Whose war is it, anyway?

The Colombian President says we’ve lost the war on drugs. So does his predecesor. And his Mexican counterpart. Not to mention Harvard economists. Oh, and the editors of The Economist. Is it conceivable that the United Nations and the US government, that have for so long dug their heels into the mud of prohibition as the only legitimate approach to the problem of addiction, might finally agree?

The governors of the United Nations Organisation on Drugs and Crime (not Drugs and Pleasure, you note, or Drugs and Health, but Drugs and Crime) gather in Vienna from tomorrow to take stock of the dismal failure of the world’s attempts to erradicate addiction by spraying crops, locking up dealers, in some countries even shooting junkies (Thailand, step forward and take a bow). Former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, who also chairs the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, was yesterday quoted by The Guardian as saying “Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalisation have not yielded the expected results. We are today farther than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.” The Economist goes further, calling the century-old war on drugs (launched at a conference in Shanghai in 1908) “illiberal, murderous and pointless”.

The Economist argues for legalisation. While their logic is impeccable, the likelihood that the honchos in Vienna will include legalisation as part of their roadmap for the next 10 years — or even a distant destination to put into the SatNav — is currently between nil and zero percent. It is not, however, impossible, that the balance might swing to an approach more tightly focused on cutting out the preventible harm associated with drug taking and addiction. (The two, I need hardly remind readers of this blog, are not the same, though it is hard to discern that from the approach of either the US or the UK government.) We think of “harm reduction” as needle programmes to reduce HIV and hepatitis transmission, but it is far more than that. A less prohibitionist approach might reduce the number of Mexicans killed every year while dilligently trying to keep up supplies to ever-voracious consumers in the US — around 6,000 a year. It might reduce the number of young black men who are put in touch with real criminals by being thrown into jail on drug-related offences — one in five black guys in the States spend time in the slammer, seven times the rate of white men in the same age groups. And it might shift some of the billions we spend supporting failed prohibition policies to demand reduction and quality treatment programmes. Demand reduction programmes may help young people stay off drugs in the first place, much as anti-smoking campaigns have made tobacco fundamentally uncool among young people in some populations. And we know that treatment helps people who are addicted and don’t want to be taking drugs to get clean.

In his inaugural speech, President Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place”. Yesterday, he signed an initiative to take the church-led meddling of the Bush era out of science. “It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda — and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” Obama said.

The fact is that the 100 year long war on drugs — a war motivated by ideology not science — has failed. It has made life more dangerous and uncertain for people in the poor countries that produce most drugs, and the rich countries that consume them. Even the head of UNODC is begining to nod towards harm reduction. Perhaps, with Obama’s words ringing loudly in their ears, those gathered in Vienna this week will opt to try a new stratgey.

This post was published on 10/03/09 in Science, The sex trade, War on drugs.

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  1. Comment by Dora Theo, 10/03/09, 09:02:

    It’s funny that I was just having a discussion with my father earlier today about how the war on drugs doesn’t work and how legalization is the smartest answer.

    I can see how that’s not going to happen any time soon, not with how stubborn they’ve been for so long. They’re not going to turn the whole thing around in one go. But I’ll be happy if they just change their tactics. Especially if they stop throwing perfectly harmless people in jail.

  2. Comment by r g pisani, 13/03/09, 09:02:

    Economist article “impeccable”? here is a copy of my letter to the Economist: Sir: your article, “how to stop the war on drugs” is interesting in that it contains so many un-Economist traits both in logic and style. You state that “legalization would not only drive away the gangsters…” having previously said, “the drug business adapts to market disruptions”. Presumably two easy adaptions would be:
    * sale to minors (since you propose that legal sales to them would be banned)
    * undercutting of legal prices (as you have noted on other matters, add government tax and bureaucracy costs to the item and anyone can undersell it)
    You state, “the resources gained from tax and saved on repression would allow governments to guarantee treatment”. But as you have pointed out on another issue, the enormous receipts by states in the tobacco settlement largely went to the general fund and not to prevention and treatment. Surely you do not believe in a different result with drug taxes?
    I admire the Economist style for the confident positions taken on so many issues. The caveats in this article are most un-Economist. “might encourage”, “might accept”, “might see”.
    Finally, you suggest that making drugs cheaper, safer, and more widely available will increase use (marketing 101). So if I understand correctly, you want to increase use of a harmful product so you can tax it to raise the funds to help people not use it…very un-Economist!

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