The international community, led by the US, has sought for decades to close down the global trade in narcotics by declaring a “war on drugs”. However, after tens of thousands of deaths linked to drug violence and no end to global drug trafficking or drug use in sight, is it time for a rethink on the way the international community regulates drugs?
This is the question that a panel of experts asked itself at a presentation of a landmark report at the LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science) on Tuesday 23rd October. There to discuss and debate the topic were five speakers: Dr William McAllister, Professor David Courtwright, Dr Ethan Nadelmann, Nigel Inkster and Professor Michael Cox.
The LSE Ideas report, Governing the Global Drug Wars, is a reflection on the way that the current drug regime has developed, on the need for reform and on what is stopping its reform. According to John Collins, an LSE researcher on the history of the drugs trade and editor of the report, the current system of drugs control “has failed by any metric”.
Speaking to The Upcoming Collins cited that, among the most compelling reasons for reform is the fact that global drugs supply under the current system has actually increased rather than diminished.
All this lay at the heart of the Tuesday evening event. Addressing the packed auditorium at the report launch Professor Courtwright from the University of North Florida, one of the key authors of the report, described fighting the drug trade as “a lot like controlling the arms race” as authorities have to keep up with the technological innovations of drug traffickers.
He went on to question why we are keener on stopping the use of some drugs rather than others, as tobacco and alcohol are narcotics with effects just as damaging as illegal substances.
The answer, Professor Courtwright upheld, lies in the historical racial bias attached to the use of some drugs (that implies, for example, that opium was used by Chinese migrant workers and cannabis by Hispanic immigrants) and the financial and political clout of the alcohol and tobacco industries. Alcohol and tobacco were reportedly “too big to fail”, and banning the sale of these substances would have massive economic repercussions, as they employ thousands of people and provide the state with substantial revenues from taxation.
“Western governments had less of a stake in narcotics” than in the production and trade of alcohol and tobacco stated Courtwright. However, this double standard has morphed into a “single-double standard”, as tobacco use is denounced for its dangerous health effects while alcohol use is more tolerated.”We are told not to use drugs, to quit smoking, and to drink responsibly” concluded Professor Courtwright.
Following this Dr Nadelmann, from the Drug Policy Alliance, conducted an impromptu poll on taking to the podium, asking the audience about whether they thought current drug policy was working. In response, the audience confirmed the report’s central message that it did not.
Nadelmann then underlined the contradictions in current drug policy, the racial implications of it and the high proportion of ethnic minorities in the prison population, mainly because of drug-related charges. “Do you know what is the hardest drug for a heroin addict to stop smoking? Cigarettes” observed Dr Nadelmann, quoting from a conversation he had had with drug users.
Dr Nadelmann maintained that attitudes to drug control were changing, with many former and current Latin American heads of state advocating a change in policy, including former Columbian President Santos, who personally endorsed the LSE report. Public perception in the US is shifting too, with 17 states legalising the use of medical marijuana and 50% of the American public in favour of decriminalisation.
Former director of MI6 Nigel Inkster also lent his view. Speaking from decades of experience, he highlighted the spread of “junkie economies” – countries where the drug trade had more clout than the rest of the economy. Afghanistan, for example, provides 85% of world opium production.
Inkster also underlined the role of the narcotics trade in fomenting conflict and generating violence in many areas of the world.
The study is mainly aimed at regulators, particularly among those in the UN system dealing with narcotics, and has the immediate objective of forming a discussion around a more effective drugs control system and the incorporation of basic human rights standards in current drug policy.
Its intended effects are to have an impact on current drug policy debates, but are its recommendations going to be turned into practice? John Collins believes that the failures of the current system are “widely accepted by almost everyone involved” but “bureaucracies are hard to change” and “there are interests in favour of maintaining the status quo”.
It is sufficient, he adds, to look at the prohibition era in the states to realise that blanket bans are not always an effective option, and change may yet be on the horizon.
Photos: Dwaine Feild-Pellow
Further information on the LSE Ideas report Governing the Global Drug Wars can be found here.