The war on drugs isn’t working, so let’s stop pretending it is

Published by The Daily Telegraph (30th April, 2015)

Outside of their families and friends, few tears will have been be shed for the eight heroin smugglers killed by firing squad in the early hours of yesterday morning. They may have claimed to have become reformed characters in jail, but they knew the Indonesian penalty for trafficking drugs. Yet the pantomime of death played out in the full glare of the global media reminded us of two things: first, the hideous barbarity of the death penalty; and second, the dreadful futility of the war on drugs.

The gang was caught attempting to smuggle heroin from Bali to Australia. Their seizure demonstrated that even the most draconian penalties are no deterrent to those seeking fortunes from the £200 billion drugs trade. Despite the death penalty, Bali is renowned as both a party place and an important Asian transit point for the distribution of narcotics, with traffickers slipping in and out of the island among its three million tourists.

Yet even as Indonesia upsets allies with its hardline stance on drugs, there is a shift going on around the world. Slowly but surely, countries are coming to their senses and realising that the prohibition of drugs is just as damaging and self-harming as the prohibition of alcohol once was in America, widely broken by otherwise law-abiding citizens and only serving to enrich crooks – as we all know from those old black-and-white gangster movies.

Like it or not, there is a massive market for drugs and many people enjoy them without coming to any harm, some even going on to become presidents and prime ministers. Just as with alcohol, there are casualties – although rather fewer with some widely used drugs than with booze. But as one country after another is starting to realise, the best way to protect users is not to create a lucrative black market controlled by lethal gangsters with little concern for the safety of customers. It is to do precisely the opposite: legalise and regulate the use of drugs.

This is a big step for any state to take, an admission that the absurd war first unleashed by President Richard Nixon has been both wrong and wasteful of resources. But in the past few days Ireland has become the latest nation to contemplate reform, appointing a minister with special responsibility to examine the relaxation of drug laws. “Someone who has an addiction issue should be dealt with through the health system and not the criminal justice system,” said the minister Aodhán Ríordáin, adding that the police would agree with him.

Mr Ríordáin was echoing President Barack Obama, who has encouraged the tilting of US policy away from prohibition by rightly saying he supports science over ideology. Already 23 states have sanctioned medical use of marijuana and four have legalised cannabis for recreational use; several more, including California, could follow suit after ballots of voters. Cannabis is said to be the fastest-growing US industry, worth about $3 billion and creating tens of thousands of jobs, with states finding a new source of revenue while enabling police to concentrate on more serious criminals than student potheads.

Now the impact can start to be seen across the border, where drug cartels created bloody havoc for decades as they fought over huge profits from supplying North American drug users. In Mexico, the number of murders fell from a high four years ago of almost 23,000 deaths to 15,649 last year. Meanwhile, Mexican security forces have seen a sharp drop in cannabis seizures, down by almost one-third in a year, while prices have halved. ‘If the US continues to legalise pot, they’ll run us into the ground,’ one man in the trade told a radio station recently.

The Central American countries sandwiched between southern suppliers and wealthy users to the north have been devastated by drug gangs, turning cities into the world’s most dangerous urban zones outside of war. Similar corrosion can be seen in West Africa, as new trade routes to Europe opened up, undermining struggling states, corrupting politicians and enriching terror gangs. Drug-trafficking was a key reason for the collapse of Mali three years ago, which allowed militant Islamists to grab two-thirds of the country.

Little wonder the world is slowly waking up to the stupidity of prohibition. More than 20 countries from the Czech Republic to Uruguay have brought in forms of decriminalisation, which makes sense on economic, social, political and moral grounds. Yet Britain, with the highest rates of drug use in Europe, still gives 80,000 people a criminal record each year for doing something some Cabinet ministers have confessed to enjoying in their youth. It’s one more reason for the disconnect between Westminster and the electorate, especially younger voters, while victims die needlessly from the uncontrolled market in narcotics.

In this election, both the Greens and Liberal Democrats propose decriminalisation, while a pro-reform party is standing in 32 constituencies. But it should really be the Tories leading the way by demanding legalisation of drugs – and not just to connect with sections of the electorate they struggle traditionally to reach. After all, this reform is tough on crime, fiscally responsible, safeguards families, promotes growth and strengthens global security. It is a policy that is highly conservative while also potentially transformative to the party brand – something to ponder as those smugglers’ corpses are placed in their coffins, symbols of a war that can never be won.

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