Scientists, lawyers, police, social workers, doctors and directors of public prosecution are pleading for change but no political party will touch the issue in Australia. Public debate on the subject remains as primitive as ever. After all these years we are still dealing with the basics – over and over again. That's no accident. It's what moral panic driven by some media does.
We are supposedly engaged in a "war on drugs." What war on drugs? A phoney war, because it provokes that which it proclaims to repress. Take three countries with different approaches to recreational drugs: the United States, Canada and the Netherlands. The first two rely on a punitive approach. The Netherlands prefer harm reduction. As is notorious, Dutch citizens can openly enjoy cannabis in coffee shops. So does the Netherlands swarm with drug-crazed zombies? Look at the percentage of the population (15 to 64) who use cannabis annually. In the U.S., 13.7 per cent. In Canada, 12.6 per cent. In the Netherlands: 5.4 per cent. For every Dutch pot smoker, there are 2.3 Canadians and 2.5 Americans.
Imagine an extremely expensive government policy proven to be completely ineffective at achieving its stated objectives. Consider also that whenever this policy is subjected to any kind of impact assessment, the government’s own data clearly show that the policy has been ineffective, expensive and fuelled the growth of organized crime. Finally, imagine this remarkable set of circumstances persisting for decades — at great cost to taxpayers and community safety — and yet elected officials say and do nothing to address the status quo.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the Beckley Foundation published a public letter calling for a new approach in drug policy. The global war on drugs has failed, and has had many unintended and devastating consequences worldwide. Signed by a group of 60 major thinkers, Nobel Prize winners and celebrities including Sting, Yoko Ono and seven former presidents, this letter calls on members of the public and of Parliament to recognize that "improving our drug policies is one of the key policy challenges of our time."
In a parliamentary debate in the House of Commons, David Cameron said: "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." That was in December 2002. And as a member of the home affairs select committee on drug misuse, Cameron supported the following recommendation: "That the government initiates a discussion within the Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways – including the possibility of legalisation and regulation – to tackle the global drugs dilemma."
Santos spelled out the radical ideas which he hopes will create a fresh approach. He said: "A new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking… If that means legalising, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it. I'm not against it." But he is clear that any initiatives need to be part of a co-ordinated international plan of action and he rules out any unilateral action by Colombia. "What I won't do is to become the vanguard of that movement because then I will be crucified."
This contradicts one of the central tenets of the War on Drugs, which is that the psychopharmacological effects of drug use lead to criminal behavior. Most studies show that it's in fact the competition of an unregulated market that encourages the majority of violent crime. This concept was evidenced during the prohibition era in the 1920s, a time that coincided with an increase in crime, corruption, and contempt for law.
Tobacco rose and fell and rose and fell in a 400-year smoking spree that established a pattern for the trade in all addictive substances. Beginning with tobacco, governments have sought to ban drugs as soon as they arrive, invariably invoking their destructive effects on family and nation. Governments waffle between turning blind eyes to the criminals and fighting them bloodily. The ultimate ends of this process – legalisation, social stigma, and, most direly, unfashionability – suggest what will happen to the global market for marijuana and heroin.
Anniversaries are always good to catalyize drug policy reform activities – and 2011 is very special anniversary. It is the 50th anniversary of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the first international treaty prohibiting (some) drugs. NGOs launched an international campaign to show the world that the war on drugs creates massive costs, resulting from the enforcement-led approach that puts organised crime in control of the trade.
New "legal highs" are being discovered at the rate of one a week, outstripping attempts to control their availability and exposing what some experts claim is the "ridiculous and irrational" government policy of prohibition. Given the plethora of new substances, the government's attempts to ban legal highs is not a "feasible" solution.
The central statistic of Mexico's violent drug war – 40,000 gangland murders in the past five years – is repeated so often it almost fails to alarm us anymore. But what happened last Thursday, Aug. 25, in the northern business capital of Monterrey – 52 innocent people massacred after gangsters set fire to a casino, presumably in a drug-cartel extortion operation – left even President Felipe Calderón sounding distressed. So agitated, in fact, that drug-war analysts believe Calderón, in his speech the next day, signaled a change in philosophy and told the U.S. to think about legalizing drugs as a way of weakening vicious drug traffickers.
War, as I came to report it, was something fought between people with causes, however crazy or honourable: like between the American and British occupiers of Iraq and the insurgents who opposed them. Then I stumbled across Mexico's drug war – which has claimed nearly 40,000 lives, mostly civilians – and all the rules changed. This is warfare for the 21st century, and another creature altogether.
Life is especially difficult for the 6 million drug addicts living in Russia because methadone is banned, and they are reluctant to use the few available needle and syringe exchange programmes for fear of being exposed. New drug laws are being drawn up by the Russian Government in its “total war on drugs”. These will go against the evidence-based treatments endorsed by organisations such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNAIDS, and WHO.
I recently returned from the desert city of Durango, Mexico, where forensic officials are still trying to identify some 240 corpses discovered this year in mass graves. More than 200 other bodies have been found in similar fosas across northern Mexico. All were victims, many of them innocent victims, of the drug-trafficking violence whose barbarity seems bottomless. But it's fueled in large part by the just as endless American appetite for illegal drugs – which itself is due in no small part to the fact that our anti-drug policies are so narrow-mindedly focused on battling supply instead of reducing demand.
Forty years after President Richard Nixon first declared a war on drugs, the officers who fought in it are calling for a truce. Former law enforcement officials gathered in the District of Columbia on Tuesday to announce their new report. It details the failures of the government's long battle against illegal drugs and denounces the Obama administration's current drug policies. "Since President Nixon declared 'war on drugs' four decades ago, this failed policy has led to millions of arrests, a trillion dollars spent and countless lives lost, yet drugs today are more available than ever," said Norm Stamper, former chief of police in Seattle and a speaker for legalization-advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
Tony Newman (Director of Media Relations, Bill Piper (Drug Policy Alliance)
14 June 2011
June 17 will mark forty years since President Richard Nixon, citing drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1," officially declared a "war on drugs." A trillion dollars and millions of ruined lives later, the war on drugs has proven to be a catastrophic failure.
"Sending more people to prison will not reduce drug addiction or improve public health," said Anya Sarang, president of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, an advocacy group for people with HIV which works with injecting drug users (IDUs). "Russian prisons are terrible places full of HIV, tuberculosis and other diseases. Drugs are often even more accessible there than anywhere else." She added: "What we need instead of this harsh drug control rhetoric is greater emphasis on rehabilitation, substitution treatment, case management for drug users and protection from HIV."
Tomorrow marks the 79th anniversary of the beginning of the end of the U.S. prohibition on alcohol. On that day in 1932 John D. Rockefeller Jr., a vociferous advocate of temperance, called for the repeal of the 18th amendment in a letter published in the New York Times. Rockefeller had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying for the constitutional prohibition on alcohol. But his letter did more than admit the error of his investment. Because of his moral authority on the matter, it effectively ended the conservative taboo against admitting that the whole experiment had failed.
"I've seen the war on drugs and I've not been impressed," says Richard Branson. "Thousands of people are being killed in Mexico because of the demand for drugs in America. Whole sections of society are becoming lawless, and most of it is over marijuana." He says it's "incredible" how little the debate has moved on since the 1960s. "It has just got worse and worse and worse."