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19 May 2012

The Failing War on Drugs

Tag(s): People, Politics & Economics

I recently met Howard Marks who was once described by the Daily Mail as "the most sophisticated drug baron of all time." Howard gained a degree in nuclear physics and post graduate qualifications in philosophy from Oxford University. But while there he began his career in drug dealing and from minor beginnings built a widespread network. This brought him into contact with the British Secret Service, the IRA, the Mafia and the CIA. He was arrested in 1988 by the American Drug Enforcement Agency and sentenced to twenty five years at one of America’s toughest federal penitentiaries in Terre Haute, Indiana. He was released on parole in 1995. On release he resolved to dedicate the rest of his life to the legalisation of cannabis. He makes a living through live shows combining brilliant stand-up comedy with serious advocacy of drug legalisation. His autobiography Mr Nice, one of his many aliases, has been a best seller in several languages and he has written regular features in numerous magazines and newspapers. He continues to campaign vigorously for the legalisation of recreational drugs.

I told him that I agree with him though coming from an entirely different perspective having never been a drug user. It is clear to me that the banning of drugs used for pleasure is as senseless as the banning of any human activity whose primary purpose is pleasure. The prohibition of alcohol in the USA from 1919 to 1933 had devastating effects on its society. Organised crime already had activities in protection, unions, prostitution and robbery but by banning the sale of alcohol Congress handed a gigantic market to organised crime. They already had the money, the influence over corrupt politicians, judges and police, and the muscle. Now they had a brand new product which they could smuggle or manufacture and sell through a chain of speak easies to a huge customer base. When the prohibition was rescinded after thirteen murderous years organised crime looked around for something else that people wanted that the law would not let them buy. And they fell on drugs with abandon.

Since then the scale of this global industry has become vast, probably exceeding any other in the world[i]. Cocaine from Colombia, opium, and its derivative, heroin from Afghanistan, marijuana from North Africa and drugs synthesized in the laboratory everywhere are distributed though Mafia[ii]controlled channels causing mayhem in every country they carve through finishing up in the streets of the urban west, particularly America.

‘World leaders have at long last started to talk sense about the disastrous “war on drugs” ‘, says Dan Gardner.[iii]At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, its host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, put it at the top of the agenda. He and other Latin American leaders have been saying for years that the current approach isn’t working, and now Barack Obama, though personally opposed to legalisation, says it’s fair to discuss it: a rare departure for a US president.  Drug prohibition has been a “cock-up of colossal proportions”. As fast as kingpins are jailed or killed they are replaced, while corruption rots institutions from within as traffickers give politicians, judges and police officers “the awful choice of silver or lead”. Drug-related violence has killed more than 50,000 in Mexico alone since 2006. It’s not a question of allowing “corner stores to sell heroin to kids” – there’s a vast array of regulatory options to consider. Santos is planning a comprehensive review that will provide real statistics for the first time and “sweep away the myths”. Change won’t come fast but it’s an encouraging start.

Legalisation would not only reduce crime it would also reduce consumption. Heroin used to be a regulated substance in this country available to a small number of registered users. Then some politicians, playing to the Fleet St gallery, decided that it was an outrage that people could queue in Boots to get heroin as an over-the-counter prescription. There were then about 200 known users. There are now hundreds of thousands of mainly unknown users who get themselves into crime and debt to finance their rotten habit. Some estimates say that 70% of crime in the UK is drug related.

But there are a range of options. It need not simply be a case of a substance being banned one day and legal the next. In the debate over free markets it is very often forgotten that the only markets that are free are actually the illegal ones like drugs. All other markets are regulated to some extent. There are many different types of regulation from weights and measures to packaging and advertising to definition and control. Alcohol is a substance that when banned not only caused crime but also more ill health as bootleggers sold cheaply manufactured versions masquerading as the real thing but often poisonous through the absence of regulation. In a tightly regulated market like alcohol the manufacturers of today work very hard to make their products as good as possible. Some may still decry their irresponsible marketing but the products are maintained at a consistent, high standard. The same would happen with drugs. My understanding is that cannabis used to be regarded as relatively harmless but it is now stronger and often tainted with other more addictive substances. That is what happens with an uncontrolled market.

It is helpful to understand how we got here.  In 19th century Britain, opium was so common as to be part of everyday life, according to Chris Berg, Research Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs. [iv]It was an essential ingredient in tonics and pick-me-ups. One writer claimed in the 1870s that opium use “may indeed be said to have reached the height of Fashion”. Few then conceived of a drug “problem”. Certainly, there were dramatic tales of addiction and vice. Thomas de Quincey’s novel Confessions of an Opium-Eater is the most well-known. And there were some distressing, but not representative stories of overdose. But on the whole moderate drug use was normal.

The medical establishment largely accepted this. Despite the fictional Dr Watson’s rebuke of Sherlock Holmes’ occasional use of a “seven-per-cent solution”, in 1893 the leading medical journal The Lancet described the Royal Commission on Opium as a “crushing blow to the anti-opium faddists”.

But there was an “opium problem” in Australia and the United States. The difference was race. In both countries there was a significant Chinese minority who had brought their country’s opium smoking habit with them. The first war on drugs was a proxy for racial politics, not public health. In Victoria the Minister of Health asked Parliament at the end of the 19th century “Who has not seen the slave of opium? A creature tottering down the street, with sunken yellow eyes, closely contracted pupils, and his skin hanging over his bones like dirty yellow paper.” The issue here was not opium but the Chinese themselves who were resented because it was believed they were undercutting Australians in the labour market.

Meanwhile in the United States Dr Harry Hubbell, one of the leading anti-opium campaigners, openly argued that those concerned about job competition from the Chinese should concentrate on Chinese drug use. The State of California even passed a law in 1862 entitled the “Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor and Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese into California Act.” This followed the influx of Chinese labourers at the time of the Gold Rush and set out to tax workers “of Mongolian race” a monthly capitation tax of $2.50. By 1882 Congress was even more specific and passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricted immigration and naturalization to black or white workers.

The first international treaty on drug control was signed in January 1912. The so-called war on drugs is 100 years old this year. The inappropriate use by politicians of the expression “war” on anything except a conventional war between states leads them into a circular maze from which they cannot escape. Chris Berg, writes “The prohibition of drugs is mostly justified by their pre-existing legal status. Why are certain drugs prohibited?  Because they are illicit drugs.”[v]Wars on poverty, crime, terrorism and drugs just to mention a few are doomed to fail as these conditions are permanent features of humanity. When there was a backlash against prohibition of alcohol in the USA one of the powerful arguments that finally persuaded Congress to repeal the Volstead Act and restore the legitimate sale of alcohol was the degree that prohibition had brought the law into disrepute and made hypocrites of vast numbers of otherwise law-abiding citizens. The same is now true of drugs.

Howard Marks does not blame the police who are obliged to enforce the laws as they are written. He blames the politicians who fail in their duty to explain the consequences of a failed war on drugs that has condemned millions to a life of destitution and crime while enriching the worst members of society. One of the biggest problems caused by drug crime is the laundering of money. There is so much cash in the business that it often swamps innocent people. Drug barons will find lottery winners and pay them more than their winnings to launder dirty money, i.e. they will seek out the winner of $100,000 and pay him $120,000 for the winning ticket.

They are the only winners in this war.

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved

[i]Estimating the size of an illicit market like drugs is fraught with difficulties. There are no published accounts and producers, traders and dealers do their best to hide and launder their income. A UN report said “the global drug trade generated an estimated US$321.6 billion in 2003” This estimate had been reduced from previous estimates of $400 bn and even $500 bn. There are political reasons on both sides of the argument why estimates get talked up or down. But ‘drug trade’ simply covers the international trade in drugs and would not include domestic production. Further turnover is one thing and profits quite another. So while estimates may compare drugs to say textiles or motor vehicles these legitimate industries have high costs and pay taxes on their profits. Thus the free cash flow that results from illicit drugs will be higher by an order of magnitude.

[ii]I use the term in its generic sense to describe any organised criminal gang rather than the original Mafia which developed in Sicily and then spread to the USA with the emigration in the nineteenth century.

[iii]Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Canada)

[iv]The decriminalisation (or even legalisation) of drugs Chris Berg The Drum on ABC News 29 February 2012



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