The UN’s drug war demagoguery

September 5, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Posted in Drugs | 4 Comments

Antonio Maria Costa is a man with such good fortune that he has a job which shouldn’t exist.

Whilst there may be a place for a United Nations and occasions when global agreements are appropriate, the UN Conventions which universalised the war on drugs and sustains it to this day were, in my view, a mistake.

The question of whether to allow or prohibit narcotics should have been left for a nation state to decide in consultation with its citizens. Had that happened, there would have been no need for the UN to have its own ‘Drugs Czar’, and Mr Costa would’ve been able to find an infinitely more rewarding – though perhaps less lucrative – line of work.

But it’s not the position Costa occupies which grates the most, nor his advocacy for continuing a war we’ve long since lost. No, what makes Costa a particularly horrid figure is the nauseating tone of preachiness which doesn’t just extol his position on the ‘moral high ground’, but is quite happy to impugn the morality of those who disagree.

Just a glance at his pieces for The Guardian will give you a decent idea of the ‘holier than thou’ schtick in which he trades. There’s the warning that legalisation would cause a ‘worldwide epidemic of addiction‘; his ‘innocently’ wondering ‘how many lives would have been lost‘ if we achieved legalisation; the beyond parody line that ‘every line of cocaine means a little part of Africa dies.’ I mean, he could be writing placards for the SWP.

Yes, I know the paper writes its own headlines and they don’t always reflect the tenor of the piece; trust me, in Costa’s case, they capture the sanctimony perfectly. Indeed, he’s up to his old tricks in his latest piece, characterising the drugs debate as being between “those who dream of a world free of drugs and those who hope for a world of free drugs”. Now, the internet’s home to some pretty filthy mudslinging, but his suggestion that supporters of legalisation are motivated solely by an urge to get high is a really grubby little smear.

But whilst there are few more offensive statements, Costa still takes the time to make some equally audacious claims:

In Mexico, a bloody drug war has erupted among crime groups fighting for the control of the US drug market. The legalisers’ argument on security is striking, though it leads to the wrong conclusion. Prohibition causes crime by creating a black market for drugs, the argument goes, so, legalise drugs to defeat organised crime. As an economist, I agree. But this is not only an economic argument. Legalisation would reduce crime profits, but it would also increase the damage to health, as drug availability leads to drug abuse.

So Costa admits that Felipe Calderon’s drug war – which has baked whole cities in flames, killed over twenty thousand and contributed barely anything to reducing export and consumption – could be ended with legalisation. But we absolutely mustn’t do that, because people might then start taking drugs. What’s Spanish for WTF?

Incidentally, this isn’t the first time Costa’s made a self-defeating admission and dressed it up as affirmation; he’s previously admitted that prohibition fuels violence and said that if we don’t reduce the violence and get rid of the criminals, people will start wondering whether legalisation is the only thing that can. His audacity is astonishing.

Last but not least, there’s the question of human rights. Around the world, millions of people caught taking drugs are sent to jail. In some countries, drug treatment amounts to the equivalent of torture. People are sentenced to death for drug-related offences. Although drugs kill, governments should not kill because of them. The prohibition versus legalisation debate must stop being ideological and look for the appropriate degree of controls.

It needs saying that insofar as governments have prosecuted the war on drugs inhumanely and used it to kill without due process, they have been aided and abetted by the United Nations. One of the great ironies about the UN’s interference in the drugs trade is that this well-meaning, occasionally laudable advocate for freedom and human rights concocted a set of conventions which provided nation states with the legal and moral justification – even obligation – to increase power over their citizens.

Though it’s terribly generous for Costa to condede that ‘although drugs kill, governments should not kill because of them’, human rights abuses from Columbia to Kabul are perpetually excused by their perpatrators as regrettable errors in pursuit of a more important goal.

The UN and its drugs czar are contributing editors to the mess we’re in, and no amount of zealous, overwrought demagoguery from Antonio Maria Costa will diminish that. It is he who is the problem, not us.

Update: This is also quite good.

“In Mexico it is dangerous to speak the truth. It is even dangerous to know the truth”

November 23, 2009 at 11:13 pm | Posted in Drugs | 1 Comment

In his superb piece on the ‘The Fall of Mexico’, Philip Caputo does an excellent job of demonstrating both the complexity of the situation and the extent to which fear has banished trust, making it increasingly difficult to know the truth, speak the truth, and then to report that truth to others.

He was unable, for example, to determine the exact truth behind competing claims about the army’s motivations – some suspect a slow military coup is taking place, others suggest collusion with drug cartels or a wish to become a cartel themselves. But the absence of truth in one area can lead to truth in another, and what is clear from the accounts compiled by Caputo and human rights groups is that the Mexican military is ruthless, brutal, secretive and completely unaccountable to the people who pay their wages.

He reminds us, too, that it isn’t just the Mexican taxpayer which funds this motley crew; $1.4 billion of American money is funding the militarisation of the war on drugs, and it is going towards an army which has been accused of practicing torture, unlawful detention, enforced disappearance, theft, rape, and murder:

A good example is the case of Javier Rosales, a medical technician who died after he and a friend were captured and tortured by soldiers. Members of his family went to the state justice office and the federal attorney general’s office to file a complaint against the soldiers and demand an investigation. They were turned away because, the officials said, charges of army misconduct fall under military jurisdiction. However, Enrique Torres, a spokesman for the Joint Chihuahuan Operation, told me that the army looks into such allegations only through internal investigations or when formal charges have been filed by state or federal prosecutors. It’s pure catch-22: state or federal authorities will not receive complaints against soldiers, and the army will not investigate unless charges have been filed by state or federal authorities.

Nor was Rosales alone; of over 2,000 complaints made about the military’s conduct, there has been not one prosecution. By abdicating responsibility for conducting the war on drugs, the civilian government lost its ability to regulate the way it’s conducted, so the US is basically funding an institution which is a law unto itself.

Of course, Caputo is also right to ask if the army was suddenly so thoroughly reformed that it became the model of an ethical military, could it overcome the drug cartels? Probably not. “The drug gangs”, Caputo writes, “have acquired a “military capacity” that enables them to confront the army on an almost equal footing.” I don’t know the official definition of a civil war, but this has got to come close.

It’s worth noting that Caputo’s piece is one of a flurry of articles on the situation to have emerged in recent months, and I think there are a number of reasons for this. Obviously, the significant increase in death is highly newsworthy, and the country’s proximity to the United States has made it a growing concern for American media outlets. But I also think there’s a growing understanding that Mexico is reaching a sort of endgame in the war on drugs.

Everything the country has tried up until this point has failed: the responsible police and regional state officials have already been either undermined, corrupted or killed, the media is censoring itself for fear of assassination, and the political class has become discredited, distrusted and enfeebled. With this in mind, the only option Mexico had left if it wanted to sustain the war on drugs was to put everything in the hands of the military and cross their fingers.

It may yet be possible that this approach will work, that the drug cartels will lose a degree of their influence over society and that civic institutions can regain some measure of independence from the forces of coercion & corruption.

But if that approach doesn’t work – and it certainly hasn’t worked yet – that will leave the country with only two options: legalise drugs and let these cartels battle it out in the boardroom rather than in bloody street battles, or adopt a posture of denial, swallow another billion in American aid and watch in dismay as the state loses, with each passing year, more and more of its legitimacy.

Whichever path is chosen will really depend on how much more heartbreak and bloodshed the country’s public can stomach to sustain a war without end.

Death by Bar Chart

October 31, 2009 at 9:29 am | Posted in Drugs | Leave a comment

I don’t suppose there are many dignified ways of being sacked by your employer, but ‘Death By Bar Chart’ must be one of the least savoury ways to go. In his lecture to the Centre for Crime & Justice Studies, Professor David Nutt included this rather inconvenient illustration of the level of harm caused by a range of dangerous substances:

drug harm

As you can see, Nutt’s table had alcohol and tobacco ranked as more harmful than a whole host of intoxicants, including cannabis, LSD and ecstacy. From this little illustration, a sprawl of tabloid stories was spawned and the government’s chief adviser on drugs had unconsciously secured his own sacking.

Given his stormy relationship with the Home Office, the sacking itself had an eye-rolling inevitability to it, but when you read the careful, methodical and rather unremarkable content of Nutt’s lecture, you’re really left wondering what all the bloody fuss was about.

It really is tame stuff. At no point does he call for legalisation, or even decriminalisation; he reminds his audience of Britain’s international obligations, and the role he played in securing extra funding for prevention campaigns & rehabilitation centres. Sure, there’s criticism of this government’s wrong-headed decision to reject his advice on cannabis classification, but he did so in an inquisitive, systematic way; even going so far as to produce a chart showing how advice from science was competing with pressure from many other parts of the body politic:


It’s the lecture of a man who is realistic about the social stigma of illegal drugs, particularly in the mainstream media, and is just frustrated by our inability to compare the harms of consumption with the harms caused by other, completely legal activities. And whilst this might come across to some as an implicit argument for decriminalisation, I’ll let the good professor speak to that.

I think we have to accept young people like to experiment – with drugs and other potentially harmful activities – and what we should be doing in all of this is to protect them from harm at this stage of their lives. We therefore have to provide more accurate and credible information. If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you’re probably wrong. They are often quite knowledgeable about drugs and the internet has made access to information extremely simple. We have to tell them the truth, so that they use us as their preferred source of information. A fully scientifically-based Misuse of Drugs Act where drug classification accurately reflects harms would be a powerful educational tool. Using the Act in a political way to give messages other than those relating to relative harms undermines the Act and does great damage to the educational message.

In other words, young people can spot the bullshit being fed to them by our Majesty’s expenses-gobbling ex-potheads, and if you really want to have a more effective, mature drugs policy, you need to reform the Misuse of Drugs Act so that it accurately reflects harm. That’s actually a little too moderate for my liking, but would still be a dramatic improvement on the current mess we have.

For me, this sacking reflects just how hysterical this country has become in the drugs debate. I could accept and support Professor Nutt’s removal if he was shown to be a bad scientist or was misleading the public. But a government which sacks a scientist because it simply don’t like the science is operating out of such irrationality and fear that it doesn’t even deserve science advisers in the first place. Sadly, I suspect that’s what has happened here.

This is your war on drugs

August 13, 2009 at 3:48 pm | Posted in Drugs, International | 1 Comment

death saint

On 16th February 2002, Valentina Rosendo Cantú was washing her clothes in a stream near her home in Caxitepec, Mexico, when six soldiers approached. Seemingly too busy for pleasantries, the men started barking questions at her: Who was she? Where was she from? Had she seen the people they were looking for? Did she recognise the names on the list they thrust in front of her?

Her answers weren’t good enough, so one soldier pulled a gun and threatened to shoot. Another punched her so hard that she passed out. When she came to, two men tore off her underwear and raped her, one after the other. She was sixteen years old.

It took several months for Valentina to find a doctor willing to treat her; her nearest hospital turned her away because they didn’t want any trouble from the military. The next nearest, which she walked for eight hours to reach, examined her but offered no medicine. Only after legal action was threatened did she finally receive the gynecological care she needed.

At the time of writing, no criminal prosecution has ever been brought against these men and no one has been formally disciplined by a military which has perpetually dragged its feet over investigations. Some 7 years later, she still hasn’t found justice.

This case is just one of many allegations of human rights abuses levelled at the Mexican military in pursuit of an expensive, bloody and failed war on drugs. As well as rape, the allegations include enforced disappearance, torture, arbitrary detention and unlawful killing. And it’s all being bankrolled by the United States of America.

Last year, Congress approved the Mérida Initiative , a 3 year aid deal worth $1.4 billion which was designed to equip and train the Mexican security forces against drug cartels & organised crime – one of countless handouts the country’s received in the past few decades. One of the conditions of the deal was that the country should receive a routine certification by the State Department that it was adhering to human rights obligations. That report was ready for publication, and the money was waiting to be released. And then someone threw a fork in the road.

Last week, Democrat Patrick Leahy blocked the report’s publication, insisting that Mexico had not met its obligations, and reflecting rising concern that American money was subsidising a security service which appears corrupt, unaccountable and sometimes barbaric. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for this aid to be frozen until the military is made more accountable for the crimes committed by its officers.

But the real question should be how much longer we can tolerate this grossly expensive, brutal & fruitless war on drugs. For decades the United States has lavished money on Central/Latin America and beyond for the purpose of fighting narco-trafficking; it’s sent these countries arms and trained their military, and all it’s ever achieved are momentary, short-lived price rises. Cartels have risen & fallen, gangsters have come & gone, Presidents have been elected & defeated. Yet for all the money it spends in its own country and throughout the region, it has never once looked like it was winning.

Instead, we just keep piling up the victims. If the ‘war on drugs’ really was a proper war, then the rape of Valentina Rosendo Cantu, and many other cases cited this Human Rights Watch report, might well have constituted a war crime . If that doesn’t bring into sharp focus the kinds of acts we’re subsidising in order to fight a drugs trade which will never end, then I’m not sure anything will.

(Image: A man with a tattoo of the “Santa Muerte,” or “Death Saint,” attends a protest by the folk saint’s followers against the destruction of their shrines in Mexico City, Sunday, April 5, 2009. Mexico’s government is targeting the folk saint, destroying “Santa Muerte” shrines in its all-out war on the cartels, saying the unofficial religion is usually a sign of something more sinister: Crime, drugs, even brutal killings.)

A glimpse at Tory drug policy?

May 18, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Drugs | 5 Comments

If you want to see what a future Tory government’s approach to drug policy might be, you could do worse than having a peek at a new report that’s just been published by The Centre for Policy Studies. Entitled ‘The Phoney War on Drugs’, author Kathy Gyngell essentially argues that the reason Labour’s attempts to curb drug use have failed is because they’re just not trying hard enough.

The report takes aim at the government’s long-standing policy of harm reduction, which works on the presumption that whilst there isn’t the public will for full decriminalisation, there’s also a limit to what a state can do to prevent people from putting poison in their bodies. With this in mind, the most prudent course of action is to reduce the social, economic, crime & health costs of drug addiction, and this inevitably leads to a greater emphasis on treatment and prescribing drug substitutes like methodone.

Gyngell argues that this focus on harm reduction has distracted from the state’s more pressing concern of stopping drugs from entering the country in the first place, being more dilligent in prosecuting dealers/users and promoting a culture of abstinence (a words she uses 30 times, fact fans) and zero tolerance. Naturally,the solution to this drug problem – as with every problem ever – can be found in the evergreen utopia that is Sweden (seriously, doesn’t that country do anything wrong?!)

There’s a lot to unpack here, and certainly far more than my blogging time allows, but there are a few observations I’d want to make.

First, the solutions offered here seem to be heavily reliant on greater statism. To improve our ability to stop drugs from entering the country will probably require more legislative action, increased use of police surveillance and escalating the state’s border patrols – all of which will pose profound questions for people concerned about individual liberty, the power of government and the potential misuse of anti-terror legislation to catch drug smugglers.

On top of that, it’s not likely to be cheap. Even if enforcing prohibition more effectively were to prove successful (by no means a certainty), you’d probably still see short to medium-term increases in state spending to improve our police’s ability to stop drugs and build new prisons. With all that in mind, you’re left wondering – as Pete Guither does – how this could ever be reconciled with CPS’ supposed mission statement of encouraging freedom, responsibility and limited government.

Second, I feel like Gyngell picks a soft target by simply attacking government policy. Even those on the opposite side of the drugs argument can see that current policy is mostly just an exercise in timorous, incrementalist bullshit, so attacking it from either left or right would’ve been pretty easy even for the most mediocre of researchers. No, the true test of her piece would’ve been how well it stands up to the counter-argument from anti-prohibitionists that you could reduce crime, health & other social costs currently associated with drug use/addiction by legalising, taxing and regulating those substances. Gyngell shies away from having that fight, which is a little bit of a missed opportunity for all concerned.

The reason I suggested that this report may one day inform the Conservatives’ approach to drugs is that I can only see this area going one of three ways. Once in power, Cameron’s government can either continue a Labour policy which not too many people on either side think has been a resounding success, decide that prohibition has been a costly folly, or decide that the state still hasn’t been tough enough on drug users/dealers. Out of all three, I suspect the latter conclusion will be the most convenient to reach, and if they do, god only knows what happens next.

Legalise drugs, save money

April 23, 2009 at 9:11 pm | Posted in Drugs | 1 Comment

I don’t know whether this is a flaw or a strength, but frequent visitors will notice that I tend to fixate on issues for several weeks before moving on to something else. I did it with the US elections, with the conflict in Gaza and with the fight over Pakistan’s SWAT valley; more domestically, I’ve done it on the issues of prison reform, reform of the asylum system, the welfare state and domestic violence. Sure, I always return to these issues every once in a while, but more often than not they’re squeezed between some other new issue which I’m reading feverishly about.

I often wonder whether this habit comes across as a kind of skittishness; as if I don’t have the discipline to devote myself entirely to one topic and instead skim superficially over issues which always require more words than I’m able to give.

For what it’s worth, the reason I do it is to keep myself interested as much as anyone else. Most of what I write is based on information, arguments or analyses I didn’t know existed beforehand, and so the act of blogging is also an act of learning something new. On top of that, I like the space blogging gives you to develop interests over many months and years, with this site basically acting as a repository for different thoughts or events or scraps of information which can be dug up at a later date. I’m not sure if that’s what Iain Dale intended when he invented the political weblog, but it works for me.

Anyway, let’s cut the self-obsessed meandering and return to my Latest Blogging Obsession: the War on Drugs. I realised last night that whilst my last two posts on the topic (the disastrous consequences of prohibition in Mexico and the benign effects of decriminalisation in Portugal) were tangentially related to ending prohibition in Britain, this place was still missing something more Anglocentric which could give the argument greater force. By happy coincidence, earlier this month the drug policy group Transform released a cost-benefit analysis on the effects of prohibition to the tax payers. It makes for incredibly instructive reading.

In 2003, the Cabinet Office estimated that the harms arising from drug use cost the taxpayer £24bn a year, £16bn of which was from acquisitive crime (ie an addict mugging an old lady in order to get his/her fix). On the occasions it’s been challenged on whether it makes sense to be spending all of this money, the government has replied that the costs far outweigh any benefits which may be brought by legalisation. No, they’ve never conducted a thorough study to prove this is the case and have never intended to; we’re just supposed to trust them.

So how can legalisation reduce the acquisitive crime which stems from addiction? Mostly because of this:


Supply chains and subsequent mark-ups for cocaine and heroin in the UK (Click to enlarge)

The image above shows the average price of cocaine & heroin at every stage of distribution from the farm in Columbia through to some dimly-lit inner city street corner in the UK. As you can see, the price mark-up is quite extraordinary, and reflective of several factors: global prohibition, the risk involved at every stage of the supply chain and the cost of protecting one’s territory/supply chains through force, coercion, human trafficking and bribery. The logic of this report is simple: legalisation should dramatically reduce the street value of these substances and as a result lead to a drop in the billions we spend prosecuting acquisitive crime. As the table below shows, the costs for heavy users of the most addictive class A drugs can run into thousands of pounds a month, which then costs us billions every year when they turn to crime to pay for it.

The estimated cost of drug use for a heavy user in 2003/04 (click to enlarge)

The estimated cost of drug use for a heavy user in 2003/04 (click to enlarge)

At this point, it’s worth remembering one of the key findings from Glenn Greenwald’s report on Portugal. There, decriminalisation removed the legal stigma of drug abuse and led to more addicts seeking treatment. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that the same thing could happen if the British state legalised drugs.

So how much money does Transform think taxpayers could save through legalisation? Well, it’s important to recognise that without the kind of information-gathering abilities which only a state can possess, much of this relies on estimation, but the group has used the best available evidence and come up with four different scenarios:


As you can see, even with a 50-100% increase in drug use under legal regulation (a scenario which seems unlikely given Portugal’s experience), the state could still save somewhere between £4bn and £7bn that it currently spends on prohibition. Are these figures innacurate? It’s difficult to say, but they certainly make a strong case for a thorough cross-departmental review to determine how much money could be saved.

It’s getting late, so I’m going to wind this post up and try to write something more succinct over the weekend, but for now I’ll leave you with this as a well-worded explanation of why legalisation/decriminalisation is an issue which deserves far more rational policy debate than it currently receives:

Current approaches ignore the basic finding that the policy of prohibition itself is the direct source of what is perceived as ‘the drug problem‘ – specifically the vast majority of drug-related crime – rather than drug use per se.  The Government has also repeatedly failed to acknowledge that prohibition is a policy choice, not a fixed feature of the policy landscape that must be worked within, or around.

The political context of these analytical shortcomings cannot be ignored. Whether it is an ideological commitment to prohibition, investment in populist drug war posturing, or fear of the domestic and international policy implications of questioning the status quo, there are clearly substantial obstacles to mainstream policy makers moving forward on this issue that have nothing to do with rational policy analysis and debate.

Doomsday averted: drug decriminalisation in Portugal

April 21, 2009 at 9:29 pm | Posted in Drugs, International | 3 Comments

For those of us who want to liberalise Britain’s drug laws, a continued source of frustration has been our inability to offer evidence about what the benefits might be. Sure, we can all point out the failure of our war on drugs, we can highlight the lives that have been claimed everywhere from Mexico to Guinea-Bissau, and we can make some rational assumptions about how ending prohibition would reduce the burden on the state, as well as its power to imprison & invade the privacy of individuals.

We can say all of that, but the fact remains that our arguments about the benefits to society have always been untested. The vast majority of developed countries also practice some version of the war against drugs, and so there’s been little data to show what might happen if we changed the law. As a result, the doomsday scenarios of prohibitionists have always had the upper hand, and their habit of wielding ‘common sense’ like a cudgel continues to scare enough people into believing that liberalisation is just too terrifying to be tried.

But this month, something important happened. In the United States, the libertarian Cato Institute issued a paper by the estimable Glenn Greenwald on the effects of decriminalisation in Portugal. Given the prestige of the institution, the repute of the author and the thoroughness of the research, it should be essential reading for people on both sides of the debate.

First, some background. In the late 1990’s Portugal’s drug problem had reached crisis point: drug use had escalated dramatically, and with that the number of drug pathologies, incarceration for drug use and the amount of money the state spent trying to eradicate the problem. Nothing they tried had worked, and so the government of the day effectively outsourced the problem to a committee of policy makers, who were charged with making recommendations about how to reduce the damage. They concluded that no amount of ‘crackdown’ policing or sentencing would effectively reduce drug use, and it certainly wouldn’t do nothing to reduce the harm caused by drugs. There was, they decided, little alternative but decriminalisation.

Naturally, the plan was incredibly divisive, and the prohibitionists offered the same arguments we hear in Britain today; that drug use would rocket; that the country would become a magnet for drug tourism; that crime would overwhelm the country and the economy would suffer.

But as Greenwald’s report demonstrates, none of those terrible predictions ever came to pass. Since they decriminalised drugs in 2001, most of Portugal’s European neighbours have reported net increases in drug use; by contrast, Portugal can boast that its drug problems have been contained. The level of drug use has stabilised, but has actually decreased in several demographics, including the crucial 15-19 age group. From 2001-2005, Portugal had the absolute lowest lifetime prevalence rate for cannabis and the fifth lowest for cocaine. If you’re looking for high rates of drug use, you won’t find it in the country which decriminalised drugs.

Since calling off the hunt against users, the country has also managed to substantially improve health outcomes. Now that undergoing drug treatment doesn’t mean you have to incriminate yourself in criminal activity, greater numbers of addicts are coming forward, and the state has become more able to provide treatment thanks to the reduced burden of prosecuting them. At the same time, drug-related deaths have decreased, infection rates for HIV and hepatitis are down thanks to safe needle exchange, incarceration of users is non-existent and Portugal never became the destination for drug tourism which opponents feared. None of this could have been achieved with criminalisation still in place.

Eight years on from decriminalisation, and a policy which divided the country’s politicians has now become a cross-party consensus. By understanding that no amount of harsh penalties will stabilise its drug problem, Portugal has achieved net decreases in use among important age groups and also improved treatment and health outcomes for addicts. Doomsday well and truly averted.

No, Portugal is not America and nor is it Great Britain, and I’d agree that you can’t simply transplant one country’s policy into another without serious thought. But the Greenwald report offers compelling evidence that the nightmare scenarios offered by its opponents have simply not come to pass, and has provided those of us who see no virtue or utility in the current system with compelling reasons for why change is necessary.

For slightly more detail than the summary offered in this post, the report can be found here; Cato’s summary can be seen here; Greenwald blogs about the report over at Salon; and is interviewed by the folks at libertarian mag Reason.

Mexico bears the brunt of our failed war on drugs

February 28, 2009 at 8:20 pm | Posted in Drugs, International | 5 Comments

For a politician, I’m not sure there’s anything more humiliating than defending your own failures. A few days ago the President of Mexico was forced to deny that he was presiding over a failed state. As his country prepared to send two thousand more troops into the troubled city of Ciudad Juarez, Felipe Calderon insisted that he wasn’t losing control of his country and that victory was just around the corner – contrary to growing fears in the United States that their neighbour is close to becoming a narco-state.

In a technical sense, Mr Calderon is correct that Mexico isn’t yet a failed state, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t failing. Since assuming office in December 2006 and immediately escalating the doomed ‘war on drugs’, there have been over 8,000 drug-related executions. Thanks to the wealthy, powerful and vengeful cartels, there are towns and cities plagued by corrupt police forces, widespread extortion and untramelled violence. Just a week ago, gunmen killed a police officer and prison guard and left a note by their bodies promising to kill an officer every two days until the police chief resigned. He quit before they ever had the chance to carry out their threat.

This is what the war on drugs buys you. In its long and undignified history, Presidents have come and gone; cartels have risen and fallen; street dealers have become rich, been shot or imprisoned; millions of addicts have killed themselves and many millions more have been exploited at every stage of the supply chain. Meanwhile, cartels have infested the law enforcement of Latin America; West Africa has become a vital part of the illegal trade route and the people of Afghanistan are caught up in a war where both the sale and destruction of opium crops can help strengthen Taliban insurgents. All these millions dead, all these billions spent, and both supply and demand remain as strong as ever.

Earlier this month a commission led by three former Latin American heads of state called prohibition the failure it is and suggested that the continent should treat narcotics as a public health problem, rather than a problem for law enforcement. But even if Mexico, Columbia & Brazil were to legalise drugs overnight, it still wouldn’t diminish the power of cartels to erode civil society, as they would still have to break national & international law to smuggle their products to overseas markets. No, the only way we could effectively end this cycle of violence, corruption and exploitation would be for the drug cartels’ biggest export markets – the U.S. and Europe – to agree to some kind of controlled legalisation. The drugs trade is only filled with such violence because it’s illegal, and whilst decriminalising wouldn’t exactly bring immediate peace, it would at least make it possible for that peace to emerge.

If the bloody, anarchic events in Mexico and throughout South America were instead happening in Britain, ending prohibition would be the great moral & political cause of our time. For decades these countries have been waging a futile war on our behalf, and only when we call a truce will they be able to mend their fractured societies.

Image by Flickr user Latin Snake (Creative Commons)

Last orders in Scotland

June 16, 2008 at 8:40 pm | Posted in British Politics, Drugs | Leave a comment
Tags: ,

Well, this proposal will be bad news for a lot of people: teenagers who like to wash down their Turkey Twizzlers with a bottle of White Lightning (an approprate choice, if you ask me), students who like to mimmick the Notting Hill set by throwing ‘fabulous’ house parties and anyone else who thinks the state already has too much of a say in what we’re allowed to eat and drink, where we’re allowed to congregate and how we choose to spend our free time. But at least Scotland’s hard-up publicans will smile at the idea that all those wealthy students in Glasgow & Ediburgh who’ll be banned from buying wine at the local Threshers will now be forced out of their bedsits and into the loving arms of their nearest boozer. It’s about time our landlords had something to celebrate!

Anyway, Rowenna Davis‘ article against the idea doesn’t say much we didn’t already suspect, but it’s a useful primer of the case against and a reminder that looking at the reasons why kids are getting hammered and then formulating strategies to deal with it would be a far more positive use of our money. What surprised me however is that she doesn’t take her argument to what seems the logical conclusion:

Survey after survey has shown that binge drinking is strongly correlated with a family history of substance abuse, and a record of depression and anxiety (see page 12). Those who have taken the time to ask young people themselves why they are misusing alcohol have found that they drink because they are trying to escape the pressures of everyday life, alleviate boredom or build their confidence in social situations. We need to offer better ways for our young people to solve these problems. This requires understanding alcohol consumption, not banning it. (Emphasis mine)

Exactly, and those pressures won’t disappear by making alcohol harder to obtain. Kids are economic agents as much as any of us; if they’re so driven to get hammered on an evening, they’re going to opt for the easiest, cheapest way of doing it. At the moment the annihilator-of-choice is cut-price booze, but make it a lot harder/more expensive to get hold of and they’ll just look for another way of getting wasted. God knows there are enough drugs out there to do the job.

Photo: an off-license in Soho taken by Flickr user davepattern (Creative Commons)

Prison: Labour’s low ambitions

June 8, 2008 at 9:16 pm | Posted in British Politics, Drugs, New Labour, Prison Reform | 3 Comments
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Wandsworth prison by Flickr user bargebaggers (Creative Commons)

You’ll have to forgive my wooly-mindedness, but I’d always assumed that prison should be for two types of people: the murders, molesters and rapists whose acts of violence renders them unfit to live in a free society, and the muggers, thieves and fraudsters who come into prison encumbered by undereducation, drug addiction, and psychiatric disorders. Sure, I’d always known that there’s very little you can do about the psycho brigade – just give ’em enough bread and water to keep living until the callous little hearts cease beating – but I’d always naively assumed there was great potential to rehabilitate those in the latter group.

Alas, for all the government might grudgingly share this belief and boasts ‘get tough’ rhetoric on practically every aspect of public life, it still hasn’t found the resolve in all its 11 misspent years to truly ‘get tough’ on the causes of crime. We’ve seen prison populations rise to eye-watering levels, seen suicides and self-harming rise accordingly and seen the reoffending rate remain defiantly high, whilst all the while our venal right-wing press insist on misleading the country into believing that inmates enjoy a ‘cushy life‘.

So when todays Observer reports on the extraordiary scale of the drug problems in our nation’s prisons, the stock response isn’t to get angry or depressed or even feel anything at all; merely to sigh and turn the page.

But if there was ever an aspect of government policy where we needed someone to ‘turn the page’, it’s this one. Hussain Djemil, a drug addict and ex-inmate who has since become an expert on the myriad crises in the prison system, publishes a report through the Centre for Policy Studies tomorrow. Here is a heavily-abridged and thoroughly depressing summary of his allegations and those uncovered by the Observer:

  1. “Drugs are widespread in British prisons, undermining any attempt to clean up prisoners from pre-existing addictions, greatly increasing the chances of recidivism and corrupting staff.”
  2. There have been occasions when approaching 100 per cent of the prisoners in Cornton Vale [a women’s prison in Stirling] have a drug problem
  3. Even many ‘drug-free’ prison wings – supposed sanctuaries for inmates to escape drugs – are now beset with dealing.
  4. “In a survey of 20 category B and C prisons conducted for The Observer last week, the probation union, Napo, was told that inmates belonging to organised gangs were controlling the distribution of drugs both inside and outside their jails.”
  5. “The Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca) estimates that about 30 major drug dealers continue to control distribution networks across the UK from within the confines of their cells.”
  6. “With the new-found desire to control the drugs trade in Britain’s prisons come fears that weapons are being smuggled in to mete out punishments to those who can’t pay their drug debts. Last Christmas the segregation cells at Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire were full as prisoners sought refuge from dealers to whom they owed money.”
  7. The methods used to smuggle drugs into jails can be as crude as throwing them over prison walls and mailing them into prisoners, or as sinister as drug dealers paying-off prison guards to turn a blind eye to dealing.
  8. “The use of mandatory drug testing is actually encouraging greater use of class A drugs in prison. This is because prisoners being treated for heroin addiction on a detoxification programme using either methadone or its more expensive alternative, Subutex, can blame any positive result on the substitute drug.”
  9. “In 1997 just under 14,000 prisoners were on detoxification programmes. Today the number is over 51,000.”
  10. “Studies show that addicted prisoners will go on to commit further crimes to fuel their habits, which in turn fuels reoffending rates and leads to offenders being recycled through the system, costing the taxpayer billions of pounds.”

It’s an awful state of affairs, and unless the influx of drugs and the problems associated with addiction can be eradicated, there’s little point in trying to invest in more comprehensive rehabilitation programmes. But help is on the way, right? Aren’t we about to be blessed with some shiny new superprisons to incarcerate these dosed-up evil-doers? Trust me, you don’t want to go there:

The new generation of titan “superprisons” are being designed to be overcrowded from the start, the Justice Ministry admitted yesterday. Prison service officials are already looking for a minimum 50-acre brownfield site in the Greater London area to build the first titan jail. But when it opens in 2012 it will only have 2,100 places for its 2,500 inmates. A consultation paper published by the justice secretary, Jack Straw, said yesterday the sites for the four- or five-storey titans should be suitable for an initial development providing at least 2,100 uncrowded places with the capacity to hold up to 2,500 prisoners “through planned overcrowding“. (emphasis mine)

Well, that’s just brilliant. The deluded plebs among us have long assumed that overcrowding was a Bad Thing. We’ve argued that the more crowded a prison becomes, the harder it is to control. We’ve argued that prisoners are at greater risk of violence, self-harm and suicides, that drugs are more difficult to eradicate, that prisoners’ rehabilitation just wouldn’t happen and that an already overworked, understaffed and underpaid prison service would suffer from even higher staff turnover and demoralisation. We’ve argued that if the government wanted to stop such Bad Things from happening, they’d have to cut overcrowding.

But the only reason overcrowding worries this government is because it limits their ability to lock more people up, and since these new megajails will be able to imprison 2,100 each, they’ve got more room than ever to excercise their fetish for incarceration. When these prisons inevitably reach their capacity, Labour’s policy of ‘planned overcrowding’ will mean they can squeeze criminals in more efficiently than ever. And when even the megajails can’t take any more inmates, they’ll just build more of ’em.

In almost every substantive way, Labour has abandoned its pledge to tackle the causes of crime, and both our society and our economy will be paying the price for years to come.

Image of Wandsworth Prison by Flickr user bargebaggers (Creative Commons)

Rebels without a clue

March 11, 2008 at 10:40 am | Posted in Celebrity, Drugs | 2 Comments
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A UN report claims that drug use is bad for Africa; media reports on how it’s bad for celebrities 

Over at Obselete there’s a lengthy post about the trend towards blaming all the world’s problems on celebrities. Last week, a UN report blamed the Dohertys, Mosses and Winehouses of the world for glamourising drug use and criticised our judicial system for being too lenient on these strung-out snort machines. Septicisle rightly points out that the endless ambulance-chasing of Doherty and Winehouse, their physical deterioration and very public breakdowns hardly leave the impression that drug use is glamourous, and also notes that without an obsessive and intrusive media making money out of stalking them, there’d be no such stories in the first place:

All of this though is still missing the most obvious point: that without the sanctimonious media that feels fit to follow a “celebrity’s” every movement, and indeed has the power to both make that individual’s image in the first place and then later to destroy it if it so desires, the public at large that are apparently so influenced by celebrity behaviour would never know about it in the first place.


Newspapers of course love to have it both ways: they denounce the behaviour of celebrities in comment pieces and leader columns while their sales and showbiz pages depend on capturing that very behaviour which would otherwise go unnoticed.

But in the media’s obsession with celebrity, a far more important part of the report was missed; namely, the toll that the drug trade is taking on the failed states of West Africa. Sunday’s Observer featured some first rate reporting:

By day, Guinea-Bissau looks like the impoverished country it is. Most people cannot afford a bus fare, never mind a four-wheel drive. There is no mains electricity. Water supplies are restricted to the wealthy few, and landmark buildings such as the presidential palace remain wrecked nine years after the end of the war. But this wreck of a country is what the UN – which declared war last week on celebrity cocaine culture – calls the continent’s ‘first narco-state’. West Africa has become the hub of a flow of cocaine from South America into Europe, now that other routes have become tough for the traffickers.

With the old lines of supply becoming more heavily-policed, the drug barons of Columbia established a trade route through countries like Guinea-Bissau, in large part because their state is so weak that politicians and police officials are easily bought-off. It is this terrible situation that prompted Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN’s anti-drugs office, to write this passionate comment piece:

And yet for every rebel with a cause, there are 10 others without a clue. While some well-meaning pop idols and film stars might rage against suffering in Africa, their work is being undermined by the drug habits of careless peers such as Kate Moss. For the cocaine used in Europe passes through impoverished countries in west Africa, where the drugs trade is causing untold misery, corruption, violence and instability.

Of course, Kate Moss is not directly responsible for the drug trade in Africa and it’s still far too easy to blame celebrity substance abuse for making it more widespread amongst the general population. That said, anyone who has ever bought or used cocaine is still an indirect accomplice in the misery of millions. And for those celebrities who lend their voices to campaigns on behalf of Africa and yet still find time for the odd line, it’s the vilest kind of hypocrisy.

Costa’s piece ends with this pointed plea: if you don’t care what the drug does to you, at least spare a thought for what it can do to others.

Too true. But no one’ll ever write a pop song about it.

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