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In the Western world today, there is a group of people who live in a haze of unreality, and are prone at any moment to break into paranoia, hallucinations, and screaming. If you try to get between them and their addiction, they will become angry and aggressive and lash out. They need our help. I am talking, of course, about the Drug Prohibitionists: the gaggle of politicians, bishops and journalists who still insist that the only way to deal with the very widespread drug use in our societies is for it to be criminalized, where it is untaxed, unregulated, controlled by armed criminal gangs, and horribly adulterated.
An addict can only really begin to grapple with his problem when he hits rock bottom. This year, the prohibitionists hit theirs, as they unleashed the destruction of Mexico. But in Britain, there was a smaller story that serves as a perfect parable for how fact-free their cause now is.
In March, two young men called Louis Wainwright and Nicholas Smith died in a nightclub in the English town of Scunthorpe. We now know what happened: they drank massive amounts of alcohol along with sedatives. But the prohibitionists embarked on a sudden, violent hallucination. They immediately announced - with no evidence, long before the autopsy - that these young men were the first victims of the party drug Mephedrone. The Drug Warriors had been nervously eyeing this a snort-or-swallow amphetamine since it started growing in popularity in 2008, and had swelled to be as popular as ecstasy. Surely it was evil! Surely it would kill! Now, they said, it had - and it must be banned.
From the moment the story broke, it became filled with fictions and fantasies. Even the name of the drug was a fake. Somebody had randomly entered into Wikipedia two days before the deaths that the drug was called 'Meow-Meow'. Nobody I have ever met called it that. The term doesn't appear in online discussions of it anywhere. But the Sun slapped it on the front page, and the rest of the media followed. Me-ow. The drug had been used by millions of people across the world with no recorded fatalities at that point, but here's a selection of headlines from the conservative newspaper Daily Mail alone: "They're playing Russian Roulette with their lives!" "The Death Drug." "Legal But Lethal." "It triggers fits, psychosis, and death." Illustrated with pictures of Wainwright and Smith, even though the autopsies have proven they never touched the drug.
On the back of this drug-induced hysteria, the government announced it would ditch the rest of its pre-election parliamentary programme and immediately criminalize Mephedrone. They were enthusiastically backed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Only a few brave politicians, like the Lib Dem Dr Evan Harris and the UK Independence Party's Nigel Farage, politely asked for evidence, and were rudely shouted down. Don't you know! Children are DYING! When it was proven that Mephedrone was framed, and had become the Birmingham Six of drugs, no politician apologised. Nobody suggested repealing the ban. Everybody has carried on straight-faced. It is the surest sign of a harmful addiction when you can't even acknowledge what you did the night before.
To be fair, though, one group of people has hugely benefitted from the ban, and have every reason to be grateful. They are Britain's armed criminal gangs. Until this spasm, Mephedrone was sold by bespectacled chemists, who manufactured a clinically pure product, and had recourse to the law if their property rights were infringed. Not now. The trade has been transferred to the Mafia. Their product is regulated by nobody and so filled with deadly filth. The right to sell it on a particular patch will be established by shoot-outs, in which innocent people are often caught up by accident.
The ban on mepehedrone is a perfect parable about the prohibitionists' habits of mind. They waved fictitious victims under a fictitious name and said they were fighting for sobriety. In truth, they have been trying to suppress any sober discussion of risk for years. In 2009, Professor David Nutt, the chairman of the British government's scientific advisory panel on drugs, pointed out a simple fact: taking ecstasy is about as dangerous as horse-riding, which kills 10 people a year there, and causes 100 traffic accidents. Everybody who checked agreed the facts were true. He was immediately fired. Since then, seven other members of the panel have resigned, because the government can't handle the truth. The best evidence we have suggests taking Mephedrone is less dangerous than eating peanuts, an activity that also kills ten people a year. Should we send the police in to bust anybody spotted with a handful of dry roasted?
But prohibition is not about really reducing danger. If it was, we would start with by far the two deadliest drugs in the world: alcohol, which kills 40,000 a year, and tobacco, who kills 80,000. If the law is about "sending a signal" that it is a "bad idea" to kids to risk your health with a drug, surely we need to immediately prohibit them? Yet virtually everyone is grown up enough to know that a ban on them wouldn't stop people using. In the US in the 1920s, banning alcohol simply created a vicious criminal class selling a vastly more deadly product, and deprived the government of any tax revenue on it. The ban became more harmful than the drug itself. Why do we think it is any different with cannabis, or ecstasy, or cocaine?
The prohibitionists sometimes say that if alcohol was invented now, they would want to ban it, before its use became widespread. But the use of prohibited drugs is already buttered thickly across British society: some 34 percent of us have used an illegal drug, including our Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and the last three visiting Presidents of the United States. We can't even stop drugs from being freely available in prison, and we have the inmates there under armed guard.
There is a way out of this, and a new reason to do it urgently. In the early 1930s, the US ended alcohol prohibition partly because it had mid-wifed the criminal career of Al Capone and a thousand other goons, but primarily because they needed the taxes as the Depression struck. This November, California is having a referendum on whether to legalize cannabis and slap an alcohol-sized tax on it. At the moment, the legalizers are ahead in the polls. People are being persuaded the evidence from a 2005 study by Harvard University economist Professor Jeffrey Miron, showing that legalization would raise $7bn a year in taxes, and saved $13bn on wasted police, court, and prison time. The stoners, it turns out, will save us from ruin.
Perhaps the most startling international comparison, though, comes from Portugal. They decriminalized person possession of all drugs in 2001, and the prohibitionists screamed that children would soon be rolling in the gutters with needles jutting out of every available vein. What really happened? A detailed study by the Cato Institute has found that drug use has stayed the same, and slightly fallen among young people. Now, they treat addicts as ill people who need help, not criminals who should be banged up.
I know it will be hard for the prohibitionists to kick their habit. We will all need to support them as they finally leave behind their hallucinogens. I am happy to set up Prohibitionists' Anonymous, where they can confess the fears that have led them to this dark place. But the Mepehedrone madness was the equivalent of stealing your mother's jewelry and selling it for your next fix. Drug Warriors, it's time to sober up.
This article appeared as Johann's monthly column for GQ magazine in Britain. If you'd like to read these columns a month early, subscribe to GQ here.
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To many people, the “war on drugs” sounds like a metaphor, like the “war on poverty.” It is not. It is being fought with tanks and sub machine guns and hand grenades, funded in part by your taxes, and it has killed 28,000 people under the current Mexican President alone. The death-toll in Tijuana – one of the front-lines of this war – is now higher than in Baghdad. Yesterday, another pile of seventy mutilated corpses was found near San Fernando – an event that no longer shocks the country.
Mexico today is a place where the severed heads of police officers are found week after week, pinned to bloody notes that tell their colleagues: “This is how you learn respect.” It is a place where hand grenades are tossed into crowds to intimidate the public into shutting up. It is the state the US Joint Chiefs of Staff say is most likely, after Pakistan, to suffer “a rapid and sudden collapse.”
Why? When you criminalize a drug for which there is a large market, it doesn't disappear. The trade is simply transferred from off-licenses, pharmacists and doctors to armed criminal gangs. In order to protect their patch and their supply routes, these gangs tool up - and kill anyone who gets in their way. You can see this any day on the streets of a poor part of London or Los Angeles, where teenage gangs stab or shoot each other for control of the 3000 percent profit margins on offer. Now imagine this process taking over an entire nation, to turn it into as a massive production and supply route for the Western world’s drug hunger.
Why Mexico? Why now? In the past decade, the US has spent a fortune spraying carcinogenic chemicals over Colombia's coca-growing areas, so the drug trade has simply shifted to Mexico. It's known as the "balloon effect": press down in one place, and the air rushes to another. When I was last there in 2006, I saw the drug violence taking off and warned that the murder rate was going to skyrocket. Since then the victims have ranged from a pregnant woman washing her car to a four year-old child to a family in the "wrong" house watching television to a group of 14 teenagers having a party. Today, 70 percent of Mexicans say they are frightened to go out because of the cartels.
The gangs offer Mexican police and politicians a choice: plato o ploma. Silver, or lead. Take a bribe, or take a bullet. President Felipe Calderon has been leading a military crackdown on them since 2006 – yet every time he surges the military forward, the gang violence in an area massively increases. This might seem like a paradox, but it isn’t. If you knock out the leaders of a drug gang, you don’t eradicate demand, or supply. You simply trigger a fresh war for control of the now-vacant patch. The violence creates more violence.
This is precisely what happened – to the letter – when the United States prohibited alcohol. A ban produced a vicious rash of criminal gangs to meet the popular demand, and they terrorized the population and bribed the police. Now a thousand Mexican Al Capones are claiming their billions and waving their guns.
Like Capone, the drug gangs love the policy of prohibition. Michael Levine, who had a thirty year career as one of America's most distinguished federal narcotics agents, penetrated to the very top of la Mafia Cruenza, one of the biggest drug-dealing gangs in the world in the 1980s. Its leaders told him "that not only did they not fear our war on drugs, they actually counted on it... On one undercover tape-recorded conversation, a top cartel chief, Jorge Roman, expressed his gratitude for the drug war, calling it 'a sham put on the American tax-payer' that was 'actually good for business'."
So there is a growing movement in Mexico to do the one thing these murderous gangs really fear – take the source of their profits, drugs, back into the legal economy. It would bankrupt them swiftly, and entirely. Nobody kills to sell you a glass of Jack Daniels. Nobody beheads police officers or shoots teenagers to sell you a glass of Budweiser. And after legalization, nobody would do it to sell you a spliff or a gram of cocaine either. They would be in the hands of unarmed, regulated, legal businesses, paying taxes to the state, at a time when we all need large new sources of tax revenue.
The conservative former President, Vicente Fox, has publicly called for legalization, and he has been joined by a battery of former Presidents across Latin America – all sober, right-leaning statesmen who are trying to rationally assess the facts. Every beheading, grenade attack, and assassination underlines their point. Calderon’s claims in response that legalization would lead to a sudden explosion in drug use don’t seem to match the facts: Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001, and drug use there has slightly fallen since.
Yet Mexico is being pressured hard by countries like the US and Britain – both led by former drug users – to keep on fighting this war, while any mention of legalization brings whispered threats of slashed aid and diplomatic shunning.
Look carefully at that mound of butchered corpses found yesterday. They are the inevitable and ineluctable product of drug prohibition. This will keep happening for as long as we pursue this policy. If you believe the way to deal with the human appetite for intoxication is to criminalize and militarize, then blood is on your hands. How many people have to die before we finally make a sober assessment of reality, and take the drugs trade back from murderous criminal gangs?
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Since we first prowled the savannahs of Africa, human beings have displayed a few overpowering and ineradicable impulses—for food, for sex, and for drugs. Every human society has hunted for its short cuts to an altered state: The hunger for a chemical high, low, or pleasingly new shuffle sideways is universal. Peer back through history, and it's everywhere. Ovid said drug-induced ecstasy was a divine gift. The Chinese were brewing alcohol in prehistory and cultivating opium by 700 A.D. Cocaine was found in clay-pipe fragments from William Shakespeare's house. George Washington insisted American soldiers be given whiskey every day as part of their rations. Human history is filled with chemicals, come-downs, and hangovers.
And in every generation, there are moralists who try to douse this natural impulse in moral condemnation and burn it away. They believe that humans, stripped of their intoxicants, will become more rational or ethical or good. They point to the addicts and the overdoses and believe they reveal the true face—and the logical endpoint—of your order at the bar or your roll-up. And they believe we can be saved from ourselves, if only we choose to do it. Their vision holds an intoxicating promise of its own.
Their most famous achievement—the criminalization of alcohol in the United States between 1921 and 1933—is one of the great parables of modern history. Daniel Okrent's superb new history, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, shows how a coalition of mostly well-meaning, big-hearted people came together and changed the Constitution to ban booze. On the day it began, one of the movement's leaders, the former baseball hero turned evangelical preacher Billy Sunday, told his ecstatic congregation what the Dry New World would look like: "The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever rent."
The story of the War on Alcohol has never needed to be told more urgently—because its grandchild, the War on Drugs, shares the same DNA.
To read the rest of this article over at Slate magazine, click herePermalink rss, atom -->
Can you feel the election fever yet? Me neither. Britain seems to be stricken instead with election swine flu. A few of us are sweating and vomiting – Brown and Cameron, mainly – while everyone else is refusing to touch infected election-surfaces and hoping it will pass us over.
There are days when this screw-them-all sourness seems apt. In this final dissolute week before parliament is dissolved, the main parties have come together to push through two changes to the law that will harm Britain – and they have done it while putting on their serious, superior statesman-faces. One is a huge gift to Britain's armed criminal gangs; and the other deliberately exempts one reactionary super-rich family from basic democratic checks.
Almost everything you have heard about the drug "Meow-Meow" is fake – including its name. Here's the reality. Since late 2007, some young people have been using a party drug called mephedrone, which you can snort or wrap in rolling-paper and swallow. It gives you a quick euphoric ecstasy-style high, and then passes from your system. It's become pretty popular, with 33 per cent of clubbers using it, according to a study for Mixmag magazine.
This is part of a very old story: in every phase of our existence, in every culture, human beings have sought out different ways to get off our faces. In his book The Chemical Muse, Dr D C A Hillman documents how the ancient philosophers who formed the basis of Western thought were getting mashed up all the time – including when they wrote their classics. The urge for chemical intoxication is very deep – and has at some point driven everyone from Barack Obama to David Cameron.
Yet you have been told that this drug is a new and unique menace. It has killed 27 people in Britain, makes teenagers try to "rip off their scrotum", and a ban will stop the harm it causes. Each of these claims is false.
The first mephedrone death was reported last November, when a 14-year-old girl called Gabrielle Price died in Brighton after apparently taking the drug. Immediately, there were calls for a ban. Three weeks later, the autopsy found the drug had nothing to do with her death: she was killed by "broncho-pneumonia which resulted from a streptococcal A infection". But the campaign didn't pause. They were now identifying deaths from mephedrone everywhere – mainly among clubbers who had taken a huge cocktail of different drugs washed down with alcohol. In truth, one death has been found to be caused by the drug. That's one. This makes jmephedrone somewhat less dangerous than peanuts, which kill 10 people a year by causing an allergic reaction.
What about the drug's other effects? The excellent New Scientist magazine tracked down the origins of The Sun's claim that it made a teenager "try to rip off his testicles", which rapidly became an established fact in news reports. They discovered it was based on a claim that circulated on internet chatrooms, and had been written as a joke. The drug isn't even called "Meow-Meow" by anyone: that term was randomly inserted into Wikipedia just before the hysteria broke, and picked up by journalists.
Of course mephedrone could turn out to have dangerous long-term effects we haven't picked up on yet. That's true of all new medicines too, from SSRIs to new breast cancer drugs. But let's assume – for the sake of argument, in the face of the evidence – that the worst fears are true, and this drug will cause long-term harm. The people demanding a ban act as if there's a simple equation here: it causes damage, so ban it and the damage will stop. But the evidence shows this is not how prohibition works. In practice it doesn't stop people using the drug – but it does add a whole new tsunami of harm on top.
Let's start with an easy parallel. Alcohol currently causes the death of 40,000 people a year – which is around 39,999 more than mephedrone. Like most Brits, I know people who have been broken by booze, and never came back. If harm is reason enough for a ban, the case is a slam-dunk for criminalising alcohol. But we don't. Why? Because we have a mature understanding – based on history – that when you criminalise a hugely popular recreational drug, people don't stop buying it and selling it. No: all that happens is that the market is taken over by armed criminal gangs, who sell a stronger and more adulterated version of the drug, and kill to control their patch.
So what will happen in a fortnight when the ban comes into effect? It'll still be on sale to anyone who wants it. We can't even keep drugs out of our prisons, where we have an armed, guarded perimeter: Policy Exchange just found 85 per cent of prisoners can get any drug they want. Use won't fall: ketamine was criminalised in 2006, and the same number of people use it every weekend now, according to the British Crime Survey. (Indeed, it may even increase. Portugal had a higher level of drug use – especially among the young – before 2001, when it decriminalised personal possession of all drugs.)
But what will certainly happen is an early Christmas for criminal gangs. They are about to be handed a big new market – and they will buy a lot of guns to protect it. In Guernsey they criminalised mephedrone last year, and gangsters there – who find it hard to get guns – have been guarding their mephedrone patches with samurai swords. It's the logic of prohibition, in shiny silver.
And all for what? So a few right-wing newspapers and a few politicians – Labour and Conservative – can pose as Tough on Crime, while unleashing a wave of Real Armed Crime. In the name of safety from our own natural impulses, they will make us all less safe on our streets.
The same cross-party cabal is also rushing before the election to enact another pernicious legal change. There is only one group of people anywhere in Britain who are automatically placed above and beyond the Freedom of Information Act, so you and I have no right to know how they are affecting policy. They are determined by birth. Their surname is Windsor. But concerned citizens have nonetheless been able to get some information about these people, to whom we pay tens of millions a year, by requesting to see the exchanges between Charles Windsor and ministers.
This is how we know he has been demanding NHS funds be used for junk science like homeopathy, trying to cancel building projects he personally finds ugly, and trying to thwart real and potentially life-saving science like nanotechnology research.
Now ministers are moving to hide these demands from the public forever by changing the law to make even these communications permanently secret. How will he act behind an even stronger veil of secrecy? Former ministers like Nicholas Ridley have described how Windsor would "scream" at him and "throw" papers if he – an elected politician – didn't accept his royal demands. Soon, we will be even less likely to find out about this abuse of democracy.
When the main parties band together to pursue such foolish policies, it's easy to turn off (and reach for the mephedrone). But there's another way. There are terrific groups campaigning against these policies – and virtually every bad policy out there. On drugs, the Transform Drug Policy Foundation campaigns for a sane strategy of taking drugs back from the armed gangs and legally regulating them. On the Windsor family, Republic campaigns for Britain to finally select our head of state by voting lines, not blood-lines.
So before the nausea-inducing election begins, it's worth stopping for a second, and remembering this is how most political change happens. Not primarily by choosing between parties bunched in the middle, but by ordinary citizens banding together by setting up or joining or volunteering for groups like this, and demanding better policies, even if it takes decades for them to finally be accepted in Westminster.
If this election feels like a bout of swine flu, remember there's a batch of Tamiflu waiting on the shelf – becoming a diligent, committed campaigner for political sanity yourself, all year round.Permalink rss, atom -->
in Central London for the 14 young people who were massacred in Mexico last week in yet another wave of murder caused by the senseless 'war on drugs.' It's being organized by the excellent organisation 'Students for Sensible Drug Policy' and I urge you to attend. To understand why they didn't have to die, and wouldn't if we ended prohibition, check out my articles here. (I'll try to make it to the vigil but I have to do something tedious and inescapable first. Hopefully see you there...)Permalink rss, atom -->
The proponents of the ‘war on drugs’ are well-intentioned people who believe they are saving people from the nightmare of drug addiction and making the world safer. But this self-image has turned into a faith – and like all faiths, it can only be maintained by cultivating a deliberate blindness to the evidence. The recent furore about the British government’s decision to fire its chief scientific advisor on drugs, Professor David Nutt, missed the point. Yes, it is shocking that he was ditched for pointing out the mathematical truth that taking ecstasy is less dangerous than horse-riding and smoking cannabis is less harmful than drinking alcohol. But this is how the war on drugs has to be fought. The unofficial slogan of the prohibitionists for decades has been: The facts will only undermine the war, so invent some that show how successful we are, fast.
Look at the United States, the country that pioneered the drug war, and still uses its military and diplomatic might to demand the rest of the world cracks down. In 1998, the Office of National Drug Policy (ONDP) was ordered by Congress to stop funding any scientific research that might give the impression that we should redirect funding from anti-trafficking busts into medical treatment of addicts, or that there is any argument to legalize, regulate or medicalize drug use. It’s Nutt cubed: only tell us what we want to hear. So, to give a small example, the ONDP spent $14bn on anti-cannabis ads aimed at teenagers, and $43 million to find out if the ads worked. They discovered that kids who saw the ads were more likely afterwards to get stoned, so the evidence was suppressed, and the ad campaign marched on.
What would happen if we started to build our drugs policy around the facts, rather than our desire for a fuzzy feeling inside? Professor Nutt only took tiny baby steps in this direction before he was booted out. He argued that we should rank drugs by the harm they do, rather than by the size of the panicked headlines they trigger. Now the row is fading, it is possible to see how conservative he was. A must-read new report out this week – ‘After The War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation’ – follows the facts as far as they will take us. It shows that the rational solution is to take the drug market back from the unregulated anarchy of criminal gangs, and transfer it to pharmacists, off-licenses, and doctors who operate in the legal economy. To see why this is necessary, we have to look at some of the facts our politicians refuse to see.
Fact One: The drug war hands one of our biggest industries to armed criminal gangs, who unleash terrible violence across the country. When alcohol was prohibited in the US in the 1920s, it didn’t vanish. No: armed gangsters like Al Capone stepped in and sold it – and they shot anybody who got in their way. Yet today, Wine Rack does not shoot up Thresher’s. Oddbin’s does not threaten to kill anybody who sees its staff selling wine. Why? Because it wasn’t the booze that caused the violence; it was the prohibition. Once alcohol was reclaimed for legal businesses, the dealer-on-dealer violence swiftly stopped.
Where there is a huge profit to be made in a black market – it’s 3000 percent on drugs today – people will fight and kill to control it. Arrest a dealer, and you simply trigger a new war for his patch, with the rest of us caught in the crossfire. The Nobel-prize winning economist Milton Friedman calculated that there are 10,000 murders in the US alone every year caused this way. Legalize, and you bankrupt most organized crime overnight. With their profits in free-fall, the gangsters don’t suddenly become cuddly – but the huge financial incentives to remain a gangster wither fast. It’s the drug war that keeps them in business, and legalization that shuts them down. As Friedman said, “Prohibition is the drug dealer’s best friend.”
Fact Two: Under prohibition, drug use becomes more hardcore. Before alcohol prohibition, most Americans drank beer and wine. After prohibition was introduced, super-strong moonshine became the most popular drink, as booze rapidly became 150 percent stronger. Why? The writer Richard Cowan called it “the iron law of prohibition”: whenever you criminalize a substance, it gets stronger. Because they are smuggling and stashing a substance, the dealers condense their product to give the biggest possible kick while taking up the smallest possible space. It’s at work today: it’s why dealers invented crack in the 1980s. The researchers Matthew Robinson and Renee Scherlen found: “The increased deadly nature of drugs under prohibition led to 15,000 more deaths in 2000 [in the US alone] than [if] prohibition had not made drugs more dangerous.”
Fact Three: The drug war doesn’t reduce drug use – but the alternatives can. Some people believe these two dark side-effects are a price worth paying if prohibition stops a significant number of people from picking up their first bong or needle. It was an understandable enough argument – until the evidence came in from countries that have experimented with ending the drug war. On July 1st 2001, Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine. You can have and use as much as you like for your own needs, and if you are caught, the police might refer you to a rehab programme, but you will never get a criminal record. (Supplying and selling remains illegal.) The prohibitionists predicted a catastrophic rise in addiction, and even I – an instinctive legalizer – was nervous.
Now we know: overall drug use actually fell a little. As a major study by Glenn Greenwald for the Cato Institute found, among teenagers the fall was fastest: 13 year olds are 4 percent less likely to use drugs, and 16 year olds are 6 percent less likely. As the iron law of prohibition predicts, the use of hard drugs has fallen fastest: heroin use has crashed by nearly 50 percent among the young, who were not yet addicted. The Portuguese have switched the billions that used to be spent chasing and jailing addicts to providing them with prescriptions and rehab. The number of people in drug treatment is now up by 147 percent. Almost nobody in Portugal wants to go back. Indeed, many citizens want to take the next step: legalize supply too, and break the back of the gangs.
Portugal is no fluke. It turns out that wherever the drug laws are relaxed, drug use stays the same, or – where spending is switched to treatment – falls. Between 1972 and 1978, eleven US states decriminalized marijuana possession. The National Research Council found that the number of dope-smokers stayed the same. In Switzerland, a decade ago the government started providing legal centres where people could safely inject heroin – for free. Burglary rates fell by 60 percent, and street homelessness ended. A study by the Lancet – one of the most respected medical journals in the world – found that the rate of people becoming new heroin addicts fell by 82 percent. Why? Heroin addicts didn’t need to recruit new addicts to sell to in order to feed their habit. The pyramid scheme of heroin addiction was broken.
So the drug war doesn’t achieve its goal of reducing addiction. All it does achieve is horrific gang violence – and in some cases the cartels gut whole countries like Mexico and Afghanistan. It does unwittingly press people into using harder and more dangerous drugs. And it does waste tens of billions of dollars that could really reduce drug addiction, by spending it on treatment for addicts.
The prohibitionists are therefore left a contradiction between their message and the facts. They can either change their message, or try to suppress the facts. Last week, the British government made its choice. But how long will this be tenable? The prohibitionists are – from the best intentions and the highest motives – unleashing a catastrophe. Human beings have been finding ways to get stoned or high since we lived in caves. In our attempt to end this natural impulse, we have created a problem worse than drug use itself.
There is another way. Imagine a country with no drug dealers killing to protect their patch or terrorizing whole estates. Imagine a country where burglary fell by 60 percent. Imagine a Britain where we spent all these billions treating addicts as ill people who need our help, not hunting them down as criminals who need punishment. We can be that country. We just have to come down from chasing the dragon of a drug-free world – and start looking soberly at the facts.
Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here. You can email him at johann -at- johannhari.com
To read an archive of his articles about drugs, click here.
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With the global economy collapsing all around us, the last issue President Barack Obama wants to talk about is the ongoing War on Drugs. But if he doesn't - and fast - he may well have two collapsed and haemorraghing countries on his hands. The first lies in the distant mountains of Afghanistan. The second is right next door, on the other side of the Rio Grande.
Here's a starter-for-ten about where this war has led us. Where in the world are you most likely to be beheaded? Where are the severed craniums of police officers being found week after week in the streets, pinned to bloody notes that tell their colleagues: "This is so that you learn respect"? Where are hand grenades being tossed into crowds to intimidate the public into shutting up? Which country was just named by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff as the most likely after Pakistan to suffer a "rapid and sudden collapse"?
Most of us would guess Iraq. The answer is Mexico. The death-toll in Tijuana today is higher than in Baghdad. The story of how this came to happen is the story of this war - and why it will have to end, soon.
When you criminalize a drug for which there is a large market, it doesn't disappear. The trade is simply transferred from pharmacists and doctors to armed criminal gangs. In order to protect their patch and their supply routes, these gangs tool up - and kill anyone who gets in their way. You can see this any day on the streets of London or Los Angeles, where teenage gangs stab or shoot each other for control of the 3000 percent profit margins on offer. Now imagine this process on a country-wide scale, and you have Mexico and Afghanistan today.
Drugs syndicates control 8 percent of global GDP - which means they have greater resources than many national armies. They own helicopters and submarines and they can afford to spread the woodworm of corruption through poor countries, right to the top.
Why Mexico? Why now? In the past decade, the US has spent a fortune spraying carcinogenic chemicals over Colombia's coca-growing areas, so the drug trade has simply shifted to Mexico. It's known as the "balloon effect": press down in one place, and the air rushes to another. When I was last there in 2006, I saw the drug violence taking off and warned that the murder rate was going to skyrocket - but I didn't imagine it would reach this scale. In 2007, more than 2000 people were killed. In 2008, it was more than 5400 people. The victims range from a pregnant woman washing her car to a four year-old child to a family in the "wrong" house watching television. Today, 70 percent of Mexicans say they are frightened to go out because of the cartels.
The cartels offer Mexican police and politicians a choice: plato o ploma. Silver, or lead. Take a bribe, or take a bullet. The Interior Secretary, Juan Camilo Mourino, admits that the cartels have so corrupted the police they can't guarantee the safety of informers or the general public any more. The former US drug agency director Barry McCaffrey says Mexico is "not confronting dangerous criminality - it is fighting for its survival against narco-terrorists." Within five years, he said, it will be a narco-state controlled by the cartels.
So the US is trying to militarize the attack on the cartels in Mexico, offering tanks, helicopters and hard cash.
The same process has occurred in Afghanistan. After the toppling of the Taliban, the country's bitterly poor farmers turned to the only cash crop that earns them enough to keep their kids alive: opium. It now makes up 50 percent of the country's GDP. The drug cartels have a far bigger budget than the elected government, so they have left the young democracy, police force and army riddled with corruption and virtually useless.
The US reacted by declaring "war on opium." The German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that the NATO Commander has ordered his troops to "kill all opium dealers". Seeing their main crop destroyed and their families killed, many have turned back to the Taliban in rage. The drug war has brought the Taliban back to life.
What is the alternative? Terry Nelson was one of the America's leading federal agents tackling drug cartels for over thirty years. He discovered the hard way that the current tactics are useless. "Busting top traffickers doesn't work, since others just do battle to replace them," he explains. A crackdown simply produces more violence, as an endless pool of young men hungry for the profits step into the vacuum and fight off their rivals. Nelson concluded there is an alternative: "Legalizing and regulating drugs will stop drug market crime and violence by putting major cartels and gangs out of business. It's the one surefire way to bankrupt them, but when will our leaders talk about it?"
Of course, the day after legalization, a majority of gangsters will not suddenly open organic food shops and join the Hare Krishnas. But their profit margins will collapse as their customers go to off-licenses and chemists rather than to them. The incentives for going into crime and staying there will be decimated. Norm Stamper, the former head of the Seattle Police Department, says plainly: "Regulated legalization of all drugs will drive drug dealers out of business: no product, no profit, no incentive."
We don't have to speculate about these effects; we can look at the last time prohibition ended. When alcohol was criminalized in the US, the murder rate soared. The year it was legalized, the number of murders fell off a cliff - and continued to drop for the next ten years. (Rates of alcoholism remained the same; deaths from alcohol poisoning declined dramtically as beer replaced moonshine.) Just as Al Capone was bankrupted by legalizing alcohol, we now have a chance to bankrupt the Mexcian cartels, the Taliban, the Bloods and the Crips, and the gangs that are shooting their way across world - before they cause the collapse of two countries.
Mexicans and Afghans are the first to demand this solution. In 2006, the last Mexican President proposed legalization, and the country's Congress voted for it - but the Bush administration went crazy. They applied so much pressure that, at the last minute, vetoed his own proposal. Today, comfortably out of office, he says that "someday" the US will see that "this is the only way." Meanwhile, the Bush administration admitted to drawing up plans for a "surge" of troops to the border if Mexico collapses, to prevent a vast inflow of refugees.
No, Obama doesn't want to spend his political capital on this. He is the third consecutive US President to have used recreational drugs in his youth, but he knows this is a difficult issue, where he could be tarred by his opponents as "soft on crime." It's true that where drugs are decriminalized, like the Netherlands, levels of addiction are much lower than in the US. It's true that when several US states decriminalized marijuana in the seventies, there was no increase in use. But would this message get across?
Yet remember: opinions are febrile in a Depression. At the birth of the last great downturn, support for alcohol prohibition was high; within five years, it was gone. The Harvard economist Professor Jeffrey Miron has calculated that drug prohibition costs the US government $44.1bn per year in wasted cash - and legalization would raise another $32.7bn on top of that in taxes if drugs were subject to the same rates as cigarettes and alcohol. (All this money would, in a sane world, be shifted to drug treatment.) Can the US afford to force this failing policy on the world - especially when it guarantees the collapse of the country they are occupying and their own neighbour?
Legalization would also be the single biggest blow for civil rights in the US since Lyndon Johnson. Today, 13 percent of American drug users are black, yet they make up 74 percent of the drug offenders in prison. A whole generation of black men has been destroyed by prohibition: Barack Obama could easily have become one of them if the police had walked into the wrong party at the wrong time.
Senator Jim Webb has pointed out what would have happened to the young Obama: "Even as I write these words, it is virtually certain that somewhere on the streets of Washington D.C. an eighteen year-old white kid from the Maryland or North Virginia suburbs is buying a stash of drugs from an eighteen year-old black kid. The white kid is going to take that stash back to the suburbs and make some quick money by selling it to other kids." He will grow up and grow out of it, and one day -- as a wealthy professional -- he will "look back on his drug use just as recreational and joke about it ... just one more little rebellion on the way to adulthood."
But the black kid "will enter a hell from which he may never recover." He is likely to be arrested, and to go to prison. "Prison life will change the black kid, harden him, mess up his mind, and redefine his self-image. And after he is released from prison, the black kid will be dragging an invisible ball and chain behind him for the rest of his life ... By the time the white kid reaches fifty years of age, he may well be a judge. By the time the black kid reaches fifty, he will likely be permanently unemployable, will be ineligible for many government assistance programs, and will not even be able to vote." Obama wouldn't be President. He wouldn't even be able to vote.
Drug addiction is a always tragedy for the addict and his family - but drug prohibition spreads the tragedy across the globe. The gangs will only grow from here - and take whole cities and countries down with them. We still have a chance to take them back into the legal regulated economy, before it's too late for Mexico and Afghanistan and graveyards-full of more shot kids on the streets of America. Obama - and the rest of us - has to choose: Controlled regulation, or violent prohibition? Healthcare, or warfare?
As it stands, the President seems - by default, and by distraction - willing to keep singing that old ditty written by the columnist Franklin Adams in 1931, in the dry days of the last futile prohibition. He hummed: "Prohibition is an awful flop./ We like it./ It can't stop what it's meant to stop./ We like it./ It left a trail of graft and slime,/ It don't prohibit worth a dime,/ It's filled our land with vice and crime,/ Nevertheless, we're for it."Permalink rss, atom -->
On January 20th 2009, either the president of the United States will be a man who used to snort coke to ease his blues, or the First Lady will be a former drug addict who stole from charity to get her next fix. In this presidential campaign, there are dozens of issues that have failed to flicker into the debate, but the most striking is the failing, flailing 'War on Drugs.' Isn't it a sign of how unwinnable this 'war' is that, if it was actually enforced evenly, either Barack Obama or Cindy McCain would have to skip the inauguration -- because they'd be in jail?
At least their time in the slammer would feature some familiar faces: they could share a cell with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and some 46 percent of the US population.
The prohibition of drugs is perhaps the most disastrous policy currently pursued by the US government. It hands a vast industry to armed criminal gangs, who proceed to kill at least excess 10,000 citizens a year to protect their patches. It exports this programme of mass slaughter to Mexico, Colombia and beyond. It has been a key factor in reviving the Taliban in Afghanistan. It squanders tens of billions of dollars on prisons at home, ensuring that one in 31 adults in the US now in prison or on supervised release at any one time. And it has destroyed an entire generation of black men, who are now more likely to go to prison for drug offences than to go to university.
And for what? Prohibition doesn't stop people using drugs. Between 1972 and 1978, eleven US states decriminalized marijuana possession. So did hundreds of thousands of people rush out to smoke the now-legal weed? The National Research Council found that it had no effect on the number of dope-smokers. None. The people who had always liked it carried on; the people who didn't felt no sudden urge to start.
So where's the debate? The candidates have spent more time discussing froth and fancies -- how much air is in your tyres? -- than this $40bn-a-year 'war."
They should be forced to listen to Michael Levine, who had a thirty year career as one of America's most distinguished federal narcotics agents. In his time, he infiltrated some of the biggest drugs cartels in the world -- and he now explains, in sad tones, that he wasted his time. In the early 1990s, he was assigned to eradicate drug-dealing from one New York street corner -- an easy enough task, surely? But he quickly learned that even this was physically impossible, given the huge demand for drugs. He calculated that he would need one thousand officers to be working on that corner for six months to make an impact -- and there were only 250 drugs agents in the whole city. One of the residents asked him, "If all these cops and agents couldn't get this one corner clean, what's the point of this whole damned drug war?"
When Levine penetrated to the very top of la Mafia Cruenza, one of the biggest drug-dealing gangs in the world, he learned, as he puts it, "that not only did they not fear our war on drugs, they actually counted on it... On one undercover tape-recorded conversation, a top cartel chief, Jorge Roman, expressed his gratitude for the drug war, calling it 'a sham put on the American tax-payer' that was 'actually good for business'." He was right -- prohibition is the dealer's friend. They depend on it. They thrive on it, just as Al Capone thrived on alcohol prohibition. When Levine recounted these comments to his boss -- the officer in command of the paramilitary operation attacking South America -- he replied, "Yeah, we know [the police and military battles against drug gangs] don't work, but we sold the plan up and down the Potomac."
Yet virtually no politicians are exposing this scandal. A rare and heroic exception is Jim Webb, Senator for Virginia. In his brilliant new book Born Fighting, he says "the hugely expensive antidrug campaigns we are waging around the world are basically futile." He even goes further, and exposes how this intersects with racism to create a monstrous injustice. The ACLU found in 2006 that although the races use drugs at the same rate, black Americans -- who comprise 12 percent of the population -- make up 74 percent of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.
Webb shows the human cost: "Even as I write these words, it is virtually certain that somewhere on the streets of Washington D.C. an eighteen year-old white kid from the Maryland or North Virginia suburbs is buying a stash of drugs from an eighteen year-old black kid. The white kid is going to take that stash back to the suburbs and make some quick money by selling it to other kids." He will grow up and grow out of it, and one day -- as a wealthy professional -- he will "look back on his drug use just as recreational and joke about it... just one more little rebellion on the way to adulthood."
But the black kid "will enter a hell from which he may never recover." He is likely to be arrested, and to go to prison. "Prison life will change the black kid, harden him, mess up his mind, and redefine his self-image. And after he is released from prison, the black kid will be dragging an invisible ball and chain behind him for the rest of his life... By the time the white kid reaches fifty years of age, he may well be a judge. By the time the black kid reaches fifty, he will likely be permanently unemployable, will be ineligible for many government assistance programmes, and will not even be able to vote." Barack Obama only narrowly missed this fate. He would not be the Great Black Hope he deserves to be; he wouldn't even be allowed to cast a ballot in 2008.
Of course, ending drug prohibition may seem impossible now. But in 1924, even as vociferous a wet as Clarence Darrow was in despair, writing that it would require "a political revolution" to legalise alcohol in the US. Within a decade, it was done.
Before this campaign is out, Obama needs to be asked: do you really think you should be in jail? McCain needs to be asked: do you really think your wife should be in jail? Both need to be asked: do you really think 46 percent of Americans should be criminalized? And if not, what are you going to do to begin ending this mad, unwinnable 'war on drugs'?
For links that explains some of the statements at the start of this article, and to comment on this article and read the comments of others, go to over to the Huffington Post here.
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On the website of the British Foreign Office, a small photograph recently appeared. It shows Kim Howells, our Foreign Office minister, looking into the camera, smiling, as he is surrounded by gun-yielding men accused of murder. He had not been taken hostage. No: he was there to represent a government that gives these men money and military aid.
By tracing the story of this photograph, we can trace the worst aspects of British foreign policy – and find clues to why the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have crashed into their current bloody dead-end.
Howells was in Colombia, a country locked in one of the worst civil wars of the past century. It began over forty years ago, when parts of the hungry, mixed-race majority began to fight against the fact that a tiny white land-owning elite held virtually all the country’s wealth. Since then, it has hardened into a conflict between two gnarled human rights-abusing wings.
To the left, there is a slew of guerrilla groups – most prominently the FARC and the ELN – who fund themselves by kidnapping, extortion, recruiting child soldiers and ‘taxing’ drug-producers.
To the right, there is the Colombian government and the right-wing paramilitary death-squads it has unleashed against any community of civilians suspected of leftish sympathies, or of challenging the elite. That’s why to be a trade unionist in Colombia – organising for better wages and working conditions for your colleagues – is to carry a tombstone on your back: more than 3000 have been assassinated since 1986, more than in the rest of the world combined.
Between them, these violent wings have killed more than 30,000 people and driven three million people from their homes.
And Howells – our representative – was posing with some of the worst abusers. He was huddled with the High Mountain Brigades, who Amnesty International says have been involved in hunting down and murdering trade unionists. Standing next to him was General Mario Montoya, who is so densely linked to paramilitary death-squads that even the US Congress has cut off chunks of his funding.
Here’s what our taxes and support deliver to ordinary Colombians. On January 10th, at 10.30am, Colombian soldiers wearing balaclavas burst into the house of Rosa Maria Zapata house, a 56 year old indigenous woman. When the soldiers pointed their guns at her and barked that they wanted to know where the guerrillas were, she screamed back that she didn’t know; she doesn’t know any guerrillas. They told her she was hiding weapons for the FARC. They told her they knew. She howled and protested. So they started searching – and a moment later she heard gunfire. The police announced they had killed the guerrilla. She went running – and found her severely disabled 22-year old son dead.
The British pro-peace group ‘Justice for Colombia’ believes these soldiers received British training. They have documented 36 other civilians murdered by British-trained forces in a six-month period, and they are asking the Foreign Office to finally outline exactly where our money goes – rather than hiding behind the shroud of National Security.
Worse, we are funding a military that is so densely enmeshed with the union-slaying paramilitaries that they are known as the “sixth brigade” of the Colombian armed forces. The relationship was symbolised in a famous football game in the 1990s. The local community in Cacarica were made to gather at the local football field to watch a match. It sounds touching. But the head of the local left-leaning community leader, Marino Lopez, was used as the ball, after being hacked from his body with a chainsaw. Uribe is now offering a ‘peace deal’ to the right-wing paras like this that allows them to escape proportionate punishment, but offers no such deal to the left.
So how has Howells responded? Easily: he has called his critics supporters of terrorism. Last week, in the House of Commons, he declared, “This has all been created by the organisation ‘Justice for Colombia’, which supports FARC, a band of gangsters and drug smugglers.” He also announced that the FARC is responsible for “most” of the murders in Colombia.
Both were straightforward repetitions of the Colombian far right propaganda line. In reality, ‘Justice For Colombia’ – which is supported by more than half of all Labour MPs – is opposed to all violence within Colombia. And the FARC – while unequivocally disgusting – are responsible for far fewer murders than the government and right-wing death-squads, according to every major study.
So how did this happen? How did a minister in a Labour government end up defending a hard-right Colombian regime?
The British government says they have become the second biggest military donor to Colombia (after the US) because they want to promote human rights there. But if you had a few million pounds to support human rights in that country, the idea you would give it to the High Mountain Brigades is simply surreal. Sure, the government claims to be giving “human rights training” along with their weapons licenses and cash, to “iron out” abuses. But as the historian Mark Curtis explains: “The Colombian military is responsible for its violations not by accident… It is part of a concerted and active policy to nullify the opposition and terrify the general population into further submission.”
No – the explanations for British backing lie elsewhere. The first is a desire to support the United States, because we project our power in the world largely by being a loyal adjunct to American military might. If Britain wasn’t offering these funds, the Bush administration would be alone in the world in backing Uribe, against a Latin America tipping towards the left and urging peace talks with the FARC.
And we are doing it to support the global, unwinnable ‘war on drugs.’ Since Bill Clinton’s Presidency, the US has been spraying hundreds of thousands of tonnes of chemical poisons onto the vast tracts of Colombia where the coca leaves essential for cocaine production are grown. All plants and trees die in their wake. Birth defects and cancer rates are rising. Some of the most precious biodiversity on earth is destroyed. And the effect on drug production? It simply moves to another area.
(It is only the drug-producing areas controlled by the FARC that have been fumigated. The areas in the North, controlled by the right, remain untouched.)
Drug production is so profitable and so popular it cannot be fumigated off the face of the real world. Drug prohibition hands great swathes of the Colombian economy to armed criminal gangs, from the FARC to the right. It ensures they will always have enough money to buy enough guns to outshoot the government and preserve their patches of territory.
There is another way. More and more Colombians believe it is only by brining drugs into the legal economy – where they can be controlled and taxed – that the guerrillas and paramilitaries can be stripped of their cash-flow, and the Colombian state slowly unified. The people arguing for this are wildly diverse: from the current Conservative Interior Minister, Carlos Holguin, to the former Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff who busted the notorious Medelin drug cartel, to the coutnry’s most popular singer, Juan Esteban Aristizabal. They all believe an end to drug prohibition is the only long-term solution to the civil war. Yet Britain demands the opposite.
There is one more crucial reason why we are supporting the Colombian military. The British oil firm BP controls half of Columbia's petrol output. The historian Mark Curtis argues the UK is keen to ensure resources “remain in the correct hands” - that is, "our" hands. In a highly unequal country angry at seeing its resources siphoned off by foreigners, that means supporting an elite who are willing to use violence to keep the majority in their place.
These three factors can help us to understand why the military actions thousands of miles away from the jungles of Colombia – in Afghanistan and Iraq – have gone so wrong. As in Colombia, we got in, in large part, out of loyalty to the US: Tony Blair bragged he had “not disagreed with the US on a major issue” in his whole time in office.
We have misgoverned Afghanistan so badly because we are inflicting on the country the same ‘war on drugs’ we have wished on Colombia. If we turned up in any country on earth and announced we were there to destroy 40 percent of their economy, the people would fight back. The fact that the 40 percent consists of opium fields makes no difference to dirt-poor farmers. This is why we are losing Southern Afghanistan even to the hated Taliban.
And the US-UK government has misgoverned Iraq so catastrophically because – as in Colombia – it was primarily driven by a desire to ensure that control of the country’s resources went to The Right People. The protection of the Oil Ministry, while Baghdad’s museums and hospitals and universities were looted and burned all around it, is only the most bleak symbol of this.
The image of Kim Howells squatting with a unit who have tortured and butchered trade unionists can be seen as a Rosetta Stone for the dark side of our foreign policy. It is a reminder that, if we want to turn Britain into a force for human rights in the world, we have to campaign long and hard to turn much of it around. If we don’t, it will end with more women like Rosa Maria Zapata, clutching her dead disabled son and asking why.
You can read my other articles about drug legalisation here.
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This is the story of two victims of a war that cannot be won and should not be fought. You have heard of the first: Rhys Jones, the 11-year-old in Liverpool who was shot in the neck as he played on his bike. You have not heard of the second: Andres Sauzo, a 24-year-old Mexican man who had his arms, legs and head chain-sawed from his body, and was found rotting in five bin bags scattered across his home town of Zihyatanejo. They are casualties – either direct or indirect – in a war that kills tens of thousands of people a year, and could end tomorrow, if we chose to.
Rhys and Andres were killed because of a political decision by the US government to wage a global "war on drugs", and demand other governments fall into line. When you criminalise a massive and growing industry – some 5 per cent of the world's entire economic activity – it does not go away. It is handed to armed criminal gangs, who flood the streets with guns to secure a slice of the riches.
This is what has happened in Liverpool over the past three decades. The city is enduring a turf-war between two local drug-gangs, the Croxteth Crew and the Strand Gang. These armed crews exist to receive, transport and sell drugs, and it is the source of their appeal. The criminalised drugs trade provides them with a fat income – thousands a month, on estates frozen in poverty. This means that they can afford the best in areas used to the worst, so the local kids idolise them and perform all sorts of criminal stunts to join their posses.
Each gang has been merrily killing kids on "the other side" for years, in an attempt to gain a part of their trade, or to stop them from trying to seize theirs. Rhys, because of where he lived, may have been seen as one of the other side's kids. Or he may have been the victim of a new, dark initiation ritual. It is almost guaranteed that the guns used in the killing of a child in Britain will have been bought with money handed to gangsters by drug prohibition. Scotland Yard estimates that 95 per cent of guns on its patch are related to the drugs trade.
Prohibition creates a need for armed gangs, as the connecting tissue between the people who grow or manufacture illegal drugs, and the millions of people who want to buy them. The Nobel-prize winning economist Milton Friedman put it best: "Al Capone epitomises our earlier attempt at Prohibition; the Crips and Bloods epitomise this one." We already know this was the reason for many of the shootings of black teenagers in London earlier this year: two of the most powerful drug dealers in South London were sent to prison, so a slew of gangs fought to take over their patch and their profits. A majority of the boys who were gunned down were rivals for these riches.
The drug that the Croxteth Crew and the Strand Gang specialize in – heroin – was actually safely controlled in Britain by doctors and pharmacists until the 1970s. They gave small, regular prescriptions to addicts, who in turn committed virtually no crime. This policy worked well. It was only stopped because the US government under Richard Nixon applied massive diplomatic pressure to join his country's Puritan crusade against drugs. Once the doctors were banned from prescribing heroin, the gangs stepped in, and they have grown ever since.
The scattered proposals tossed out this week to deal with drug gangs are elaborate evasions of the real issue. Banning gang videos on YouTube is barely even a sticking plaster, while the Cameroonian idea that gangs are the rancid afterbirth squeezed out by single parents simply doesn't match with the facts. Denmark has the highest rate of single parenthood in Europe – but it has virtually no gangs, except among recent immigrant communities, who overwhelmingly consist of stable two-parent families.
No: if we want to stop gang culture, we need to take back the industry that makes gangs rich, and give it once again to doctors, pharmacists and off-licenses. Legalizing drugs rips the spine out of gangs. Of course they will try to move into other industries – protection rackets, cigarette smuggling and so on – but these have far lower profit margins. In a legalised economy, the gangs would no longer be the richest kids on the estate, and could barely afford firepower, so the core of their glamour would melt away.
For a case study of what happens when you try the opposite strategy – ever-more-aggressive prohibition – we need to turn now to Andres. His is a case I stumbled across when I was reporting from Mexico last year, a fleeting News in Brief remembered now only by his family. After his mutilated corpse was found in black sacks, the undertakers wanted to cremate him, but his family insisted on the traditional open-casket coffin, now filled with carved chunks. Soon after, they began to be plagued by telephone calls from gangsters demanding to know where Andres's girlfriend was, so they could cut her up too. His mother, Gomez, was too scared to call the police; as a report put it, "she just changed her phone number and prayed."
Andres was killed by a gang who believed he was trying to muscle on to their patch. He is one of 2,000 such victims there in the past year alone. In Liverpool, drug gangs control about 5 per cent of the economy, and that's enough to cause misery and chronic fear on their estates. In poor countries like Mexico and – to a much larger extent – Colombia and Afghanistan, they can become rich enough to out-gun the local police, and effectively take over whole swathes of territory. Mexican politicians know this privately. Vicente Fox, the last President, explained in an interview that legalisation was the sensible solution – but later nervously acknowledged that the US wouldn't stand for it.
The new president, Felipe Calderon, has followed US orders more closely: he has been sending in the army to crack down on drugs cartels. This has had no effect on drug supply – in fact, the street price of cocaine in the US has actually fallen, indicating higher supply – but it has caused the rate of drug murders to double. Why? As one gang is broken up and jailed, a slew of new gangs fight it out to control their old patch – just as in London, and everywhere else. Civilians, often kids, are caught in the crossfire.
Whatever we do, chronic drug use will be a tragedy for the individual addict. But this policy of drug prohibition converts the tragedy into a disaster for millions more. It is flooding our country – and much of the world – with gun-toting gangs whose weapons kill dozens of people like Rhys and Andres every day. How many more have to be shot or carved up before we bankrupt the gangs through legalisation, and transfer all the money we burn on chasing them into rehab and prescriptions for addicts?
If you support ending the global war on drugs, the best organization to support and donate to is the brilliant Transform, whose website can be found here. You can read more of my articles about this war - and its victims - here.
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The Quiet Man is turning up the volume once more - and this time, he wants to drown out the demon dealers of the Demon Weed. Ian Duncan Smith (remember him?) is back with a fat report into how to end poverty in Britain. The sections demanding the financial punishment of single mothers have already been pored over and torn up for their sociological illiteracy. But there is a yet-to-be-noticed section of the new Tory plans that would have an even more bracingly reactionary effect - and send your own odds of being a victim of crime sky-rocketing.
Let's look at skinning-up first. IDS believes that spliff-smoking is such a catastrophe that cannabis needs to be reclassified as a Class B drug and the police need to spend thousands of hours to tracking down the people who sell and smoke it (rather than, say, murderers and rapists). But he bases this view on blatant three factual errors.
IDS Error One: Cannabis today is much stronger than the cannabis of the 1960s. It is now a different drug to the one our hippy parents smoked. This is asserted casually these days, even by cuddly liberals who once supported cannabis legalisation. But in reality, the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction has published a major long-term study of cannabis potency - and found this is nonsense. "The effective strength of cannabis consumed in Britain has remained stable for the past 30 years," the report explains. There is variety between different kinds of cannabis - super-skunk is obviously more powerful - but the report found that "this variety always existed... there have always been some samples that have had a high potency."
IDS Error Two: cannabis 'causes' psychosis. A major study at the University of Cologne and King's College, London published this May showed a much more complex picture, with different chemical constituents of cannabis having different effects. The researchers found that although tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient that produces a high, giggly feeling, can trigger psychosis in a very small number of users, another chemical component to cannabis, cannabidinol (CBD), actually inhibits and supresses psychotic symptoms in people suffering from them. CBD is so good at supressing psychotic symptoms that it proved to be more effective than any of the major anti-psychotics currently prescribed by doctors.
Professor Jim van Os suggests a solution: legal cannabis could be easily grown and marketed with high CBD levels, ending the psychotic effect. Indeed, such a drug would actually be helpful for psychotics to smoke. Obviously, it's impossible to do this while cannabis remains in the hands of gangsters and organised crime syndicates - a certainty under prohibition. So it is actually more accurate to say cannabis prohibition causes cannabis psychosis - and legalisation would end it.
IDS Error Three: Relaxing the law makes more people use drugs. Between 1972 and 1978, eleven US states decriminalized marijuana possession. So did hundreds of thousands of people rush out to smoke the now-legal weed? The National Research Council found that it had no effect on the number of dope-smokers. None. The people who had always liked it carried on; the people who didn't felt no sudden urge to start.
But IDS' factual errors become even more startling when he turns to the needle. He has a simple solution to heroin addiction: he will end all the legal methadone and heroin prescriptions in Britain, and demand addicts stop altogether. They will be offered a Bible and a session of rehab - and after that, they're on their own.
This is part of a Tory critique of the current government's policy. Since 1997, Labour has - below the radar - radically revised Britain's drug treatment policies. They took a hard look at the evidence and admitted something inconvenient: even the best rehab centres in the world, the Betty Fords and the Priorys, have a success rate of just 20 percent. That means that for 80 percent of addicts, rehab, alas, doesn't work. If these addicts are offered no help or support beyond that one policy, as IDS demands, then we know what happens: they become burglars, or street prostitutes, or corpses. So the government increased methadone prescriptions by 87 percent. (They were more cowardly on heroin prescription, only running a few clinical trials).
And the result? As the former Deputy Drugs Tsar Mike Trace told me, "These prescriptions are the secret reason why crime has fallen so much under the current government." The Cheshire Drug Squad found in the 1980s that the presence of a rare heroin-prescribing clinic on their patch caused an incredible 94 percent drop in theft, burglary and property crimes. We are seeing a similar effect across Britain today - and IDS will reverse it.
Far from "giving up on addicts", giving them a regular prescription sets them free to have a normal life. Many go on to excel. Look at Dr William Stewart Halsted, the early twentieth-century captain of the Yale football team who became "the father of modern surgery" and the cofounder of the world-famous John Hopkins Hospital. Here is a typical description of his surgical technique: "He used frequently light, swift, sparing movements with the sharpest of knives, instead of free, heavy handed deep cutting... [There was] the minimum of hemorrhage." He did it all while injecting a minimum of 180 milligrams of morphine a day. He, of course, had access to a safe, legal supply, which he prescribed to himself. All the evidence shows it is scrambling for an illegal and contaminated supply that screws up opiate addicts - not the drug itself.
But IDS calls all this "methadone madness", serving up in its place a plate of cold turkey, with a cup of lukewarm moral piety to wash it down with. As Danny Kushlick, head of the drug reform charity Transform, explains: "The report's authors avoid the science and the evidence like the plague. It is the worst-written, most poorly informed report on drugs policy I have ever seen."
Will this now become Tory policy? One of the very few areas in which David Cameron is impressive is in his subtle, supple understanding of drugs policy. In 2002 he served on the Health Select Committee, interviewing dozens of experts on drugs policy, where he clearly understood the issues. He ended by co-authoring a brave report which said legalisation should be considered as an option - so we can finally take drugs back from armed criminal gangs and hand them to doctors and pharmacists.
As he picks up IDS' ramblings, Cameron faces a dillemma. Will he go with his own intellectual convictions, which tell him drug prohibition has been "disastrous", or will he appease his panicked party yet further by adopting this infantile prohibitionist cry? David, it's time to turn the volume down on the Quiet Man - to zero.
You can send comments on this article for publication in the Indie to letters -at- independent.co.uk or just for me to johann -at- johannhari.com
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In our week-long national shriek about South London slowly morphing into South Central, one key word has been missing: prohibition. We have stared at the soft no-need-to-shave face of Billy Cox, the fifteen year old weed-dealer shot in his concrete bedroom in the shadow of the City of London. We have half-sniggered at the Ali G names of the gangs he was up against: the Brick Lane Massive, the Paki Panthers, the Ghetto Boys of Peckham. We have learned you can buy handguns for £200 and a machine gun for £4000 on the street. But we have failed to see that the events of the past week are simply following the inexorable logic of drug prohibition.
Here's how it works. By criminalising the trade in cannabis, cocaine and heroin, we don't make the drugs disappear. We simply hand this multi-billion pound industry - around 3 percent of Britain's GDP - to armed gangs. A fortnight ago, two of the most powerful drug dealers in South London were sent to prison, so a slew of gangs is now fighting to take over their patch, their trade and their profits. The boys who are being gunned down are rivals for these riches. They will keep shooting their opponents until one gang emerges as the clear winner, or until a few gangs band together in an obviously unbeatable alliance. So these gun-toting possees of kids have not tooled up simply to play the Big Man and look like Snoop Dogg (though no doubt it's an incidental pleasure). This is not Colmbine-style senseless violence. It is happening for hard economic reasons. Milton Friedman - the late Nobel-Prize winning economist - understood this. He explained, “Al Capone epitomizes our earlier attempt at Prohibition; the Crips and Bloods epitomize this one.”
He saw a central truth. Guns are not inherent to the sale of drugs. They are only inherent to the sale of drugs under prohibition. Go to a pub or off-license in Hackney, and you'll find that Oddbins and Costcutters are not engaged in a turf-war. The Tesco Posse and the Sainsbury's Massive are not taking out each other's homies over the right to sell Tetley's Bitter. Why? Because their trade is not subject to prohibition. If somebody tries to steal their stock, they can call the police. But prohibited substances can only be protected with private force. That's why the underground bars in Chicago needed Capone's guns, and why today - according to Scotland Yard estimates - 95 percent of the guns in Britain are linked to the drugs trade. Friedman calculated that there are 10,000 additional murders in the US every year as a result of drug prohibition: a mass grave of slaughtered dealers, their families, and (mostly) random people caught in the crossfire. We are now building a replica-pit in Britain.
Yet our politicians are too pickled in prohibitionist platitudes to see this. Tony Blair is talking about extending prison sentences for carrying guns, but this is a weapon with no ammunition. If you talk to any of these gang-kids, they'll tell you their odds of ever being caught are tiny. They're right. As Stephen Lander, chairman of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, puts it, "If you are an organized crook for 20 years, you have a 5 percent chance of getting nicked." This isn't because of police laxness; it's because the drugs trade is so vast the police can only ever hope to pick at its surface. Adding a few extra years onto a hypothetical sentence you'll never serve is no deterrent at all to a gang member.
David Cameron is offering a parallel fantasy-solution when he talks about gluing together broken families as The Answer. He points to research that shows the children of divorced parents are more likely to turn to crime - but this is irreperably punctured by the findings of sociologist Louie Burghe, who discovered that these kids actually start to do worse on every indicator long before their parents split up. The problem isn't divorce; it's having incompatible parents who can't stand each other. Bribing warring parents to stay together, as Cameron wants to, may actually - according to this evidence - make the problem worse.
No - the only real solution is to take the drugs trade back from the gun-wielding gangster-children, and hand it to doctors and pharmacists and off-licenses. This would bankrupt most of our criminal gangs overnight, and remove the need for (and purchasing power behind) 95 percent of the guns in Britain. Of course many criminals will try to move into other forms of illegal enterprise, like money-laundering or people-trafficking, but none will have the profit margins of the old drugs trade and all carry higher risks, boosting the relative utility of going straight. A boy like Billy Cox would not be drawn to them. He would still be alive today - and so would thousands more victims of our failing, flailing 'war on drugs.'
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Even in death, the right misses the point. Milton Friedman – the Messiah of Monetarism, saviour of small-state conservatism – is about to be buried, but his mourners have conspicuously failed to laud his one great argument.
In the past week, his conservative obituarists have concentrated on the slew of issues he got wrong, lathering praise on his demonstrably false belief that a limp, slashed-back state delivers greater social mobility and a broader middle class than a mixed social democratic economy. Just compare Sweden to Texas to test that one – or look at the collapse in Latin American growth since Friedmanomics forced out Keynesianism. Yet on one issue, Friedman applied the forensic brilliance of his brain to a deserving purpose. Over forty years, he offered the most devastating slap-downs of the “war on drugs” ever written.
Friedman was a child when alcohol was criminalised in America. The Prohibitionist crusade to banish the “demon rum” and dry out the United States lasted until he was in his twenties. The lessons lasted his lifetime. He saw that even when you use force – the police and army – to try to physically prevent people from using a popular intoxicant, you don’t actually reduce its use very much. “I wasn't very old and was not much of a drinker but there was no difficulty in finding speakeasies,” he explained. The most generous estimate is that alcohol consumption fell by a fifth initially, and then rose to pre-prohibition levels as people discovered surreptitious channels for a mouthful of moonshine.
But while prohibition didn’t succeed in the fantasies of its fans that it would “end alcoholism”, it did succeed gloriously in one respect. It handed a massive, popular industry to armed criminal gangs, who succeeded to ramp up the murder rate up by 78 percent and make a mockery of the rule of law. “We had this spectacle of Al Capone, of the hijackings, of the gang wars...” Friedman wrote. “Prohibition is an attempted cure that makes matters worse - for both the addict and the rest of us.”
Friedman saw – way ahead of almost any other commentator – how prohibiting cannabis, cocaine and heroin would spawn a thousand Capones. He warned, “Al Capone epitomizes our earlier attempt at Prohibition; the Crips and Bloods epitomize this one.” The old Chicago gangster famously gunned down six of his alcohol-hawking competitors on the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. But in the age of drug prohibition, there are equivalent dealer shoot-outs every minute of the day in South Central Los Angeles – and Hackney, and Bogata, and Kabul. People without recourse to the law will protect their property with hard ammunition. Late in his life, Friedman calculated that 10,000 people were dying every year in the US alone as a direct result of these killings, equivalent to more than three September 11ths. Most were bystanders caught in the cross-fire.
And by globalising this Puritan war on drugs, the US government has globalised this gangsterism. Friedman warned that the war on drugs has “undermined the very foundations of Colombian society” and “condemned hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Colombians to violent death.” I have just returned from Mexico, which is rapidly Colombianizing, with whole areas controlled by dealers who bribe or out-gun the police force and terrorize the local population. The same thing is happening on a huge scale in Afghanistan. “By what right do we destroy other people’s countries just because we cannot enforce our own laws?” Friedman asked.
But armed gangsters are not the only species of crime generated by prohibition. In his careful, methodical style, Friedman proved that criminalising drugs causes an explosion in muggings and burglary, making us all victims of this war at some time in our lives. How? A kilo of heroin passes through six different dealers in the supply chain before it reaches the veins of a Londoner. Each link in the chain demands a fat fee for risking jail. This means heroin costs 3000 percent more than it would in a legal, risk-free market – and a heroin addict must steal 3000 percent more to buy it. 3000 percent more grannies mugged, 3000 percent more homes burgled.
That’s why so many police officers are now coming out in favour of unpicking hardline prohibition and prescribing heroin to addicts, with Howard Roberts, the deputy chief constable of Nottinghamshire, joining the queue yesterday. They know from the experience in Switzerland – an ultra-conservative country that now nonetheless prescribes heroin – that it a silver bullet (or syringe?), bringing crime rates crashing down.
This does not mean Friedman was in favour of drugs. One of the biggest problem with the legalization brand is that it is still contaminated by the legacy of idiots like Timothy O’Leary, who though drugs use was an active good, an act of liberation. (Go visit a heroin addict in rehab and tell them how liberated they are). By contrast, Friedman thought (rightly) that heavy drug use – whether it was alcoholism, cannabis-addiction or junkiedom – was a human disaster. He once told Bill Bennett, Bush Snr’s drugs tsar, “You are not mistaken in believing that drugs are a scourge that is devastating our society. Your mistake is failing to recognize that the very measures you favour are a major source of the evils you deplore.”
Friedman proved, for example, that prohibition changes the way people use drugs, making many people use stronger, more dangerous variants than they would in a legal market. During alcohol prohibition, moonshine eclipsed beer; during drug prohibition, crack is eclipsing coke. He called his rule explaining this curious historical fact “the Iron Law of Prohibition”: the harder the police crack down on a substance, the more concentrated the substance will become.
Why? If you run a bootleg bar in Prohibition-era Chicago and you are going to make a gallon of alcoholic drink, you could make a gallon of beer, which one person can drink and constitutes one sale – or you can make a gallon of pucheen, which is so strong it takes thirty people to drink it and constitutes thirty sales. Prohibition encourages you produce and provide the stronger, more harmful drink. If you are a drug dealer in Hackney, you can use the kilo of cocaine you own to sell to casual coke users who will snort it and come back a month later – or you can microwave it into crack, which is far more addictive, and you will have your customer coming back for more in a few hours. Prohibition encourages you to produce and provide the more harmful drug.
For Friedman, the solution was stark: take drugs back from criminals and hand them to doctors, pharmacists, and off-licenses. Legalize. Chronic drug use will be a problem whatever we do, but adding a vast layer of criminality, making the drugs more toxic, and squandering £20bn on enforcing prohibition that could be spent on prescription and rehab, only exacerbates the problem. “Drugs are a tragedy for addicts,” he said. “But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and non-users alike.”
Some people imagine that after drug prohibition ends, drug use will become rampant, with Chigwell housewives shooting up next to the chintzy ironing board. No historical analogy is perfect, but with one of his extraordinary dense statistical analyses, Friedman showed that the fears at the end of alcohol prohibition – that everyone would be glugging gin the moment they could freely buy it – proved to be false. In fact, alcohol use went back to pre-Prohibition levels, and has been falling since, with a brief spike in the Second World War. He also showed that the vast majority of criminals who had bartered in alcohol did not simply move into another form of crime, but went legit when the temptations of such a profitable criminal market disappeared.
Today, an end to drug prohibition seems like a distant fantasy. But in 1924, even as vociferous a wet as Clarence Darrow was in despair, writing that it would require “a political revolution” to legalize alcohol in the US. Within a decade, it was done. We are approaching a tipping-point in the drugs debate, when failure becomes undeniable. As we wait, I can still hear Milton Friedman in one of his last interviews: “In the meantime, should we allow the killing to go on in the ghettos? 10,000 additional murders a year? In the meantime, should we continue to destroy Colombia and Afghanistan?”
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[In case this seems familiar, this is an adaptation of a recent Independent column for the Los Angeles Times]
JAMILLA NIAZI is a 40-year-old woman with a freckly face and high cheekbones. When she arrives in a refugee camp in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan to speak to me via Internet camera phone, her features are hidden behind the blue burqua she is forced to wear in the scorching summer heat. She peels back the gauze and smiles. She doesn't do this much anymore -- not since the death threats began to come every night, pledging to burn her in acid. To jihadis, Niazi has committed an intolerable offense: She is the head teacher of a school for girls.
"The Taliban have come back," says the aid worker with Niazi. "They control this area now."
The night before our conversation, they burned down a school in nearby Nabili, and Taliban fighters even planted a landmine in the playground of another girls' school. They may be coming for Niazi next.
One main thing has brought the Taliban back to life to terrorize Afghanistan's women: drugs. Or, more accurately, George W. Bush's war on them.
This summer, Emmanuel Reinert, executive director of the Senlis Council, an independent, Brussels-based think tank, commissioned more than 30 researchers to ask why so many southern Afghans were turning to the Taliban when they had cheered their defeat just five years ago. He found that "the Taliban revival is directly, intimately related to the [poppy] crop eradication program. It could not have happened if the U.S. was not aggressively destroying crops. This is the single biggest reason Afghans turned against the foreigners."
The Afghan people are rebelling because the U.S. government is currently committed to destroying 60% of their economy. In the name of the "war on drugs," a U.S. corporation, Dyncorp, is being paid to barge into the fields of some of the poorest people in the world and systematically destroy their only livelihood.
These Afghans are growing poppies -- from which heroin is derived -- out of need, not greed. A quarter of all Afghan babies die before their fifth birthday. The Senlis Council warns that if Western governments continue this program of economic destruction -- and the negative propaganda bonanza it creates -- the Taliban may be sufficiently rejuvenated to march on Kabul, depose President Hamid Karzai and pin up a "Welcome home, Mr. Bin Laden" banner.
There is an alternative to this disastrous spiral. The world is suffering from a shortage of legal opiates. The World Health Organization describes it as "an unprecedented global pain crisis." About 80% of the world's population has almost no access to these painkillers at all. Even in developed countries, for cancer care alone there is an unmet annual need for 550 metric tons more opium to make morphine.
Afghan farmers continue to produce the stuff, only to be made into criminals because of it.
Meanwhile, in a Kabul hospital, half the patients who need opiates are thrashing about in agony because they can't get them, while in fields only a few miles away opium crops are being hacked to pieces.
The solution is simple. Instead of destroying Afghanistan's most valuable resource, Western governments should buy it outright and resell it to producers of legal opiate-based painkillers on the global market.
Instead of confronting Afghan farmers about their crop, our representatives should be approaching them with hard cash.
This has been successfully tried before. In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration began to demand that the opium farmers of southern Turkey destroy their crops. Every attempt at destruction -- carried out by reluctant Turkish prime ministers coerced with threats of cuts in U.S. military aid -- failed. Eventually, Turkey was considered to be such a crucial Cold War ally that the U.S. granted it an exception. So Turkey joined India as a legal supplier of opiates for pain-control purposes, and it remains so today. Isn't Afghanistan even more important today than Turkey was in the 1970s?
It is a strange truth that if President Bush really wants to live up to his rhetoric about saving Afghanistan, he must urgently launch the biggest drug deal in history.
Niazi knows what will happen if he doesn't. In a low, sad voice, she says, "My school will be destroyed forever." She pauses. "All women love their freedom. Who wants to be a prisoner and to be illiterate? Not Afghan women.... You promised you would not let this happen to us again. You promised."
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In Kabul hospital, half the patients who need opiate-based painkillers are writhing in agony because they have none-while in the fields outside and across Afghanistan, farmers trying to grow opiates are having their fields trashed and livelihoods destroyed by western troops. This is just the most ironic intersection between the west's "war on drugs" and what the World Health Organisation calls "an unprecedented global pain crisis."
The world is suffering from an opium drought. The International Narcotics Control Board calculates that the US, Britain, France, Canada, Spain, Australia and Japan consume 80 per cent of the world's medical opiates, leaving the remaining 80 per cent of humanity with the dregs. Even in developed countries, in cancer care alone there is a need for 550 metric tons more opium every year, and overall-according to a University of Toronto study-only about 24 per cent of the demand for medical opiates is now being met.
At the same time, a violent and utopian attempt to physically stop Afghans from growing the opiates we need is causing us to lose a battle there that Tony Blair has called "essential for the safety of civilisation." Human Rights Watch warns that the Taliban now effectively control southern Afghanistan, and many observers warn they could be in a position to march on Kabul and topple Hamid Karzai's elected government within a couple of years.
The war on the Taliban is being lost because the soldiers sent to fight it are also being forced to wage a "war on drugs" that requires the destruction of a major part of the Afghan economy. This summer, Emmanuel Reinert, executive director of the Senlis Council, a development think tank, commissioned around 30 researchers to find out why so many southern Afghans were turning to the Taliban when they cheered their defeat five years ago. He found that, "The Taliban revival is directly, intimately related to the crop eradication programme. It could not have happened if the US was not aggressively destroying crops. And it is the single biggest reason Afghans turned against the foreigners."
Reinert adds, "If you look at where the Americans have carried out the forced eradication programmes, it's where people cannot feed their families because their crops have been destroyed. That's where the Taliban is opportunistically gaining support." The Christian Science Monitor, in a long investigation, found that international drugs prohibition has also caused the fledgling Afghan police force to be crippled by corruption at the moment of its birth. By demanding that more than one third of the country's total economy be criminalised-and therefore placed in the hands of armed gangs and warlords, rather than taxed by the legitimate government-prohibition ensured non-state actors will always have bigger guns and more cash than the state.
The only solution the US seems to have is to speed up eradication. The state department has commissioned studies into the viability of a clone of "Plan Colombia," in which vast amounts of chemicals were sprayed on the Colombian countryside, creating ecological wastelands and cancer epidemics. Hamid Karzai is known to be a strong opponent of this suggestion, but he may yet be overruled.
In the long term, there is only one solution to narco-states: bring the global drugs trade-some 5 per cent of global GDP-into the legal economy, so countries like Afghanistan and Colombia can reclaim their territory from armed gangs. But that is a goal that requires vast political change within the country driving global prohibition, the US. It will come-if at all-too late for Afghanistan.
So the Senlis Council has come up with a sensible short-term solution. It is simple: in an Afghan equivalent to the EU's common agricultural policy, instead of destroying Afghanistan's opium crop, our governments should simply buy it, and sell it on to produce legal opiate-based painkillers. Instead of approaching Afghan farmers with weapons, our representatives would be approaching them with cash.
This can be done easily, even within the current structure of global prohibition. In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration began to demand that the opium farmers of southern Turkey destroy their crops. Every programme of destruction-carried out by reluctant Turkish prime ministers coerced with threats of cuts in US military aid-failed. Eventually, Turkey was considered to be such a crucial cold-war ally that the US agreed that it could be an exception. Turkey joined India as a legal supplier of opiates for pain-control purposes, and remains so today. The US department of agriculture operates according to the "80-20 rule"-80 per cent of US opium is purchased from two supplier countries, while the remaining 20 per cent come from the rest of the world.
Isn't Afghanistan even more important today than Turkey was in the 1970s? If Tony Blair wants at least one of his liberations to work, he should ask a final favour of George W Bush- a former recreational drug user himself-to extend the list of countries licensed to grow opiates to the high hills of Tora Bora, and plead for a global Afghan brand of opiates for every hospital. It is a strange truth that if Blair really wants to live up to his commitment to save Afghanistan, he should bow out by orchestrating the biggest heroin deal in history.
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Another consequence of the surreal, stupid ‘war on drugs’ – where billions of pounds are spent trying to flush every prohibited toxin from the insides of every Londoner – was revealed this week. A Scotland Yard study admitted that although white ABs like me are the most prolific drug users in town, young black men are almost always the ones arrested for it. George Rhoden, chair of the Yard’s Black Police Association, said, “It has got to be about racism.” Sing it, sister. Drug use is so integral to London, and so impossible to defeat, that the ‘war’ against it simply gives the police an excuse to harass anybody they (dis)like. It is cruelly, bitterly unsurprising that nearly a decade after the Lawrence Inquiry, it is still black men who are the usual suspects to be rounded up at every turn.
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Today is the fifteenth birthday of the Big Issue, the mid-point of its glorious, surly adolescence. For the thousands of people who hit London’s pavements every year, the magazine has provided them with a small umbrella of dignity. Its founder, John Bird, has been using this anniversary to launch a manifesto – ‘A Rolls Royce Service for the Homeless, Please’ – but he has left out the one simple, swift move that has been proven to dramatically slash homelessness all over the world: free heroin prescription.
Meet Erin O'Hara, a heroin addict who just a few years ago was scrambling across our streets for her next fix by selling her abcess-scarred body or by selling drugs herself. Today she is a dazzling success story. She edits an acclaimed magazine called Black Poppy, her veins are healing, she is committing no crimes, and she has “never been happier”, she tells me. Except she isn't a poster girl for abstinence, a "Just Say No" calendar girl. She is still using heroin - but this time, it's legal. She is one of 450 people who are being given the heroin her body is chemically dependent on, free by the NHS.
Sixty percent of the homeless Londoners you toss a few pennies at are addicted to heroin after a childhood of being ignored, beaten or raped. The evidence shows the only way to lift them out of the chaos of scrambling for their next fix – the only way for them to settle away from the streets – is to provide it, safely and securely, in a doctor’s surgery. Heroin is not like, say, crack. Every doctor agrees that once a heroin addict is given a legal, safe supply, they will regulate their use and live normal, happy lives: William Wilberforce, John Halstead (the founder of the Harvard Medical School) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were all highly-functional heroin-heads.
Giving up heroin didn’t work for Erin, and it doesn’t work for most addicts. Even the very best rehab programmes in the world – far beyond the reach of people sleeping on London’s streets – have a success rate of only twenty percent. Once your body craves heroin, unless you are incredibly lucky it will never stop. To avoid the convulsions, unimaginable stomach cramps, hallucinations and wild fluctuations in your body temperature caused by withdrawal, you will do anything. That’s why half of the burglaries committed in London are by heroin addicts desperate for a fix, and 70 percent of our street prostitutes are junkies.
Until 1971, London’s doctors sensibly acknowledged this reality, and prescribed heroin to the people who needed it. They only stopped because the American government – as part of a global anti-drugs crusade – demanded it. As all the experts warned, the result was a violent spike in our crime rates, and thousands of Erins. The policy has been so disastrous that across Europe, countries are finally shifting back to heroin prescription. In Switzerland, the areas that have given heroin to addicts have seem amazing results: burglary has been halved, addict deaths have simply stopped, and dozens of criminal gangs have been bankrupted.
Here in London, the government has quietly rolled out a massive expansion of methadone prescription since 1997 – and the number of rough sleepers has fallen by an incredible 70 percent as a result. Cardboard City no longer exists because the people who slept and wept there have now been mopped up with a slew of methadone prescriptions. Give them the drug and they get off the streets.
Prescribing heroin itself would have an even more drastic effect. My friend Dr Eliot Albert, a super-smart heroin-addicted academic who has taught at Goldsmith’s, knows how hard it is to get a heroin script on the NHS in this city. He explains, “I have been trying for four years, but there is a postcode lottery. Only four boroughs in London prescribe heroin, the rest don’t.” There is currently a trial run at the Maudsley Clinic, but only a few dozen people are on it. Why do we need another trial? Isn’t the evidence from Switzerland and Spain enough?
Here is the real Big Issue, the one that should be trumpeted by the magazine’s founder today: Do you want to bring London’s burglary, prostitution and homelessness rates crashing down? Do you want to save the lives of some of the most abused, broken people in town? Then why aren’t you calling for heroin prescription on the NHS?
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Jamilla Niazi is a 40-year-old woman with a freckly face and high cheek-bones. When she arrives in a refugee camp in Helmand Province, Southern Afghanistan, to speak to me via webcam, her features are hidden behind the blue burqua she is forced to wear in the scorching summer swelter. She peels back the gauze and smiles. She doesn’t do this much any more – not since the death threats began to come every night, pledging to burn her in acid. Jamilla has, the authors rage, committed an offence against the immutable moral laws of Afghanistan: she is the head-teacher of a school for girls.
“The Taliban have come back. They control this area now,” the aid worker from the Senlis Council who is with her tells me. The night before we speak, they burned down a school in nearby Nabili, and they have announced they are coming for Jamilla next. Jamilla grew up in a country where 40 percent of women had jobs – better than some Western countries at that time – but when the Taliban took over in 1996, she was ordered to go home and live the rest of her life in Purdah. The sound of women laughing was declared an offence, punishable by whipping. Females accused of adultery, lesbianism or reading a book other than the Koran were shot in Kabul sports stadium before a howling male mob.
But Jamilla could not accept being reduced to the status of a piece of soft furnishing: she set up a secret school for girls in her home, where she continued to teach them to read and write. Even so, “when I was shut at home and not allowed to go out, it was like being in jail,” she says now. “For six years I was sick in my head. Now my head is hurting again. I am frightened because we are going back to that time.”
She did not think it would be like this. “I was so happy to see the foreigners [in 2001], we all cried with joy to see the Taliban leave,” she explains. “All the women were happy and most of the men too. But now we are not happy.” When the Taliban reformed and began to psychologically dominate her hometown of Lashkagar once more, Jamilla began to worry her school would be attacked. The Afghan President Hamid Karzai admitted this May that over 200 girls’ schools have been destroyed by the Taliban, almost certainly an underestimate. Teachers have been gunned down in front of their pupils, and there was even a landmine placed in a playground.
When the death-threats began, she approached the nearby British military base for protection. Since the Western rhetoric at the time of the invasion was all about how we were committed to women like Jamilla, she assumed her school would be offered immediate protection. The individual British soldiers were very sympathetic – but explained, “We’re not in that business.” Their orders do not include directly protecting female civilians and girls’ schools from Talibanist slaughter. Sorry.
The day I spoke to her, Jamilla had finally decided to go into hiding. I ask her if I should change her name in this article to protect her from further threats. “No,” she says. “Use my name.” She does not want the Taliban to take even that away from her.
Just five years after all the lush promises, how did Afghanistan end up like this? The Senlis Council, an invaluable independent think tank, has over fifty researchers living among ordinary Afghans, and in their exhaustive new report ‘The Return of the Taliban’ they give us the answer. The determination of the Bush administration to fight a ‘war on drugs’ in Afghanistan has guaranteed we will lose the war against the Taliban.
Over the past five years, with British and American military support, a sinister corporation called DynCorps has been going to the fields of the poorest farmers in Afghanistan and systematically destroying them. This is because they are growing opium poppies, used to make heroin that is freely bought on the streets of the West. Emmanuel Reinert, the Executive Director of the Senlis Council, explains, “The Taliban revival is directly, intimately related to the crop eradication programme. It could not have happened if the US was not aggressively destroying crops. It is the single biggest reason Afghans turned against the foreigners.”
How would we react if we were already starving – a quarter of all Afghan children die before their fifth birthday – and a foreign army declared its intention to wipe out 70 percent of our economy? Reinert adds, “If you look at where the Americans have carried out the forced eradication programmes, it’s where people cannot feed their families. That’s where the Taliban is opportunistically gaining support.” People whose crops are being trashed will support anyone who rallies to defend them – even this monstrous Islamist Khmer Rouge who have swiftly seized on the heroin eradication programmes along with the evidence of US torture camps, not least Guanatnomo Bay, to show “the West is waging war on Islam”.
If this aggressive counter-narcotics strategy is not drastically altered, Reinert says, “in the next six months the legitimacy of the Kabul government will totally collapse, all the cities of the South will fall to the Taliban, and they will mount an assault on Kabul.”
In the long-term, there is only one solution: bring the massive global drugs trade into the legal economy, so countries like Afghanistan and Colombia can finally reclaim their territory from hellish groups who build armies with the profits from the drugs trade. But that is clearly a goal that requires vast political change within the country currently driving global prohibition, the United States. So the Senlis Council has come up with a sensible short-term solution that might – just might – claw Afghanistan back from tipping into Talibanism once more.
It is simple: instead of destroying Afghanistan’s opium crop, our governments should allow people to buy it. This doesn’t require legalisation. There is currently a massive worldwide shortage of legal opiate-based painkillers: in cancer care in developed countries alone, there is a need for 55 metric tons more every year. Why not license Afghanistan’s farmers to meet this massive legal demand? There is a precedent. When Turkey’s southern opiate farmers stubbornly refused to trash their own livelihoods in the early 1970s, the US eventually gave up and allowed them to participate in the legal trade. Isn’t Afghanistan as important as Turkey?
Jamilla knows what will happen if our government does not radically revise its route through Afghanistan in this way. In a low, sad voice, she says, “My school will be destroyed forever.” She pauses. “All women love their freedom. Who wants to be a prisoner and to be illiterate? Not Afghan women… You promised you would not let this happen to us again. You promised.”
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Kimberly Dowling was just another 21 year old blonde sleeping in the river-blown freeze under Waterloo Bridge. When the journalist Tanya Gold found her in a tattered sleeping bag a few months ago while researching a piece on London’s rough sleepers, she described Kimberley as having “a ski-jump nose, the deceptively bright eyes of a heroin user” and “a soft, plaintive voice that makes her seem like a fairy who has wandered into the wrong wood.” She offered up the old, sad story of every other junkie on our streets – an alcoholic mother who tossed her out, and a thoughtless flop into the warm blanket of heroin to fend off the cold and pain.
But Gold left Kimberly “thinking she will be OK. She is pretty and young and she occasionally smiles a child’s surprised smile, clutching [her boyfriend] Gavin’s hand and toying with his fingers - a grubby Juliet to his slightly broken Romeo.” I was talking to her when she discovered the very different end to Kimberley’s story. An e-mail from a homeless contact explained that “little Kimberley of Gavin and Kimberley is dead.” She had become another anonymous heroin overdose in another anonymous tunnel on the streets of London. Another pointless 21 year-old corpse.
Britain has more Kimberleys than any other country in Europe – as a direct result of our ‘tough’ drugs policies. Don’t take my word for it. The government itself admits as much. It was recently put to the Home Office that providing girls like Kimberley with safe rooms where they could inject heroin with clean needles, under the supervision of a nurse, would save lives. Similar projects have, after all, drastically reduced overdoses in Australia, Canada, Germany and Switzerland. The government admitted, “Several countries are piloting injecting rooms for illegal drugs, and early evaluation does seem to indicate that such facilities can prevent overdose fatalities and reduce harm to drug misusers.”
So why not do it? Why not save those lives? They initially issued a string of transparently untrue reasons not to proceed. They said it would contravene international law – even though six other major democracies have found it does no such thing. They said people would still inject in an unsafe way when the injecting galleries were closed – an argument for opening them 24/7, rather than for never opening them at all. Then they got to the real worry – they said they would be accused by the media of opening “drug dens”. In other words, the lives of girls like Kimberley – over 500 people overdosed on heroin in Britain last year – are not worth a few bad headlines in the right-wing press.
The question of opening injecting rooms has been jabbed back onto the agenda this week by an authoritative report from the anti-poverty charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. They assembled a group of impartial experts – including Kevin Green and Andy Hayman, both senior figures in the Metropolitan Police – to spend 20 months interviewing witnesses and studying the evidence. They that even though there have been literally millions of injections there since injecting rooms were first set up, only one person has ever died in them – due to an allergic reaction. That’s thousands of rescued Kimberleys.
The government’s claim that the policy is “untested” and “lacking evidence” simply cannot be sustained any more. The panel has gone methodically through any possible objections to introducing safe rooms, and found them all to crumble to powder. The most weighty worry they studied is that injecting rooms will cause terrible problems in the (inevitably working class) areas where they are located, causing junkies to congregate in one sullen area. But the panel found that in reality, the opposite happens. Far from causing local problems, all five lengthy academic studies into this subject have found that they massively reduce problems. In Zurich – a city where I have relatives – there is a park called Platzspitz which came to be known as Needle Park after addicts turned it into a makeshift needle-cluttered home. Local people were too frightened to go there. But when a safe injecting room was opened nearby, the addicts migrated and the park has been reclaimed by residents.
This is no idle anecdote. In one Australian study, 750 locals were surveyed before a local injecting room was set up, and again year after. Almost everyone expected things to get worse – and almost everyone said a year later that the problem of needles and addicts on the street had fallen and their lives were better. The worry that the centres would act as ‘honeypots’, drawing addicts to the area, turned out to be flawed. Junkies worry about where their dealers are; seeking out a safe place to inject is a secondary concern, and they won’t travel far for it.
Of course, there are people who say injecting rooms condone or even encourage heroin use. It might seem compassionate to help Kimberley now, but aren’t you just ensuring she stays on heroin longer, and loses even more of her life? They advocate instead a ‘tough love’ approach of offering nothing but zero-use rehab and crackdown after crackdown. This is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of heroin use. Using heroin is not a moral failing, a sign of weakness. It is a very serious illness, and for most users there is no cure. Even with the very best gold-plated Betty Ford rehab centres, the success rate for staying clean after three years is just 20 percent. That leaves 80 percent of heroin users whose bodies cannot be purged of the desperate need for heroin, no matter how many stern lectures or cold jail cells we offer them. These people – most of whom are victims of extreme poverty or childhood sexual abuse – cannot be wished away or left to rot under Waterloo Bridge. They must be helped to stay alive and have some kind of life.
It is easy to offer stern moral platitudes about drugs being evil and how we must condemn, condemn, condemn. Those of us who believe in more rational drugs policies must answer them in the language of morality too. As Father John Clifton Marquis, who works with heroin addicts in Baltimore, puts it: “Moral leaders have no choice but to choose between authentic morality, which produces good, and cosmetic morality, which merely looks good…. Authentic moral leaders cannot afford the arrogant luxury of machismo, with its refusal to consider not “winning the war on drugs.” Winning, in the case of drug abuse, is finding the direction and methods that provide the maximum amount of health and safety to the whole society, and to addicts.”
For too long, the government has been choosing the cheap cosmetic morality of tough talk. It is girls like Kimberley who pay for it.
POSTSCRIPT: If you want to campaign to reclaim drugs from armed criminal gangs and hand them to doctors and pharmacists, you can support the brilliant drugs reform charity Transform at www.tdpf.org.uk
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London is a city soothed and stirred by illegal drugs, from the junior doctor keeping himself awake on a 48-hour shift (how did you think they manage it?) to the teachers relaxing with a spliff after a rough day to the City boys snorting charlie in a £20-a-drink club. Cannabis and cocaine are as densely interwoven into this city’s tapestry as alcohol. Trying to drive drugs from London is as futile as the attempt to drive the Demon Rum from Chicago in the 1920s – yet still the Metropolitan Police, goaded by our politicians, chase after this drug-free dragon.
At a time when there is a rape in this city every six seconds, last Saturday night the Met thought it was a smart use of 200 officers and months of pre-planning to crack down on a group of people who were dancing. This army of officers lowered the temperature of the Fridge, one of Brixton’s best clubs, by surrounding it, sealing the exits, and seizing a dozen people who now face long prison sentences. For most of the bewildered people locked down, their worst crime was excessive gurning.
John Roberts, the Met's lead member for Lambeth, claimed that the operation was “part of a much bigger picture” which involved targeting “the anti-social criminality that drug dealing breeds and the misery that is causes”. But there is an irony in his statement. It is not drug use that creates anti social criminal gangs – it is drug prohibition. Criminalizing drugs does not stop people using them, as anybody who has ever been clubbing knows. It simply hands the multi-billion dollar industry to armed criminal gangs who flood London with guns to protect their patches.
Don’t take my leftie-legalizer’s word for it. Listen to Michael Levine, who had a thirty year career as one of America’s most distinguished federal narcotics agents. In his time, he led a thousand raids like last Saturday’s, as well as infiltrating some of the biggest drugs cartels in the world – and he now explains, in sad tones, that he wasted his time. In the early 1990s, he was assigned to eradicate drug-dealing from one New York street corner – an easy enough task, surely? But he quickly learned that even this was physically impossible, given the huge demand for drugs in cities like London and New York. He calculated that he would need one thousand officers to be working on that corner for six months to make an impact – and there were only 250 drugs agents in the whole city. One of the residents asked him, “If all these cops and agents couldn’t get this one corner clean, what’s the point of this whole damned drug war?” You could ask the same about the midnight Fridge raid - the first midnight Fridge raid in history that I (and my swollen gut) have disapproved of.
When Levine rose undercover to the top of la Mafia Cruenza, one of the biggest drug-dealing gangs in the world, he learned, as he puts it, “that not only did they not fear our war on drugs, they actually counted on it… On one undercover tape-recorded conversation, a top cartel chief, Jorge Roman, expressed his gratitude for the drug war, calling it ‘a sham put on the American tax-payer’ that was ‘actually good for business’.” He was right – prohibition is the dealer’s friend. Legalization is his greatest enemy. Shocked, Levine recounted this to his bosses, who explained yeah, we know, but we have to keep pointlessly going through the motions of a drugs war because the alternative is “politically unacceptable.”
But what is that alternative? It is to seize control of the drug supply back from the criminals and hand it to off-licenses, pharmacists and doctors. We do not have a choice about whether Londoners use drugs – but we do have a choice about whether those drugs are controlled by gun-toting gangsters. In the real world – as opposed to the Met’s fantasia – the only way to clean out the Fridge is to legalize, legalize, legalize.
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This week, the British army is battering its way into a staggering, starving region – a place where half the people are suffering from malnutrition – to hack to pieces the only profitable crop they have.
Sayed Rikan is a terrified 43 year-old opium farmer from the East of Afghanistan, and he told me yesterday, “My village depends on growing opium for us to eat. We grow the [opium] poppies for survival, for life." He explained his reasons for this risky decision: "We have a long drought in Afghanistan, for six years now, and the poppy does not need much water to grow. And please understand: one kilo of opium makes $150. Seven kilos of wheat makes $1. When you are hungry and your children are dying, this is no choice.”
Some Sayeds will fight back against Our Boys to protect the thin row of poppies standing between them and starvation – in which case they will be shot.
Sayed is not alone. Some 60 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP stems from the heroin trade – and the US and Britain are committed to systematically destroying it. Sayed has already seen them try to do this once. “Last year, a plane appeared at midnight in the sky and it let out a long green spray over our fields,” he says. “Animals started to die and the people outside began to cough and be sick. The next day, all the crops died. Not just the poppies. The wheat, the fruit trees, everything. Now nothing grows there.” The British and Americans officially deny this policy of “fumigation”, so no compensation has been paid to Sayed and his neighbours, even though they starved for weeks as they trudged to new land. (Some were so disgusted they trudged off to join the jihadists of the Taliban). A similar US-led campaign of chemical poisoning has been linked to an epidemic of cancers in Colombia.
“Yes, we expect them to come to our new fields,” Sayed says. The Afghan Human Rights Organisation says that British troops oversee the destruction of opium fields “though chemicals and manually, where they hack the crops apart with sticks.” Never mind that most Afghans are already dead by the age of 45. Never mind that a quarter of their children never reach their fifth birthday. There’s a “war on drugs” on, and the Anglo-American alliance puts this attempt to wipe out heroin – which their own officials say is a “totally ineffective” way to reduce drug use back home – before Afghan life.
While British troops touched down for this programme of economic vandalism in the Helmand province, Tony Blair was proudly unveiling a plan for the reconstruction of Afghanistan in London. Nobody noted the irony. But so long as the international prohibition of drugs continues, any plan to unite and rebuild Afghanistan might as well be stuffed into a crack-pipe and smoked. Criminalizing heroin has one effect, and one effect only: it hands the industry over to armed gangsters. That’s bad enough on a British council estate, where they fill the area with guns and panicky sweat. But in Afghanistan, it means 60 percent of the country’s economy is controlled by armed gangs – increasingly accountable to the woman-hating, psychopathic Taliban – who have a vested interest in keeping the country in chaos. They will always have more cash and more guns than the elected government – so Hamid Karzai, the elected President, will remain forever the Governor of Kabul, gazing out at a narco-state he does not control.
This “war on drugs” is a massive gift to international gangsterism, radiating out from Afghanistan across the world. It hands them a £5bn-a-year industry, tax-free. This isn't merely the view of leftie legalizers like myself –the gangsters themselves privately gloat about it. Michael Levine, America’s most distinguished federal narcotics agent, worked undercover with some of the world’s most powerful drugs cartels, and came face to face with (amongst others) la Mafia Cruzena, the Bolivian cocaine cartel. In his book ‘Fight Back’, he explains, “I learned that not only did they not fear our war on drugs, they actually counted on it… The only US action they feared was an effective demand reduction program back home. On one undercover tape-recorded conversation, a top cartel chief, Jorge Roman, expressed his gratitude for the drug war, calling it ‘a sham put on the American tax-payer’ that was ‘actually good for business’.” When Levine recounted these comments to his boss – the officer in command of the paramilitary operation attacking South America – he replied, “Yeah, we know [military operations] don’t work, but we sold the plan up and down the Potomac.” There are Taliban warlords near Sayed right now drawing exactly the same gleeful conclusions as Jorge Roman.
Sometimes the drug warriors try to present a more moderate face than the slash-and-burn smoking through Helmand towards Sayed’s village. They propose ‘crop substitution’, which sounds like a good idea at first: rather than simply trash crops, why not pay the farmers to grow something else instead? There have been a few pilot schemes here and there, but the plans always smack up against an insurmountable problem: to replace the opium industry of Afghanistan alone would cost $5bn, which is more than the combined aid budgets every country in the world is offering to the country. It is not going to happen: crop substitution is a mere propaganda pill, offered to make the policy of destroying the livelihoods of desperately poor people sound less vicious. For Sayed, it mean being offered seven kilos of potatoes – and that’s it.
There are two possible futures for Afghanistan. In the first, Hamid Karzai responds to the clear democratic will of his people – “everyone I know wants the poppies to be legal,” Sayed says, and the Afghan Human Rights Organisation agrees – and legalises the supply of heroin. Only once Karzai can tax the country’s single biggest product and reclaim it from criminal gangs is there any chance of extending democratic rule beyond Kabul.
But the other, darker Afghanistan looks more likely – one where Karzai ignores his people and follow the dictates of the ex-drug user George W Bush to create a “drug-free Afghanistan”. This is a recipe for endless civil war, with a heroin-fatted Taliban launching more and more raids to burn girls’ schools and trash any rebuilding, far onto the historical horizon. “I do not want to live in that Afghanistan,” Sayed says softly.
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While Charles Clarke backtracks on the pitifully, pathetically moderate downgrading of cannabis introduced two years ago to stop the squandering of police time, the ‘War on Drugs’ is collapsing across the world. The Bolivian people have just elected a left-wing President, Alberto Morales, who will legalise the production of coca leaves, an essential ingredient in manufacturing cocaine.
This is crucial because it is the first time a member of the United Nations has refused to abide by the US-led, US-enforced programme of global prohibition. Bolivians – like more and more people across the world – can see that the idea of eradicating all drugs from the face of the earth is preposterous. The only beneficiaries are massive criminal syndicates, who have been handed a $100bn-a-year industry on a shiny cocaine platter.
What will be the next country to refuse to participate in this failing, flailing war? If Hamid Karzai was really in charge of Afghanistan, surely he would join Morales: 70 percent of his country’s GDP comes from its opium crops. British troops are – right now – destroying the crops of peasant farmers in that starvation-poor country. Isn’t it more sensible to follow the path of Bolivia – legalisation and regulation – than to carry on shooting at peasants who are trying desperately to make a living?
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For a fortnight, the press pack has been obsessed with the brain-blendingly trivial question of what entered David Cameron's aristocratic nostrils in his Brideshead years. But all along, there has been a serious, silent drugs question hanging over the Tory leadership contest. Will David Cameron stick to the radical drugs policies he outlined three years ago when, as a sprightly, anonymous backbencher he sat on the Home Affairs Select Committee? If he does, he could make a change in the Tory drugs policies into a Cameroonian Clause Four - a moment that proves to the country the Tories have been reinvented and remade.
If you reread Cameron's questions to the drugs experts from that 2002 investigation armed with the new knowledge that one of his close relatives is a heroin addict, his willingness to see beyond blind prohibitionist rhetoric seems both sadder and sharper.
Look, for example, at how Cameron reacted to Fulton Gillespie, a witness called before the committee, whose son Scott died just before his 34th birthday after buying adulterated heroin. Gillespie told him: "I can assure you there are very few things in life that concentrate the mind more than losing a child. So I had to think about this very, very firmly. Before this happened, I was one of those people who said: 'Build more prisons, throw away the key.'"
After his son's death, he tracked down his addict friends and found out how they were living. He discovered that prohibition doesn't stop people using drugs; it simply hands the industry to armed criminal gangs who were claiming hundreds of thousands of victims of their own - including Scott. "I think the stuff that killed my son was talcum powder," he said. "The reason I am now for legalisation is, how can we regulate supply if we are not in charge of the power station? We have to take control back from the criminals and place it back with us, the people. It is too dangerous to be left in the hands of criminals." Cameron paused and replied: "That is a very powerful argument."
As you watch Cameron questioning more and more witnesses like this, you can see him being slowly persuaded, against his politician's instincts. The journalist Nick Davies told him why the number of heroin addicts has increased two hundred-fold since it was criminalised in 1971: "It is like pyramid selling. The most common way for a heroin user to fund their own use is to sell it. You turn to your four closest friends [and get them hooked] and you inject the profit. Each of these three or four friends are then in the same position, and so it expands."
Cameron offered a halting answer: "Your analysis of what has happened since 1971 - I think many of us would share [that] it has been a disastrous policy." He later asked witnesses what the opinion polls say about support for legalisation.
Eventually, Cameron stopped just short of recommending it. But he proposed a drastic shift nonetheless: downgrading of ecstasy and cannabis, more extensive heroin prescription, the introduction of safe injecting houses for heroin junkies - and he even said legalisation will have to be considered in future if prohibition continues to fail.
As recently as a month ago, Cameron was sticking to these conclusions - and earned a full-page piece of praise in The Sun newspaper for it, a sign of how quickly the debate on drugs is shifting. But then came Bridesheadgate, and the back-pedalling began. Cameron has ditched his conclusions for a soft-focus, intellectually fuzzy piece of boilerplate rhetoric: "I am in favour of proper education in schools and proper treatment programmes that are not soft. Really tough treatment programmes, tougher than the ones that you get in prison."
But back on the select committee, he saw that these measures are far from enough. Mike Trace, then deputy drugs tsar, told him the evidence was "very thin" that teaching kids about drugs significantly reduces their chances of using it. Dr Colin Brewer told him that, while rehab can be excellent and should be much more widely available, even the best heroin rehab programmes in the world have a success rate of only 20 per cent. That means you will still have four out of every five heroin users for whom rehab will be useless. It's no use talking tough to them: a safe, regular, legal supply is what they need.
So is Cameron just squirming his way through the Tory leadership contest and planning a more radical drugs policy once he is in charge? Or is he about to be added to the long list of politicians who knows the "war on drugs" has been a lethal disaster - not least for his own relatives - but keeps ploughing billions into it for another generation because he is too afraid to tell the British people the truth?
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Last week, I sat staring at the newspapers with a vacant spaced-out expression and a strange surging high. I found I couldn't form words properly. I couldn't even speak - and it's all the fault of drugs. No, I haven't dug out my dusty teenage bong. It's something far more mind-bending: a senior British politician has spoken sense about ending the "war on drugs". And - gulp! - he's a candidate for leadership of the Tory party.
Unlike most politicians, David Cameron knows something about the global drugs industry. When he served on the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2002, he conducted a year-long investigation into it, taking more than 50 hours of evidence and long testimonies from the world's experts. He went in very sceptical of the idea of legalisation: aren't only crazy pro-heroin hippies in favour of ending prohibition? But as the evidence piled up, the committee was honest enough to admit that - in Cameron's words - "about the only thing all our witnesses agreed on was that the Government's strategy was a failure and prohibition of drugs over many decades had not worked". They explained the truth: criminalisation does not kill the drugs industry. It simply hands it over to armed criminal gangs who flood the country with guns, terrorise their neighbourhoods, and drain resources that would be better spent helping and treating addicts.
Cameron found the prohibitionist rhetoric - stamp, stamp, stamp it out - increasingly ludicrous and self-defeating. So he has begun to advocate the only serious alternative: legalisation at the international level through the UN. It sounds drastic, and at the moment Cameron is only offering a generalised commitment without much detail. But his suggestion can be swiftly turned into an attractive prospectus. Take drugs back from the armed gangs, and hand them over to off-licenses, pharmacists and doctors. Instead of doling out tens of billions a year to the police, customs and army to do the impossible job of "eradicating" drugs, give that money to hospitals so they can - in Cameron's phrase - "let one thousand rehab flowers bloom". Stop chasing the utopia of a drugs-free world, and instead focus on reducing the harm drugs can do.
A decade ago, the sight of a senior Tory offering this programme would have seemed like a political acid trip, but British attitudes towards drugs are shifting rapidly. The most detailed survey on the subject - last year's ICM poll - found that 76 per cent of Brits agree with the statement "the war on drugs is being lost". Only 28 per cent believe "drugs should be illegal even if they are controlled by criminals", and 69 per cent believe "their supply should be regulated by the Government or drugs companies". The name for the UN's 10-year drugs strategy championed by the Government - "A Drug-Free World - We Can Do It!" - provokes incredulous laughter.
The only problem uncovered by ICM for Cameron lies in the branding of their argument. When the same people who believe that the Government should regulate and supply drugs were asked if they believe in legalisation - the only accurate description of their own proposals - only 17 per cent agreed. The sting needs to be drawn from the word "legalisation".
It might be that a preppy old Etonian like David Cameron, offering Middle England some soothing conservative-sounding arguments, is the person to do it. There are, after all, plenty of Toryish arguments for drug legalisation (even though I prefer the lefty ones). Here's a possible Cameron script: Are you worried about burglary? There is only one tried and tested policy that slashes burglary rates by 70 per cent: giving heroin to addicts so they do not go out on the rob to feed their ravaging hunger. Just ask the Swiss, where it is one of the most popular government policies ever. Are you worried about high taxes? Prohibition costs £16bn a year as it cascades through the criminal justice system. That's equivalent to four pence on income tax - wait till you see the peace dividend from ending this war.
And yes, of course you don't want your kids to use drugs. But you also don't want them to be shot on the street, as more and more people are because of drug prohibition's Al Capones - so legalise and send the gun-toting gangs out of business. And yes, you don't want little Tarquin using smack - but do you want him lumbered with a criminal record for a night on the town? And wouldn't you like to know that if - God forbid - he does become an addict, there will be free, high-quality rehab waiting for him rather than a dank cell?
As if on cue, the Government is doing something this week that illustrates Cameron's arguments about the weird evidence-free nature of the war on drugs in blood-red Technicolor. Right now, 2,500 British troops are about to be despatched to trash one of the only cash-crops in the poorest country in the world - and they are going to kill anybody who fights back. The 16th Air Assault Brigade is flying into the Afghan province of Helmand, where they have orders to "secure" the fields of dirt-poor farmers growing opium and destroy them. British Army commanders briefed a newspaper that they expect the farmers to stage an uprising when their livelihoods are wrecked and they face starvation. So - strike up "Land of Hope and Glory" - we will then have British forces firing on some of the poorest people on earth after destroying their only source of income. It's as if the Government was dealing with binge-drinking by sending Swat teams into Oddbins and despatching the SAS to commit massacres in rum distilleries in Jamaica.
Although this "operation" might seem very distant from domestic concerns, it is an illustration of the strategy carried out back home in one crucial respect. Whenever politicians order "crackdowns" like this, they have invariably been warned by their experts that it is a waste of time. Tony Blair's Strategy Unit warned him in 2003 that targeting drug-supplying countries squanders blood and money. "Drug crop eradication appears not to limit illicit crops in the long term," it explained dryly. Nor, the experts added, can drug trafficking ever be significantly curtailed: seizure rates of 60-80 per cent would be required to have any serious impact, and nothing greater than 20 per cent has ever been achieved. Yet the Government continues to blindly funnel money into the black hole of prohibition.
For the public, the war on drugs overdosed years ago. Once a smart politician campaigns for a decent burial - once he shows there is a safer, smarter alternative - I suspect the other parties will come round within a decade. So is David Cameron the man to begin digging the grave of prohibition?Permalink rss, atom -->
I'm a bit ill at the moment - don't drink the Venezuelan water, folks! - so I'm calling a (justified) sickie.
But wanted to post a few thoughts about drugs and alcohol:
This has been the summer of alcoholic discontent, when the British people finally woke up – with a dry mouth and thudding headache – to the fact we have a national problem with booze. From the teens with chirosis of the liver hurling their way into casualty to the vomitathons in every city centre on a Saturday night, it is hard to ignore the victims of alcohol in this country. So where are the prohibitionists? All you people who believe that cannabis, ecstasy and heroin should be driven underground with countless police hours, military operations and tax-pounds because they also cause terrible harm – why aren’t you calling for a ban on alcohol too?
The answer is obvious. Everybody knows that, although the problems caused by alcohol can be real and crippling, prohibition is even worse. When it was tried in the United States in the early twentieth century, few people stopped drinking. The only ‘achievement’ of the ban-the-demon-rum brigade was to hand a massive and profitable industry to armed gangsters, who proceeded to flood the country with guns, corrupt the police, and claim even more victims than alcohol itself.
Exactly the same truths apply to drug prohibition. We have not stopped people using drugs: since prohibition began to be violently enforced across the globe by Richard Nixon, drug use has increased by a factor of nearly fifty. All we have achieved is to hand a $500bn-a-year industry – and a whopping 8% of world trade – to armed gangs who are wreaking chaos across the globe.
Yet the prohibitionists use every new piece of (very real) evidence that cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine cause severe physical harm if over-used to claim that prohibition is right, right, right. The fact that they do not - they cannot - do the same with every piece of evidence about alcohol (just as harmful, just as life-destroying) shows the intellectual weakness of their case. Why? Because it is a tactic acknowledgement that, if harmful substances were not already banned, nobody would respond by introducing the massive, failing architecture of prohibition afresh.
So every time you are arguing with a drug prohibitionist, ask a simple question:
"Alcohol does horrific harm to people who use it habitually. Are you in favour of the prohibition of alcohol? If not, why?"
Every reason they will give in response - millions of people already use it, prohibition does more harm than good, alcohol can be used in moderation, there are many non-problematic drinkers - is also true of cannabis, ecstasy, coke and heroin.Permalink rss, atom -->
The "war on drugs" finally flickered into the election campaign last weekend. You might expect it to be one of the biggest issues, since - along with the United States - our government is the most hawkish drug warrior in the world. Using the institutions of the United Nations as their proxy, they are trying violently to suppress a $500bn-a-year industry that makes up 8 per cent of all global trade. Whole countries - from Afghanistan to Colombia - are being destabilised as they try to "eradicate" drug supply.
But it's all worth it, according to our politicians. Back on the home front, it's VD Day, they declare - Victory over Drugs. But in the real world, drug use has never been higher. Untreated drug users commit half of all burglaries, while billions are squandered to prevent drugs crossing our borders.
The main effect of this war has been to take drugs out of the hands of doctors and pharmacists, and hand them to criminal gangs. Drugs don't go away; they melt into the black economy. That's why, wherever drug prohibition spreads, it brings armed gang warfare as dealers seize the market. As Milton Friedman, guru to the marketeering right, explains: "Al Capone epitomises our earlier attempt at alcohol prohibition; the Crips and Bloods and countless other armed gangs epitomise this one."
So when drugs were finally injected into the bloodstream of the election, were our politicians OD-ing on calls to stop the war? Did a mainstream political party argue for an end to this armed chaos? Did anybody suggest bringing drug use into a controlled, legal context, as we have with those other addictive and deadly substances, alcohol and tobacco?
Not quite. The Tories and the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, have suggested that the one, tiny act of demobbing carried out by this government - the downgrading of cannabis to Grade C - was a mistake. Michael Howard has called for it to be bumped back to Grade B, so the police would begin banging up cannabis users again. Labour have shrieked in fear and asked for a "review" of the cannabis laws, citing recent studies that tell us what we already knew: chronic cannabis use can have terrible consequences on mental health. The Liberal Democrats cower behind a feeble pledge to establish a Royal Commission on cannabis. The mood-music from all three parties? Step up the war! No slacking here, boys.
This is partly just political manoeuvring. Labour and the Lib Dems want to neutralise the Tory charge that they are "soft on drugs" by driving the issue into (if you'll excuse the pun) the long grass. But it is also a sign of how dismal the political leadership is on this issue, and how far we are from ending this 40-year trench war.
Very few people in this country now believe that drug prohibition can work. An ICM poll for the Daily Mirror last year - the most detailed study of attitudes towards prohibition we have - found that 76 per cent of Brits agree with the statement "the war on drugs is lost". Only 28 per cent believe "drugs should be illegal even if they are controlled by criminals", while 61 per cent believe "their supply should be regulated by the government". A majority were still reluctant give their beliefs the name "legalisation", but they do support bringing drugs into the legal economy.
Yet none of our politicians has been brave enough to seize on this inchoate public mood. They prefer to squander tens of billions a year clinging to the fantasy of a drug-free world. Of course cannabis is - as Charles Clarke explained in his call for a review of the law - harmful. Only a fool would say otherwise. Like every other person under 30 in this country, I have seen a small minority of cannabis users - some of them close friends - blend their brains with endless bongs.
But I have also seen a small minority of alcohol users reduced to spewing, shivering wrecks. Are we going to introduce alcohol prohibition too, and hand Malibu and Cointreau to the gangs? Or are we going to admit that once a harmful substance is used by more than 40 per cent of British people, we have no choice but to legalise it, bankrupt the criminals and shift spending from futile border-and-police action to education and rehabilitation?
Decriminalisation of cannabis possession (which the Blair strategy amounts to) leaves in place all the worst aspects of prohibition. The same gangs are selling drugs across Britain, untaxed and tooled-up. Drug supply is still contaminated and artificially expensive - and this pushes up the death and burglary rates.
The solution is not, as our politicians have moodily mooted this week, to reverse decriminalisation. It is fully to legalise - and not just cannabis, but ecstasy, LSD, heroin and cocaine. This is still taboo in political debate, but public opinion is far ahead of the politicians, and hungry for leadership. Besides, ending alcohol prohibition seemed like a wild proposal in the US in 1920. Anybody think it's crazy now?
Some prohibitionists have claimed - using anecdotal evidence - that cannabis use in Britain has increased since the law was relaxed. Surely if we fully legalised, they say, use would sky-rocket? This is a serious worry and deserves a serious answer. The figures are vigorously disputed by the police and by groups working with problematic drug users - but let's suppose, for the sake of argument, they are right.
Addiction to cannabis is as annihilating as alcoholism. But when assessing the drugs war, we cannot simply count the number of drug addicts as the only measurement of success, any more than an assessment of the First World War can focus solely on territory lost or gained.
We need to look instead at the total human cost of the fighting. Under legalisation, there might be more addicts. But that needs to be weighed against the certain peace dividend. The list of gains is long. We would send most of Britain's criminal gangs out of business. (A decade after the end of alcohol prohibition, the number of people working for criminal gangs in Chicago had fallen by 70 per cent).
The police time now dedicated to the drug trade would be freed up to catch burglars, rapists and murderers. The huge sums saved from not chasing drug users would be spent on rehab. The countries devastated by prohibition would begin to heal. In Afghanistan now, the heroin trade - which makes up two-thirds of the economy - is handed to drug-profiteering warlords, guaranteeing they will always be able to outgun the democratically elected government. If Karzai's government could claim the financial fruits of that trade from the warlords, it would be possible to build up the Afghan state. There is a huge peace dividend waiting at the end of this war.
One day soon, a smart politician will see the potential in these arguments. Ending the war on drugs could have appeal across the political spectrum. Many neo-Thatcherites dislike the idea of a market being suppressed. Many middle England mums would happily see heroin being prescribed to addicts if it halved the burglary rate, as it has in Switzerland. Many lefties loathe the impact of prohibition on the poorest people in the world. And addicts - desperate to escape the underworld - dream of a safe, regular prescription and access to rehabilitation.
But for this election, this time, it's back to the old war songs. Switch off your brain, ignore the evidence of your eyes, and sing with me: There'll be no drug smugglers over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow - just you wait and see.
Our political classes are addicted to prohibition and, boy, are they in denial.
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Like most of the world, I'm hoping George Bush is booted out of the White House 97 days from now. Nearly four years ago, the President drawled that US funds must be withdrawn from any international agencies that provide abortion facilities. As a result, millions of desperately poor women in Africa and Asia have been denied basic clinical care; thousands have died. Three years ago, Bush vandalised all attempts at international co-operation on climate change. Glaciers are melting faster than any time for centuries; the low-lying island nation of Tuvala is about to disappear beneath the waves.
John Kerry would begin the slow process of stopping these cruelties. As a result, many of us imagine that the day after Kerry's inauguration, the world will be able to lean back, release a long sigh, and dismiss the Bush years as a one-term, one-moron nightmare.
We are deluding ourselves. When it comes to one of the most poisonous planks of US foreign policy today - the destabilisation of developing countries and the attack on poor farmers, all in the name of the "War on Drugs" - Kerry may, incredibly, be even worse than Bush.
Kerry made his name as a Drug War hawk. He dedicated an entire senatorial inquiry in 1989 to denouncing the Reagan administration's softness on international drug suppliers. His principal advisor on the subject today - and the man tipped by some commentators to become his Secretary of State - is Rand Beers, who defected last year from his role as Bush's counter-terrorism advisor. Throughout the 1990s, Beers was the primary architect of the US policy of "taking the fight to the drug-growers" - launching massive chemical attacks on farmers in foreign countries in an attempt to prevent their crops ever reaching America's shores. Beers' decision to switch camps been greeted by Democrats as heroic; and don't we all want a President who is tough on the suppliers of hard drugs?
Not if you are sitting in one of the countries devastated by the "War on Drugs", you don't. Beers is responsible for one of the greatest (and least reported) assaults on poor people launched by the US since the Vietnam War. Most of the cocaine snorted in US bars and beach-houses is grown in Colombia, so Beers started there. On the orders of the first President Bush - orders continued by Bill Clinton and the current President - suspected coca fields in the south of Colombia were sprayed by the US Army with a toxic chemical cocktail.
The result? The ecosystems that hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers depend on to provide food for their families were poisoned. Glyphosate, one of the chemicals used in Beers' Weapons of Mass Defoliation, kills all plants.
Sean Donohue, a US journalist who works with the Colombia Support Network, has documented the human cost. "In January 2001, I visited a government-funded yucca co-operative that was intended to help farmers find an alternative to growing coca," he explains. "The co-operative had been fumigated and the entire yucca crop [which is, of course, totally legal] had been destroyed. One woman explained she had invested everything she had in the co-op and now had no way to feed her children."
A study by Ecuador's Pontificia University discovered that people living near the sprayed areas have shown symptoms of chronic poisoning and temporary blindness since the aerial poisoning began. "There have been cases of babies born with deformities... The impact of glyphosate will be lasting, because not all of its effects are seen one day to the next," it found.
The farmers were growing coca out of desperation. Their soil is poor, and most cash crops wouldn't grow on their fields. (Two years on, nothing at all was growing in the sprayed areas).
When this was explained to him, Beers - Kerry's man - had no pity. "Well, you don't get a special pass for being poor," he shrugged to one interviewer. The US State Department claims that farmers are compensated for loss of "legitimate" crops, but the beneficiaries of this compensation are mysteriously hard to track down.
Oh, and cocaine supply to the US was not even dented by these policies, as Beers was told right from the beginning. Cocaine is so incredibly profitable that supply has simply shifted elsewhere. What is the US going to do now - glyphosate the world?
But Clinton and the Bushes loved these policies because they looked tough - and there have even been hints that Kerry will intensify them. Herbicide spraying is only the most obvious battleground in a war that is causing much wider devastation.
The prohibition of drugs does not eliminate cocaine or heroin; it simply hands them to a vast network of organised crime. Even in stable, well-policed societies such as ours, handing an entire industry to criminal gangs causes serious problems. Look at how Britain has in just a decade developed a gun culture, thanks to increasingly sophisticated drug-dealing syndicates. Look at the estates dominated by these gangs.
This is the impact upon Britain, a country where the drug trade forms about 1 per cent of the economy. Now try to picture the destabilising effect on Colombia and Afghanistan, where drugs contribute more than 40 per cent of GDP. Drug prohibition is the largest factor in the collapse of these two countries into gangsterism. It ensures that the biggest chunk of their economies is handed to armed criminals who cannot be taxed, regulated or brought under state control.
It's a recipe for chaos. The warlords of Afghanistan and the "narco-terrorists" of Colombia derive their cash (and therefore their arms and their power) from the drugs trade. The international prohibition of drugs is their lifeblood, and a guarantee of on-going civil war. Any attempt to build the rule of law in either country is swiftly butchered, because the gangs are guaranteed superior to the state. It is only once the drug trade is handed over to legitimate companies - and the gangs slowly bankrupted - that the long process of constructing a modern state can begin.
In a century's time, historians will surely consider it bizarre that progressives across the world focused their rage on opposing the Iraq war - which at least removed a genocidal dictator - and not on this war, which has no redeeming features at all. Public opinion in the US and Britain is obviously not ready for legalisation; it will take another generation for the comprehensive failure of this war to sink in. But in the meantime, Kerry will at the very least continue Bush's cruel policies. Flanked by the aggressive Beers and his reputation as an anti-drugs warrior, he might even be poised to step up the battle.
If you still feel a flicker of support for Bush and Kerry's war - despite the cancers and the chaos it spreads - look around you. Is all this international turmoil reducing the opportunities for your kids or your neighbours to get hold of drugs? Do you really think that if only we tried a bit harder, if only we sprayed poison on yet more poor countries and destabilised some others, drugs would disappear from our streets?
For the sake of the countless victims of Bush, we must hope for Kerry to win - but don't kid yourself that the day he comes to office, America's worst war will be over.Permalink rss, atom -->
The story of Mike Trace's rise and fall is a parable of how drugs policy is formulated. He is one of the most widely respected narcotics experts in the world today. He has worked both at the Ground Zero of drug prohibition, with homeless addicts on the streets of London, and at the very top of the system, as Britain's deputy drugs tsar and as head of demand reduction at the United Nations.
When it came to formulating policy, Trace made a fatal error. His conversation is jammed with reference to academic studies and pilot programmes; he is a man addicted to evidence and hard facts. And there is no room for such a man in the distant corridors where drug prohibition is upheld today.
His story begins in Centrepoint on London's Shaftesbury Avenue in the early 1980s. "When I started working there, as a night worker, Centrepoint was basically the first place runaways to London ended up," he says. "We just tried to keep them out of harm's way for one, two, three nights. It quickly became clear to me that most of them were sufferers of abuse as children, and all of them came from classic multiply-deprived backgrounds. They were trying to escape their terrible experiences any way they could, usually with drugs.
"That time of my life gave me an attitude towards drug use that has always stayed with me. It's the symptom of other problems, especially social deprivation. Whenever I would hear people further up the system saying that drug use was a moral failing, evidence of degeneracy of some kind, I knew they were wrong. Once you've seen what happens on the streets, you aren't going to sign up to attacks on drug users."
Trace pioneered drug rehabilitation in British prisons in the 1980s, and turned the charity RAPT (Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust) into a serious lobbying outfit as well as a provider of treatment. By the 1990s he was, in his own words, "the drug treatment, voluntary-sector type on all the government committees". When the Blair government, still humming "Things Can Only Get Better", decided in 1997 to appoint a drugs tsar to co-ordinate policy, Trace was an obvious candidate for the role.
"We all knew the Government had to appoint a policeman to please the Daily Mail readers, but to their credit the word went out that they wanted to balance that out with a deputy who was an expert from the field," he says. "They appointed me because they clearly understood that there is depth and complexity to the drugs issue."
At first, Trace insists, he was happy to work alongside Keith Hellawell, whose time as drugs tsar is now widely regarded as a failure - a period of ineffective, Draconian measures that were poorly thought through. But in the beginning, there was no clash of philosophies. "We both saw ourselves then as moderate liberals on drugs," he says. "We were both quite managerial about it: we believed that the best use of taxpayers' money wasn't to chase hundreds of thousands of cannabis users but to concentrate on addressing addiction problems and to offer treatment to users."
"During that first year, Keith was a pleasure to work with. We got on well," he says. "On the tricky political issue - what to do about cannabis - Keith and I were in agreement. He was quite liberal, and so was I. But we realised that the political situation in 1998 meant that the government didn't want us to move too fast on cannabis, because they were worried about a Middle England backlash. We agreed to put the issue on the back-burner for the first couple of years and concentrate instead on the drugs that do most harm."
Together they put together a broad policy document, "Tackling Drugs To Build a Better Britain", which was published in 1998. It advocates a harm reduction approach to addiction, and led to a considerable increase in the number of NHS prescriptions of methadone. The policy slashed crime rates. "I'm proud of that," Trace says. "It's now used around the world as a model. OK, there's a lot of mothering and apple pie in it, but it was a good plan. That was a good year. We were achieving things."
Everything seemed to be progressing well, but Hellawell's politics began to shift. "As the years went by, Keith obviously read the political runes and changed his mind. He was primarily motivated by politics, not policy. Somewhere along the line he decided that it would be better if he became a cannabis hardliner. He was gradually giving up on the principles we'd agreed to when we started, and I began to get quite cynical about his approach to the job."
Trace feels the change in government attitude towards drugs mirrored New Labour's drift to the right on a number of issues. "From 1997 to 1999, the discussions around the Cabinet sub-committee were quite good," he says. "They were about what resources we could invest to reduce the harm caused by drugs: sensible stuff. The New Labour enthusiasm in the early years was pretty genuine. We were sitting around with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, and they were genuinely asking what the best way to reduce harm and reduce crime might be. Those were good years to be in government. People were open-minded."
"But then," he says, sipping hard on his coffee, "drugs policy drifted off and crime and punishment became an obsession, at the expense of harm reduction. They lost their nerve in 1999, and from then on it was all downhill."
Trace lost his job when the drugs tsar experiment was scrapped in 2000. Within a few years he was being accused of leading a dark internal conspiracy to subvert drugs policy at the very highest levels.
So what is his real attitude to drugs policy? Certainly, most legalisers I know do not regard him as one of their own. "To paint me as an extreme liberaliser - the way that the Daily Mail and other papers have - is just bizarre," he chuckles.
"All I say is we need to acknowledge a pretty basic fact: that it is not a good deal for the taxpayer when the police spend billions of pounds trying desperately to enforce the drugs laws against every last user. It's just not a good return on that investment. We've been trying that for 40 years, and it's clearly not working very well. I have to start from that premise."
"Nobody really knows what the best way to proceed is once you admit that," he says, "but I think the best route for Western democracies - who have high levels of drug use - is to admit that there is now a very large body of evidence that shows you aren't going to bring rates of use down through harsh penalties. Nor can education and prevention ñ no matter how good it is - end the problem. We just have to be honest about that. The evidence is overwhelming."
"You can't end drug use and you can't educate it away," he concludes. "If either of those tactics had a proven track record I would be a convert, but they don't work. What you can do, though, is reduce the harm that drugs do. So we need to move our investment away from enforcement and into harm reduction. The best use for our limited resources is targeted interventions on the most problematic use."
With this in mind he was approached in summer 2002 by Antonio Maria Costa, the new head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Costa wanted Trace to run his demand reduction programme, a position that would put him at the very heart of global drug strategy. It seemed, finally, that Trace had a real chance to effect radical change.
UNDOC had been a hardline prohibitionist outfit for decades, thanks to heavy pressure from America. The UN has had a formal commitment to reducing demand for drugs (and harm to users) since the late 1980s, but in practice all its efforts have been focused on policing, attacking criminal gangs and fumigating the drugs crops of very poor farmers in the Third World.
Trace's appointment seemed like a real turning point. Lauded by Costa as the new face of UN drugs policy, it seemed as though a small crack had appeared in the disastrous strategy of global prohibition. "I applied the same principles to the international scene that I applied at the British level," he says. "Indeed, it was even more stark at the UN. The organisation has invested hundreds of billions of dollars over the years in an attempt to eradicate a market in drugs. The market was small when it started and it's massive now. It didn't take a genius to figure out that it was time to reassess those tactics. To me, that didn't mean that we needed to dismantle the system entirely. It just meant that we needed an honest reassessment."
Just as it seemed that these sensible arguments were making headway, Trace was annihilated - by the Daily Mail. The newspaper published e-mails from the year before he started at the UN. It used them with characteristic sobriety. "Is This A Sinister Conspiracy To Get The World Hooked?", an entirely sane headline asked.
Trace, it seemed, was not an honest and internationally-respected expert concerned with reducing harm. No - he "was pulling the strings of a huge operation in which international activists were agitating covertly to manipulate government and public opinion... [and leading] a sinister liberal elite that has made a dope of Blunkett and [wants to] subvert UN laws".
The truth does not quite so closely resemble a Freddie Forsyth novel. After losing his job as deputy drugs tsar, Trace had been approached by billionaire philanthropist George Soros to put together plans for an international campaigning group which would lobby for the liberalisation of drugs policies.
"The Mail selectively quoted what I had said over the year I had been discussing this with Soros, to present it as some kind of conspiracy to undermine world order," he says. "Unfortunately my style gives ammunition to fire against me. I said jokingly in one e-mail to a friend - when I was trying to decide whether to take the UN job - that I might go for it so I could be a 'fifth columnist'. That was then quoted by the Mail as if it had been said seriously, as if there really was some organised conspiracy. It was completely insane."
Trace was gone within a week of the Mail's story being published. The idea that there is a liberal elite manipulating drugs policy is preposterous, the idea that Trace was masterminding it would be hilarious had it not had such devastating consequences for the direction of the "war on drugs."
"Basically, the truth is exactly the opposite," Trace says with weary exasperation. "I was a total exception. The vast majority of people behind the scenes are hardliners. At the top of the EU, at the top of the UN, at the heart of British government, I was the only person who had ever actually worked with drug users.
"At a typical UN meeting, four of the people round the table would be professional supply-side policemen or customs officials," he continues. "The other three would be diplomats. Not surprisingly, if you get people like that running the policy, they won't prioritise minimising harm for drug users and enhancing public health. The idea that they were all on side with me is science fiction."
Trace has not been replaced, and UNODC has been "restructured". The plan for a new world of harm reduction has been indefinitely shelved. Costa's political capital is spent. The politics have reverted to what they were before: aggressive, all-out prohibition. "The people who don't want a review and don't want any reassessment of the current failing policies have won the diplomatic battle," Trace says. "We're back to the old mindset: anybody who questions the current policy is a friend of the drug dealer."
These days, Trace runs the Blenheim Project, a west-London centre for heroin addicts. Although he believes that incremental improvements in drugs policy will happen one day, he looks defeated.
The moral of Trace's story is stark: anybody with an interest in evidence as opposed to prohibitionist dogma, anybody with an belief in protecting drug users rather than screaming at them, is barred from formulating drug policy. If they get too close to power, they will be howled and beaten and bullied away. It appears that there is no place for rational thinking in the world of drug prohibition.Permalink rss, atom -->
When Erin O'Hara was using street heroin, she explains, "I was supporting myself either by drug dealing or sex work. I was constantly thinking about my next fix. Then, when I went into treatment I entered the nightmare merry-go-round of trying to get something to treat my addiction from the NHS, I went through 10 methadone programmes trying to find one that worked for me. Because of inflexible regimes and restrictions on what doctors are allowed to prescribe, I lived in a limboland of trying to get what I needed." She developed vicious abscesses. Her veins were corroded because of the impurities in street heroin.
Yet today, Erin, 34, is a dazzling success story. She edits an acclaimed magazine, Black Poppy, discussing harm reduction. She neither deals nor sells her body. Her veins are healing and there are no abscesses on her flesh. Except she isn't a poster girl for abstinence, a "Just Say No" calendar girl. She is still using heroin - but this time, it's legal. She is one of 450 people who is being given on the NHS the heroin her body is chemically dependent on.
The debate about heroin in Britain rampages without ever mentioning the people at the frontline of the war on drugs: heroin addicts themselves. But now the junkies are fighting back. Since 1971, the British government has waged war not just on heroin but on heroin addicts; and they have been treated not as victims of an illness but as morally fallen criminals.
Over the past two days, heroin addicts have been gathering in London for a National Treatment Conference where they are liaising as equals with health professionals and drug workers. Organised by the Alliance, an advocacy group for opiate-dependent people, they are no longer prepared to be passively pushed around a punitive system. Now that they have (to the Government's credit) been given statutory rights to be consulted, there is a large and growing heroin users' movement which is demanding that the wider public acknowledges some basic - if uncomfortable - truths.
Lesson one: detox very rarely works. Even the most successful detox programmes in the world have a success rate of just 25 per cent when it comes to heroin. The average is closer to 10 per cent. This means that for three quarters of the people who go through gold standard, lavishly-funded detox, it fails completely, and they return to heroin on their release. How can it be sensible for this failing approach to be the only treatment we offer to addicts on a national scale through the NHS?
Lesson two: prescribing opiates works. Mike Trace, the former deputy drugs tsar and an international expert on harm reduction, explains:"There's a huge amount of research - so conclusive that it is not even disputed - that methadone prescription can have a spectacular impact on both the health and social functioning of an opiate-user and on the wider crime rate. The recent Swiss experiment - where they have begun at a national level to prescribe heroin to anyone who needs it - seems to indicate that heroin prescription can be even more effective."
Lesson three: pure, pharmaceutical heroin can be taken indefinitely without any negative effects. This is so counter-intuitive that it needs to be explained. If an alcoholic like George Best continues to drink indefinitely, the alcohol itself will destroy his liver and kill him. Isn't giving heroin to a junkie every morning like handing a crate of whisky to an alcoholic at dawn? Every single doctor agrees that heroin is not like that. If an addict is using pure heroin, it does not damage their bodies at all.
It is true heroin rapidly makes you completely dependent on getting more heroin. That's why anybody would be very foolish to start using it. And street heroin screws you up badly, because it is cut with all sorts of - to use the term doctors repeatedly use - "crap".
In light of these truths - which are considered totally uncontroversial by all policy experts - we all, as citizens, need to ask what to do now for the 280,000 heroin addicts in Britain. The Alliance, and most heroin addicts I have met, argue that the Government needs to offer much more widespread maintenance prescription of heroin on the NHS. This won't be the solution for everyone. The Alliance supports people who think detox is the best solution for them, because some extraordinary people do manage to wean themselves off completely. But for most people whose bodies have a desperate chemical need for heroin, the best way to live a normal life is to be prescribed heroin.
It is natural for some people to object to this on the grounds of cost. "Why should my taxes pay for a load of junkies to get stoned?", they might well howl. Simple: because it saves vast sums of money overall. Half of all burglaries are, according to the Home Office, committed by people riven by opiate dependency. If diabetics could not get their insulin without paying, they would do the same.
Prescribing heroin saves money further down the system in policing, inflated insurance premiums, hospitalisation, and prisons. When we prescribed heroin in Britain, until 1971, our crime rates were far lower. The Swiss experiment has seen a staggering fall in crime - over 20 per cent in some areas. As one heroin addict who asked not to be named explained to me, "Of course, I stopped stealing when I got a prescription. I wasn't doing it for fun."
The story of New Labour's policy in this area has barely been told. As in so many areas, ministers are split between their "tough on crime" neurosis and their sensible, centre-left natures. We all know the "tough" bit: drug-testing in schools and other impractical nonsense. Yet who has heard the pragmatic side? Who knows that the dramatic fall in crime the Government boasts about is not due to its "toughness", but to its centre-left spirit?
Look at the facts. In 1997, there were 40,000 methadone prescriptions in Britain - enough to cover around 15 per cent of our opiate dependents. Today, there are 70,000 prescriptions - enough to cover around 25 per cent of addicts - and the number doctors are giving out is rapidly rising. Is it pure coincidence that the crimes most often committed by junkies (burglary, muggings, shoplifting) have plummeted as prescriptions have risen?
Government policy is working - but the Government is so afraid of public prejudice it won't boast or take its success to the logical conclusion by offering full heroin prescription to all addicts. David Blunkett will reply, no doubt, he is trying. He recently made an eloquent case for increasing not just methadone prescription but licences to prescribe heroin. The Government has projected a further 2,000-3,000 heroin prescriptions, but nobody at the Home Office press office believed there had been any progress on this. The addicts I know haven't seen any increased rate.
Until this legal heroin starts getting to people, they will continue to get it the only way most know: through crime. So every time you are burgled, curse the Government's refusal to prescribe heroin. Every time your car radio is stolen, curse the Government's refusal to prescribe heroin. Every time your child is mugged, curse the Government's refusal to prescribe heroin. Blair and Blunkett's own policies have demonstrated that prescribing opiates directly slashes crime. Never imagine this is an issue only for them, Erin and the other addicts in the Alliance arguing for humane treatment. It is an issue for you too.Permalink rss, atom -->
Reefer Madness is back. The 1936 US movie - loved by stoned students across the land - was made by a small church group as a serious attempt at instructing vulnerable teens about the "perilous menace" confronting them. A stern headmaster glares at the camera and explains the truth about "the smoke of hell". After one puff of "the devil's weed", we see even the most balanced John Boy Walton-lookalike mutate into a horny, violent, cackling weed freak, twitching psychotically and playing "evil" jazz music. A few spliffs later, he embarks on a vicious murder spree and ends up confined "where he belongs" - in a lunatic asylum.
Fast-forward 68 years. Kate Hoey, a Labour MP, writes a full-page article for a right-wing tabloid under the headline, "What will Britain be like when a whole generation is hearing voices?" She proceeds to link cannabis to murder and anarchy. Hoey is not an isolated loon - there has been a cascade of paranoid cannabis stories in the past week so strange that they made me wonder if there has been an outbreak of crack use among columnists.
So let's be clear: for the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time, cannabis is a harmless, pleasurable recreation, as pernicious as a bottle of wine. Personally, I find it relaxing but also prone to induce staggeringly boring non-conversations if smoked with anybody else.
This is not to deny that chronic cannabis use is as disastrous for individuals as alcoholism. An old friend of mine, after he was dumped by his girlfriend and ended up on a pointless, miserable university course, took to lighting up first thing in the morning and stayed stoned almost constantly. He went from being a witty, smart, engaged person to a listless flump, so slow that at times he seemed almost mentally disabled. It took a long time - and a lot of support - for him to break his habit, and he still doesn't feel like the person he was.
I know plenty more people whose memories were impaired by long-term, heavy cannabis use. For a very small minority already teetering close to psychosis, chronic cannabis use can even tip them into a psychotic episode (although attempts to say that cannabis therefore "causes" psychosis are unscientific nonsense).
But - like most people reading this column - I have also known alcoholics whose lives slumped and puked into chaos after they started drinking excessively. If I could disinvent alcohol and cannabis, I'd be tempted to do it. On a utilitarian calculation, the small incremental pleasures they give to a large number are probably outweighed by the vast amount of damage they do to a minority. But it's not an option. They cannot be wished away; they can only be managed. Prohibition is based on a denial of this basic reality - and dealing with cannabis addiction by prohibiting cannabis is as crazy as dealing with alcoholism by prohibiting alcohol.
The legalisation movement has moved on from the days when hippies waved huge marijuana leaves and encouraged "the straights" to have a drag. It is no longer about saying that drug use is, in some facile way, "good". We all know that drugs - from cannabis to tobacco to crack - have some terrible downsides. The only difference is that some of us also admit that prohibition does not solve these problems - it exacerbates them.
Sadly, the Government is not taking all this anti-cannabis flak because they have taken the decision to legalise the drug. (Even the Labour-dominated Home Affairs Select Committee has advised the Government to take the case for legalisation to the UN). Instead, they have chosen a mushy third way between legalisation and prohibition that few understand and nobody respects. Cannabis is still illegal, and jail sentences of up to two years can still be handed down for possession of cannabis. But there will be a "presumption against arrest": the police will most likely warn you and send you on your way if they find you with cannabis.
This leaves in place the worst element of prohibition: it hands a massive, profitable and ineradicable industry directly to gangs of criminals who wreak havoc across Britain's estates. Of course, cannabis dealers do not cause the same problems as crack or heroin-suppliers - but half of Britain's cannabis comes from Morocco. Only a long, ugly line-up of well-tooled gangs can export so much of a prohibited substance. Our government chooses effectively to hand them billions of pounds, when they could deprive them of their primary source of income over night by legalising.
Yet this has not been the thrust of the criticisms against the Government. Instead, many critics have focused on a fairly nonsensical argument. Labour rebels and Tories have moaned that the new law is sending out a "mixed message" to teenagers, who will now change from knowing that cannabis is Very Bad to thinking it is A Good Thing. Come on. There are many places teenagers look for guidance: friends, teachers, parents, celebrities. I have never met a teenager who looked to the Government for moral guidance. Never. Perhaps a teenage William Hague was so inclined; do we want a nation full of mini-Hagues? And anyway, the premise behind the "messages" argument is flawed. Drinking vodka is legal. Is the Government sending out a message that teenagers should swig a bottle or two on their way to school?
It is particularly weird that right-wing Tories have embraced this argument about the "message" involved in changing the law. Aren't they the ones who witter on constantly about distrusting government? The Tories have been lecturing us for decades about how we must not look to government for help with our wages or businesses - but now it seems we are supposed to look to the Government for vague moral instruction about cannabis.
Michael Howard was at least right when he told The Independent this week that there are only two realistic options: upholding prohibition to the full, or legalising drugs. Unfortunately, he does not follow this to its logical conclusion. There are between two- and five million regular cannabis users in Britain. Half of all 16-25-year-olds have smoked cannabis. If prohibition were enforced, we would have to prosecute half of our young people, more than quadruple the size of our prison population, and bring the entire criminal justice system to the point of collapse. Prohibition of cannabis is literally unenforcable, and everybody knows it. So - as Howard admits - there is only one sensible alternative.
The idea that the day after legalisation, Britain would collectively drop out and disappear in a haze of skunk smoke is absurd.
Everybody is free to drink, and we do not all sit around in our offices reeking of gin. Anybody who wants to get hold of cannabis today can, with the near-certainty they will not be punished. There might be a small increase in use (although I suspect this would quickly stabilise). This is a major drawback - but it has to be weighed against the major downsides of prohibition: the criminal gangs, the mockery of the law, the vast waste of police resources that could be spent catching burglars and rapists, and the devastation of the countries which supply our drugs but cannot tax their major export.
Wouldn't admitting this be better than retreating into stale propaganda about how cannabis will turn Britain into a vast lunatic asylum?
Wednesday, 30 March 2011
Category Drug Legalisation, everything about Drug Legalisation : Johann Hari - a powerful dose of reality from a excellent writer and thinker