After 40 years of defeat and failure, America's "war on drugs" is being buried in the same fashion as it was born – amid bloodshed, confusion, corruption and scandal. US agents are being pulled from South America; Washington is putting its narcotics policy under review, and a newly confident region is no longer prepared to swallow its fatal Prohibition error. Indeed, after the expenditure of billions of dollars and the violent deaths of tens of thousands of people, a suitable epitaph for America's longest "war" may well be the plan, in Bolivia, for every family to be given the right to grow coca in its own backyard.
If there is a "war on drugs", this is it. Mexico is undergoing worse violence than has been seen in Latin America in decades. President Felipe Calderon's decision to take the fight to the narcos has been returned with drug gang brutality on a massive scale. If any good is to come out of the tragedy afflicting Mexico, it is that the misguided global approach to drug regulation will be challenged and may, eventually, be changed.
The outcome of this militarisation of drugs policy has been overwhelmingly negative. Military involvement in such an irregular war was not only unrealistic, but has also proved counterproductive. Every once in a while, a momentous triumph is announced in one or another country. But within a few years, the proliferation of front lines in the "war on drugs" reveals that such "success" was, at best, a pyrrhic victory. Meanwhile, democracy deteriorates, national insecurity spreads and human rights violations worsen.
The war on drugs is a lost war, and 2011 is the time to move away from a punitive approach in order to pursue a new set of policies based on public health, human rights, and commonsense. These were the core findings of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy that I convened, together with former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia.
Some anniversaries provide an occasion for celebration, others a time for reflection, still others a time for action. This June will mark forty years since President Nixon declared a "war on drugs," identifying drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1." As far as I know, no celebrations are planned. What's needed, indeed essential, are reflection -- and action.
The war on drugs creates massive costs, resulting from the enforcement-led approach that puts organised crime in control of the trade. It is time to count these costs and explore the alternatives, using the best evidence available, to deliver a safer, healthier and more just world.
When the United Nations adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, most people did not expect that 50 years later nobody will celebrate the anniversary of global drug prohibition but a group of drug lords. Drug prohibition created a lucrative black market that generates annual revenue of 320 billion dollars for organized crime: who else have a better reason to celebrate?
Police efforts to fight drug gangs tend to lead to more violence and an increase in murders, according to a new international study. The authors, writing in the International Journal of Drug Policy, admit they were surprised by their own findings. Their hypothesis was that the results "would demonstrate an association between increased drug law enforcement expenditures or intensity and reduced levels of violence". But that's not what they showed. Instead, they report: "From an evidence-based public policy perspective and based on several decades of available data, the existing scientific evidence suggests drug law enforcement contributes to gun violence and high homicide rates and that increasingly sophisticated methods of disrupting organisations involved in drug distribution could paradoxically increase violence."
The UK's "outdated" drug laws could be doing more harm than good and are failing to recognise that banning some "legal highs" may have negative consequences for public health, according to the leading independent panel set up to analyse drugs policy. On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Misuse of Drugs Act, the UK Drug Policy Commission warns that the exponential rise in "legal highs" and the availability of substances over the internet is making current laws redundant.
The Group of Eight major industrialized economies want to stop the cocaine industry dead in its tracks. But experts say they may be focusing too much on smuggling and not enough on drug use. Representatives from the G8 leading industrialized nations met recently in the French capital, accompanied by officials from 14 other European, African and Latin American nations, to sign a draft action plan against the transatlantic cocaine trade.
The most striking name on the list is that of Kofi Annan. As secretary general of the United Nations in 1998, Kofi Annan presided over a special United Nations assembly on illicit drugs, which brought together leaders from all over the world. Shortly before that historic event, a letter of protest was delivered to the UN chief.
"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."
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.