26 August 2011
The following letter to the editor appeared in the Financial Times today.
The profit margins for illicit drugs are such that it is simply an irresistible product, and because it is illegal the business model includes violent death as a standard option. Latin America has the misfortune to be politically weak and close to the world’s biggest consumer market for drugs, the US. In Europe, in spite of the usual warlike rhetoric from some politicians, authorities are increasingly – and quite sensibly – decriminalising the use, possession and even small-scale cultivation of cannabis. They have little choice, since more than 22 per cent of the population have now become sometime users and have effectively opted out of an unenforceable law.
There is more emphasis on prevention and treatment in Europe than on suppression. European Union member states and institutions have spent the last 15 years keeping the lid on this issue, at least at home, but as you say in your article “A toxic trade” (Analysis, August 24), we’re catching up. One reason for this is that too many EU governments (and the US of course) are still loath to support the rising chorus of experts – and now the Global Commission on Drug Policy – calling for an end to the taboo of even discussing a reform of the UN conventions on drugs, which are the legal corner that the world has painted itself into on this issue. The conventions were written in another age (starting in 1961) and are doing more harm than good. It is to be hoped that at least some politicians may rediscover the art of explaining such an uncomfortable truth to their electorates.
Head of the European Commission’s Drug Policy Unit 2003-10
25 August 2011
In 1981, the American historian Barbara Tuchman wrote in The March of Folly:"Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other activity...Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and elightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?"
The question is as relevant today as it was then, or during the gaffes of the civilisations that she described, from Troy to Vietnam.
One issue to which her question applies directly is the global narcotics control system. A construct which reflects mainly American prejudice about alien customs and fear of losing social control, and which was embedded into the UN system of drug conventions between 1961 and 1988. The Financial Times yesterday joined the growing chorus of serious media with a one-page spread on the situation in Latin America. Conditions in Central America are particularly dire, as drug trafficking to the US market that goes through the region has produced unprecedented and widespread violence (El Salvador is quoted as having 71 murders per 100,000, or nearly 12 times the level of the US, 35 times more than in Europe). The legalisation debate, the article claims, "is bogged down by legitimate fears about the risk of increased addiction rates". Why are these fears legitimate? In the 1950's, anti- communist paranoia was rife. It was used "legitimately" by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to create a toxic mix of fear and xenophobia about an international drugs conspiracy to undermine the free world. The rest is history: by 1961 the world (i.e. the West) had painted itself into a legal corner by adopting the first UN convention on illicit drugs. By 1971 Richard Nixon had called for the War on Drugs, and today we have the world's fastest growing illegal commodities market ever.
So, what about those "legitimate" fears? Just how scared do we have to be of addiction? Not half as scared as we should be of violence and the growing bonds between the legal and black economies as billions in drug money are seeping into our daily lives. Does your town or city have no-go areas? Mine does, and the fact that drugs are illicit gives the local tough guys their "respect" and their currency. Regulating drugs would not turn these people into honest citizens, but it would take a form of crime out of circulation that is so easy I'm almost tempted myself. It would also free up a lot of cash for prevention and treatment that is now being spent on rather unsuccessful law enforcement. Prof Kleinman from UCLA may claim that the former is "cost-effective but not very effective", at least it is not a ruinous and murderous joke like much of the law enforcement efforts over the last decades.
The fear is not "legitimate". It is understandable, which is entirely different. It is understandable because self-serving politicians have played on it for so long - assisted by sensational media - that the mere suggestion of doing this differently provokes outbursts of righteous anger, particularly from "people with children", who somehow have the moral high ground in this debate. What about children with parents in prison, usually poor, serving inhumanely long sentences for posession or small scale retail trafficking? What about children living in prison, as they do in some Latin American countries? What if your adolescent child gets a taste of tough drug laws, looses his place at school, his bright future suddenly cancelled?
The fear can be addressed and the options for regulating the drugs market explained. However distatsteful the idea is to most of us, regulating drugs is being discussed by many serious people in civil society, universities, and unexpected places like the House of Lords. A lot of work has been done on it, the complexity and risks of the idea are fairly well known. What is lacking is a political class that does more than follow its most rabid electorates in stead of showing a statesman-like way out of the present mess.
Let me end with Barbara Tuchman again. To qualify as political folly, she wrote, the policy must have been recognised as counter-productive in its own time, and, secondly, an alternative policy must have been available.
Good night and good luck.
18 August 2011
The riots in London have "shocked" and "dismayed" all honest citizens, and most of all, the British government. The real surprise however is not that the riots took place, but that they are seen as something that is incomprehensible and incompatible with our way of life. Riots are a recurring feature of our societies and they break out regularly in many rich and less rich countries. Just look up "Urban riots" on Wikipedia and you'll get the point.
Riots start with an event - often the shooting of a local inhabitant by the police. This usually sparks off an explosion of pent-up frustration and anger by those who are or who feel marginalised by society. The police is usually taken by surprise and things quickly get out of hand. What follows is less spontaneous than it seems; typical ringleaders are coloured men in their late 20s with a record of violence and arrest and scores to settle with the police. This was also the case in Tottenham. What they're after is to get their own back by having a go at anything. It's a territorial thing: to get back some "respect" for their turf.
Arson and looting on a more or less large scale then follows. It is possibly the most vocal and logical expression of the rejection of the West's new religion of "shopping". The growing number of people in the West who are unlikely to ever be able to buy the consumer products that are rammed down their throats in media every day may well acquire a taste for rioting. The process is helped along by a second category of ringleaders, self-styled "activists", mostly white young men with a reasonable level of education, the sort of people we used to call anarchists or nihilists, but only because we didn't know what else to call them.
There is nothing new about any of this, nor about the ineffectual and vengeful way in which most governments react. Once they have collected their wits and get a grip (or the riots simply die down) they begin the "clean up". President Sarkozy promised to root out "the scum" with a high-pressure hose, after the last round of violence in the french "cités". In England, two bewildered facebookers who tried - and failed - to start their own riot were given four-year prison sentences. What this reveals more than anything else is governments' fear that they might not be able to contain this. That fear seems quite justified, as European countries are cutting back massively on spending on education and social services - and law and order - while a recession looms.