Friday, 15 May 2009

Rebutting the Home Office

by Andi Sidwell

I recently read a short quote from a Home Office spokesman:

"Drugs are controlled because they are harmful. The law provides an important deterrent to drug use and legalisation would risk a huge increase in consumption with an associated cost to public health. The legalisation of drugs would not eliminate the crime committed by organised career criminals; such criminals would simply seek new sources of illicit revenue through crime."

I guess to a lot of people the statement above seems pretty straightforward, even obvious. I don't think it is (and took it as a cue to write a facebook note about it, possibly demonstrating my own self-righteousness). The very first sentence — "drugs are controlled because they are harmful" — sounds innocent enough but within it is the entire failing and failed model of international drug law.

In what way are drugs controlled? Is their price controlled? No. Are there age restrictions on who can buy drugs? No. Are the profits from drugs in any way taxed? No. Is the purity of drugs controlled? No. Is their general availability controlled to certain areas or shops, or by a licence? No.

Alcohol can be said to be controlled in all of the ways above. Drugs cannot. It is easier for a fourteen year old to get weed than it is for them to get alcohol— is that what the government means by "control"? The reality is that yes, drugs are controlled, by people who live and work totally under the radar, and not by the government. But the people who control them do so not because they are harmful, but rather because they are profitable. There are dealers out there who sell drugs to get people high rather than to make money, but they are in the vanishing minority; the vast majority of the drugs trade is done soley to make money.

The other fun thing about the statement "drugs are controlled" is that bringing drugs under a regulatory system actually controls drugs more in all the ways listed above, and not less, which is not how the government portray it. They portray moving control of drugs from illegal, unregulated markets to legal, regulated ones as a form of losing control, which I'd hope is fairly obvious that it's not.

And "drugs are harmful". Are all drugs harmful, in even the tiniest measure? No. The government makes paracetamol legal even though it is often used in suicides, yet in small amounts it is amazingly helpful. The government sanctions medical use of morphine, but does not sanction non-medical use (we call it heroin). The blanket statement the Home Office offers belies a complicated reality, where things are not so simple as "drugs are illegal because they are harmful".

For one thing, we have to distinguish between problematic and non-problematic drug use, something the Home Office is not fond of. We know for a fact that there is non-problematic drug use, because 30% of the population of the UK has tried an illegal drug at least once[1], and they're not all suffering major health problems, reefer madness or insanity from it.

Let me ask a few questions. Is someone who smokes a spliff a couple of times a year problematic? Is someone who does couple of lines of cocaine about once a month problematic? Is the person who takes ketamine every couple of nights instead of drinking problematic? Is the heroin user who mugs someone to keep their income up problematic?

These four situations have different answers, probably differing on who you are and your perspective on life, but the answer to all four is not "yes". The current government policy paradim denies there are non-problematic uses of drugs, because it insists that all drug use is harmful, when demonstrably, there is a lot of drug use that isn't. Or at least, isn't any more dangerous than a night of heavy drinking, horse riding[2], driving, living in cities, or being poor; and the governemnt doesn't rush to ban any of these.

Now, what are the main harms of drug use? Are they anything to do with users having no idea what is in the pills or the little packet of powder they get given—and so having no way to know what they're taking or whether it will kill them? Or because dealers have very little incentive to sell high-quality produce? In the case of heroin users, is it harmful because shared needles increase the risk of HIV, and dealers have no incentive to provide clean needles, and without needle exchanges there is no way to get take the drug even remotely safely?

These harms are not caused by the drugs— they are caused by the economic reality of an illegal and unregulated market. If the government regulated drug purity, drug deaths would drop dramatically. Needle exchanges already reduce HIV infection rates. In Portugal five years ago, personal possession of drugs was decriminalised, and the number of overdose deaths dropped by 110/year and the number of new HIV cases from dirty needles by 1000/year[3]. We cannot afford to be moralistic here. People die every day as a result of policies our government pursues, policies which cause the very harms that the government spins them to protect against.

I don't care if you have some kind of hierarchy of substances, whereby alcohol is OK to drink, or maybe cigarettes are, but trippy mushrooms aren't and cocaine is in some way evil, because this isn't about morality and individual tastes. This is about the people that are directly and massively impacted by the current worldwide drug policy, from the people in the countries destabilised by drug cartels and warlords, to the addicts on the street. Tell the people of Colombia, a country destroyed by drugs, that drugs are harmful— they know first hand, and they would benefit most if the trade was legal so their country could recover. Tell the drug mules that drugs are harmful, and remember that it is the illegality of drugs that caused the entire idea of drug mules to come about in the first place. And tell the addicts who die of poor quality drugs that they are harmful, because it is the impurities that kill.

People shouldn't use drugs, you say? Drug use is a reality, always has been, and always will be, and denying that reality and pretending we can make it go away is having massively adverse effects on significant portions of humanity. The moralising approach is killing people. It has to end.

Compare the situation to that of teenage sex. The Bush administration in the US put a lot of effort into promoting an policy of abstinence, where education about sex was minimal and condom use played down. This did nothing to reduce teenage pregnancies or prevent the spread of STIs. The parallel should be clear, since we are repeating the same thing in the drug war. Instead of telling people to stop screwing, we have to reduce the harm of people doing it. Tell them to stop screwing, sure, but don't deliberately stop them using condoms.

Screwing, like people wanting to take drugs, is a basic fact of human existence. We need to look at this dispassionately and compare numbers, not stories, and accept that if there is a massive demand for something, there will be a supply— and we should try and make sure both that the supply and the thing supplied hurt as few people as possible. Instead of thinking we can fundamentally alter human behaviour, we should be looking at how to work with it to stop so many people being harmed in its course.

Which isn't to say that a regulated drugs supply would be problem-free: it wouldn't. It would however effectively remove a lot of current problems. Yes, people could still get addicted, but in a world where you can openly seek help for that without worrying about the police, more people will. Yes, people will still overdose, but in a world where you can't be kicked out of your accomodation for taking drugs there, people will be more likely to seek help when it happens.

And when it comes to the "risk of a huge increase in consumption", ask yourself for a moment where those people would come from. The majority of people who want to try drugs already do, and most of them don't get hooked (remember that 30% statistic— that's how many people in the UK have used an illegal drug at least once). Do you know anyone who would seriously start taking drugs just because they were legal? Have you ever known such a person? In countries where drugs have been decriminalised, they have not found a massive increase in consumption, and in Amsterdam the average age of regular cannabis users is rising.

And if more people do take drugs, then because the police and counts aren't wasting their time and money on users and petty dealers, we will have the money to invest massively in drug research and treatment programmes. If there are serious health risks to taking certain drugs, we will have the money to fund, y'know, proper scientific research on them that isn't interfered with by the poor quality of today's street drugs, and enough money to do proper drug education that doesn't rely on lies or scaremongering.

Legalisation won't be easy and there will be mistakes and cockups and whatnot. Reasonable people can differ on how it should be done. It is, however, the only sustainable option: prohibition isn't. Locking people up and fining them because they take drugs is not the only solution, nor is it the best. The world is more complicated than "drugs are illegal because they are harmful".

So yeah, Home Office spokesman, take that. You're wrong, and I seriously hope you live long enough to see it.


Has the world gone drug-free?

Sarah McCulloch investigates how the war on drugs has shaped the world, the international costs of the billion–dollar trade and attempts to combat it. (Originally printed in and also available at the Student Direct website)

“A drug-free world, we can do it!” was the slogan created by countries around the world when in 1998 they assembled at the UN to create a 10-year drug strategy. That strategy finished in 2008. Looking back over the past 10 years, the question must be asked: what has been achieved? Have the barons been beaten? Have drugs vanished from our streets? Have we now a “drug-free world”? Clearly the answer is no. In fact, the production, supply, and use of drugs have increased every year for decades, and the global drug trade is currently worth £160bn. Drugs now affect virtually every region of our planet.

The War on Drugs

The current “war on drugs”, as it has become known, began in America in 1969. Prior to this, drugs had been subject to varying degrees of regulation, with the US having a particularly restrictive drugs policy. As a result of the Opium Wars with China (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) and increasingly prohibitionist attitudes at home, America severely restricted the sale of opium, banned alcohol, restricted cannabis and began an international campaign for others to follow. By the 1930s, nearly all member states of the International Opium Convention had anti-cannabis laws. In 1969, to distract people from Vietnam, Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” and banned most of the drugs which remain illegal today. Efforts, both in America and across the world, to restrict the production and supply of drugs really took off in the 1970s and today billions of dollars is spent on law enforcement alone. However, the global drug trade has continued to flourish despite efforts to stamp it out; it is the third largest trade in the world, behind oil and arms.

America itself is the world’s largest consumer of drugs, as well as its harshest policeman, with over 40% of the USA’s 2.3 million prison population jailed for non-violent drug offences. Almost one in three black men have been through the criminal justice system because of this. The stigma was not helped by the Higher Education Act, which banned anyone with criminal convictions from receiving federal student loans, though campaigning by Students for Sensible Drug Policy USA has been partially effective: now only people convicted during their studies have their funding withdrawn. This has affected over 200,000 students. Worse still, Derek Copp, a student in Michigan, was shot in the chest by police in March during a drugs raid on his apartment – a small amount of marijuana was subsequently found in his possession

A Global Phenomenon

The American trend has been reflected worldwide. Afghanistan was invaded in 2001 in retaliation for 9/11. Unfortunately this backfired on the invading countries as opium, which had been banned by the Taliban, suddenly became much more lucrative than wheat, and production exploded. Afghanistan currently supplies more than 90% of the world’s heroin. Occupying forces have tried everything from destroying poppy fields, thereby fuelling support for the Taliban, to buying the crops up and then destroying them, which was expensive and resulted in even more farmers cultivating opium to cash in. No strategy has yet succeeded in reducing opium production in Afghanistan.

Colombia is similarly dependent on cocaine. The government has effectively been dismantled as drug money is used to bribe and corrupt in favour of powerful drug cartels. The US has taken to spraying coca crops with herbicides in an effort to destroy the trade but has only succeeding in reducing poor Colombian farmers to even greater poverty, as their cash crops and food crops are destroyed in equal measure. And this misery is all for nothing – coca crop production has actually risen by 23% since crop spraying began.

Breaking the habit

Once the cocaine is produced in Columbia, it is smuggled through the Caribbean to be distributed all over the world. British efforts to wipe out the gangs which operate there have had a devastating effect, with almost £3bn being poured into supporting anti-drug campaigns every year. However, as soon as a crackdown begins on one Caribbean island, the trade simply moves elsewhere, taking its turf wars, blood feuds and gang violence with it. Every so often, British-sponsored drug squads target and eliminate the gang kingpins, which results in mass homicides as the lieutenants fight it out to take over. Even though the local populace strongly support measures to end drug use and trade, the government’s strategies have simply resulted in more violence, more deaths, and greater profits to the crime lords.

A spreading poison

Nevetheless, drug dealers in the Caribbean are starting to feel the heat. The trade hasn’t been killed off however – it‘s simply starting to move elsewhere, to places such as Africa. Although some countries have been favourites for years (the UN estimates that Nigerian syndicates control 50% of the world’s heroin supply), gangs have begun to move into many other countries in Africa, such as the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Senegal in West Africa and Ethiopia, Kenya, Botswana and Zambia in the East and South. These countries have become new and burgeoning drug trafficking centres, with little legal consequence: civil strife, wars, poverty, crime and corruption are all major barriers to law enforcement and excellent conditions under which drug smugglers thrive. Africa Renewal, a UN publication, believes that “although in global terms Africa’s drug problem is insignificant, it is threatening to add another impediment to the continent’s development efforts.” It remains to be seen how Africa’s future will be affected by the global drug trade.

And so the drug wars continue to rage on all over the world. While the damage done by the misuse of drugs themselves seems to be limited to the individual and their immediate communities, the efforts to stamp out the drug trade are far more widespread, exacerbating existing problems associated with the trade as well as producing new ones. Prohibition of drugs, like the prohibition of alcohol, needs to be rethought if we are to have a real effect. The new UN drug strategy has wisely dropped any slogans, but has kept the same strategy, even though the drug trade has flourished under it. A drug-free world – did we do it? Nowhere near.

Prohibition: War without end

A comments article written by Levent Akbulut for the Leeds Student Newspaper.

Fri 3rd Oct, 2008 - Fri 10th Oct, 2008.

Will revising governmental drug policies lead to a decline in related crime?

The US imposed policy of prohibition, the war on some people who use certain drugs, i.e. the War on Drugs has in my view not just been a catastrophic failure but a complete disaster for society.

Nations are being torn to shreds by policies which license the growth of essentially wild plants containing psychoactive compounds to one group of individuals to be sold to pharmaceutical companies, whilst systematically destroying the same crops being grown by other farmers under the false pretext of maintaining social order in consumption countries. The reality of the situation is of course that production nations are often consumers themselves and that exactly the same compounds found in coca leaves, opium poppies and cannabis buds, including many of the derivatives and analogues produced from the naturally occurring compounds are sold and licensed as medicines in the UK.
Coca, Opium and Cannabis are highly versatile plants with not only pharmacological properties but are highly valuable food sources. To put this into context, flavourings from Coca are still put in Coca Cola, poppy seeds are scattered over buns and cannabis (hemp) seed is seeing a revival as a more environmentally friendly and nutritious alternative to Soy.
In 1998 the UN's ten year drug strategy officially committed 150 nations (including the UK) to eradicating all coca, opium and cannabis from the planet by 2008.
What we are seeing all over the world is the establishment of an incredibly untenable bureaucracy where some of the most dangerous drugs are aggressively marketed as social lubricants or as stress management tools. It is as if they, alcohol, tobacco and the various tranquillisers prescribed like sweets by doctors are not drugs!
This is not a criticism of the activities of individuals making a personal choice which affects no one but themselves. But rather a cry out for a collective wakeup call to put things into perspective with regards to drug policy.
Drug policy should not be based upon populist sound bites but rather sound scientific evidence, something we are watching the government ignore over and over again.
So while we are poisoning and burning these fields of what are essentially weeds growing in South America, the Caribbean and Afghanistan- without due consideration to the environment, the individuals working on these farms and neighbouring communities, what are we actually achieving?
By creating a very lucrative market for some of the most dangerous substances on the planet without any regulation or controls, while the government claims these are controlled substances, we have gifted the supply and production of certain drugs to criminal syndicates. These gangs do not just exist in Columbia or Afghanistan, but involve an intricate network of individuals from the farmer to the smuggler to the street dealer to the user and within these unregulated structure we are witnessing the rapid growth of anarcho-capitalist communities. Whenever we remove a street gang several more dangerous gangs move in to fill the gap in the market. The government can not control a problem it has allowed to exist by going in all guns blazing, we have successfully reduced the number of smokers and drinkers through widespread public health campaigns but we are failing to get the message across with regards to illegal drugs. After all the activity the user is partaking in is illegal, would locking up an alcoholic really work? This is despite years and years of lobbying by the alcohol and tobacco industries.
Part of this so-called public health message is a Dob-in-a-Dealer cam­­paign being tried out in Leeds at the moment, a separate campaign suggests that passing a joint to a friend for free counts as dealing. This only leads to building mistrust between individuals in a community. Drugs may be illegal but discussing a reform of drug policy should not be. In order to go back to the basic principles of the intention of drugs policy which has always been reducing the harm of drugs to society and to the user, we must subsequently abandon this irrational obsession of a 'drug-free' world and end our biblical preoccupation with prohibiting certain lifestyle choices.
With the world economy in turmoil and many individuals struggling financially we have to genuinely start reconsidering if prohibition is actually working and move towards an evidence based sensible drug policy.