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And Does the War on Drugs Still Make Sense?



By Larry Smith



Today's moralistic attitude towards drug use was developed in the late 19th century, when religious reformers pushed for a law enforcement approach to what previously had been a matter of personal choice.


These crusaders were able to criminalise the possession of opium and its derivatives morphine and heroin, as well as cocaine, around the time of the First World War, with cannabis following soon after.


Before then opiates were freely available in Western societies, both on their own and as an unregulated ingredient in tonics and medicines. Morphine was a popular painkiller, heroin was produced by Bayer in 1895 as a "safe" cough remedy, and cocaine was an early ingredient in Coca Cola.


In fact, people have used drugs for religion, recreation and medicine since prehistoric times, with opium having perhaps the longest pedigree. Made from the sap of the poppy plant, it was an international trade item as early as the second millennium BC.


In the modern era, this commerce was so profitable that it led to war. Experts say that today's drug cartels cannot compete with the British East India Company's industrial efforts to supply Chinese users in the early 19th century. The so-called opium wars famously led to the takeover of Hong Kong and the forced legalisation of the drug trade in China.


But, as with the slave trade, public opinion eventually turned. And from 1874 British missionaries and moralists fought a relentless campaign that culminated in a 1906 decision to end India's drug exports. By then, opium was a global commodity as important as coffee or tea.


As efforts grew to place narcotics under international control, the Opium Convention of 1912 was agreed to help resolve the British-caused drug problems in China. And in 1914 the US imposed heavy restrictions on the use of opiates and cocaine.


By the 1920s, both the US and Britain had banned these drugs, and the American temperance movement had succeeded in making alcohol illegal too (until 1933). Attempts were also made at this time to control cannabis - another plant-derived drug that has been in common use since ancient times.


Needless to say, cannabis was outlawed in 1937.

But many argue that the outright prohibition of drugs has led directly to the awesome problems of corruption and violence we face today. Crime syndicates in the world's major cities now organize a global traffic in illicit drugs - a market response that only ruthless totalitarian regimes can effectively counter.


President Richard Nixon unleashed the first US anti-drug war in the early 1970s after heroin use among troops in Vietnam soared. Nixon suppressed the so-called French Connection, which converted Turkish opium to heroin for the US market.


But that only increased global demand. And the Reagan and Bush administrations were forced to pursue similar policies in Latin America and Asia with limited results. Cocaine became a major commodity during the 1980s, as Bahamians know from direct experience as a transit point in this hugely profitable business.


Rather than eradicating the drug trade, prohibition drove it underground. And experts continue to predict rapid growth in the global supply of illicit drugs, together with more drug abuse and a rise in the undesirable side-effects of the trade - corruption, violence, organised crime and illegal arms trading.


According to Stanford University philosopher Sam Harris, current drug policies make no sense: "Concerns about the health of our citizens, or about their productivity, are red herrings in this debate, as the legality of alcohol and cigarettes attest."


He points out that alcohol is by far the more dangerous substance. It is addictive, its lethal dose is easily achieved, and it accounts for more violence, more crime, more sickness, more death and more arrests than all other drugs combined.


"And yet," Harris says, "people are still receiving life sentences for growing selling, possessing, or buying what is, in effect, a naturally growing plant. Cancer patients and paraplegics have been sentenced to decades in prison for marijuana possession...The only explanation is that our discourse on this subject has never been obliged to function within the bounds of rationality."


So what are the consequences of current drug policies?


As newspaper columnist Jack Cole wrote recently: "America's futile effort to arrest its way out of our drug problems has cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion since 1970. It funds terrorists and clogs the court system, yet our kids report that it can be easier for them to buy illegal drugs than beer or cigarettes."


In fact, every major study over the past 50 years in Canada, the United States and Europe agrees that decriminalization of drug use, under almost any scenario, is better than the current drug war approach. To see why, all we need to do is ask how many millions of people need to be arrested and imprisoned to solve the world's drug problem.


In the US alone there are an estimated 16 million regular drug users (two thirds use only marijuana), and the prisons are already full at 1.5 million inmates. In the Bahamas, we all know that Fox Hill Prison is so overcrowded and badly run that it is a major public health problem and security threat in its own right.


Clearly, banning drugs creates more “criminals” and costs more money than the use of drugs themselves.


Criminalization forces users to obtain drugs from an environment that is violent and where crime is inevitable. It inflates revenues, increases the power of criminal gangs and requires ever greater enforcement efforts.


The American experience with alcohol prohibition is instructive. According to one expert: "As the illegal trade boomed, so did the number of violent crimes. Robberies, burglaries and assaults increased significantly during Prohibition. About 880 'gangsters' died in turf wars in Chicago alone. And the overall murder rate hit record highs. Then, in 1933, alcohol was legalized and violent crime dropped immediately."


But perhaps the greatest argument against the current law enforcement approach is the threat to social stability and the danger that organised crime will turn more countries into failed states through widespread corruption and violence. It almost happened here in the Caribbean in the 1980s.


The United Nations has valued the international drug trade at $400 billion a year - more than the trade in textiles or motor vehicles. The Financial Action Task Force came up with an estimate of $280 billion. But whatever the size of the market, traffickers can easily earn returns of thousands of percentage points on their investment - tax-free. It is all but impossible to end the drug trade in the face of such profits.


As Sam Harris says: "Given the magnitude of the real problems that confront us, our war on sin is so outrageously unwise as to almost defy rational comment."

In short, current drug policy is both irrational and ineffective.


Many experts argue that the only sound policy is to bring the drug trade within the law, so that it can be taxed, controlled and discouraged. Drug prices would decrease significantly, drug potency could be more closely monitored and gainful crimes would be greatly reduced.

Police and government officials could then re-direct their resources into other areas, such as investigating and prosecuting violent crime.


These resources are considerable - the Canadian government spends $500 million a year to address illicit drug use, and the American drug control budget is almost $13 billion.


Drug reformers say that the war on drugs has not only failed to meet the public health objectives of preventing addiction, intoxication and abuse, and prompting an overall decrease in drug use - it has aggravated the situation by supporting a huge underground market and depriving thousands of medical treatment.


But this is a highly emotional debate. Reformers think that those who are interested in tougher drug control want to turn the world into a police state. And drug warriors think the reformers are addicts who want to make more addicts.


And even if we legalize drugs, there will still be a revenue stream. Whoever gets that revenue will try to maximize it: "What you might call the political economy of drug legalization is a bigger problem than the legalizers seem to grasp," says Mark Kleinman, a professor of social research at the University of California.


All things considered, it's a very tough call.



Larry Smith writes a column called "Tough Call" every Wednesday for the Bahamas' Nassau Tribune. A former reporter and editor, he now operates a communications agency in Nassau (www.bahamasmedia.com). He also blogs at Bahamapundit.


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