bottle of wine ... but 
you can't do that for cannabis?"

In the Czech Republic, the official responsible for drug policy is 
Jindrich Voboril. As a teenager on the streets of 
communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, Voboril was guzzling opiates and 
amphetamines and was, he told me, a "hardcore experimenter" with 
almost any substance he could find.

"I was growing up on the streets, so I was a typical street kid," he 
says. He was trying to escape an abusive home life where his father 
was an alcoholic, and a public life dominated by communist tyranny. 
"I was on the path of developing a serious drug problem," he says, 
and before long, he was watching his friends die of overdoses or suicides.

One thing that pulled Voboril away from addiction was his discovery 
of the democratic resistance. When he became an activist in the Czech 
underground he felt a new sense of meaning and purpose, and it saved him.

Soon after the dictatorship fell, he set up the first major drug 
treatment program in the Czech Republic. He wanted to create 
practical policies that would help addicts find purpose and save 
people like his friends - only to find compassionate policies were 
discouraged, or outright banned, by the global drug war, which is 
built instead on punishment. The drug war, it seemed to him, was 
based on ideology, not results, just like the communist system he had 
fought successfully to overthrow. If you put pledges for a "drug-free 
world" in a different font, he says, it could be a Stalinist slogan.

He believes that in the real world, addicts are mostly people with 
mental health problems like depression, or people trapped in terrible 
environments. Punishing them only makes the problem worse. 
Accordingly he wants to see a global transfer of resources - from 
punishing addicts to helping them turn their lives around. Such 
alternatives work.

In the 15 years since Portugal decided to decriminalize drug use and 
invest instead in treatment and prevention services, use of injected 
drugs has fallen by 50%. Since Switzerland legalized heroin for 
addicts more than a decade ago, nobody has died of an overdose on legal heroin.

A key figure in shaping Colombia's strategy at the upcoming U.N. 
conference is Maricio Rodriguez, an economist and diplomat. The drug 
war, he told me in Cartagena, is "the worst tragedy we have ever 
lived in, in Colombia and probably all of Latin America." The 
combined death toll from the Latin American drug war exceeds even the 
war in Syria. "Every day that goes by is a day in which we are losing 
hundreds of people and we are losing hundreds of millions of 
dollars," he explains.

Like most Colombians, he has relatives who were murdered when 
narco-traffickers were taking over the country. "Everybody has a 
story," he says.

To explain why this carnage is happening, Rodriguez cited the late 
Nobel Prize-winning U.S. economist Milton Friedman, who grew up in 
Chicago under alcohol prohibition, and learned there what happens if 
you ban a popular substance. It doesn't matter whether the government 
targets whiskey or cocaine; a ban forces legal businesses out of the 
market - and armed criminal gangs take it over. They then go to war 
to control the trade. But once the prohibition ends, so does the 
violence. (Ask yourself: Where are the violent alcohol dealers today?)

Ranged against reform-minded countries at the U.N. conference will be 
governments that want to maintain or even intensify the global war, 
including Russia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and China. Although the U.S. has 
historically been the most hard-line country, this time, its 
representatives will arrive at the conference in breach of U.N. drug 
treaties. The drug laws require a war on cannabis, but four U.S. 
states and the District of Columbia have now fully legalized the 
drug. Nobody knows what the result of this U.N. meeting will be, but 
nobody will ever be able to say again that the world is united behind 
the idea of a drug war.

Voboril, the Czech Republic's street user turned government minister, 
told me he is itching to tell the U.N. a simple truth: "This is 
reality: This is hundreds of thousands of people dying ... for one 
simple reason - some governments just don't want to change. Nothing else."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom