Is it time to review government policy on drugs?

Alexander Pannett 11.15am

The fecund lands of Latin America have always attracted interest in their abundant resources.

From mines to agriculture, the region is particularly rich with potential for human development.

In recent decades, the coca leaf has been one of the more infamous products to have dominated the region’s trade. Used as a constituent of Bolivian tea, as well as a mild, traditional stimulant when chewed, it is now most widely used for producing cocaine.

Consequently, the USA has insisted that the coca leaf’s cultivation be banned, which has antagonised Bolivians who see the use of the coca leaf as an important part of their national identity. At the same time, demand from America and the wider West for cocaine has soared. This has driven cultivation and the huge profits it generates into the arms of organised crime.

For four decades, the “War on Drugs” has been fought by the USA and its allies against organised crime’s stranglehold of the illegal drugs industry. There has been only limited success in tackling the production of illegal drugs.

Where one area has its production cut through action by the authorities, production increases in other areas to compensate.  The $8 billion Plan Colombia reduced coca production there by 65 per cent, while production increased 40 per cent in Peru and doubled in Bolivia.

However, the biggest failure of the war on drugs is its inability to reduce the soaring demand in rich consumer nations such as the US. It is this demand, and the huge profits, that fuels production and gives organised crime the resources and firepower to intimidate and corrupt law enforcement agencies.

The more punitive and aggressive governments act in their approach to drug enforcement, the more violent and ambitious the drug cartels become. In Mexico, it is estimated that as many as 50,000 people have died as result of the ongoing government war against the drug cartels.

The failures and escalating violence of the drug wars has started calls by Latin American governments of a major re-think of the strategy behind drug enforcement. President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has proposed the establishment of a taskforce of experts, economists and academics to analyse the realities of global drug addiction, trafficking and profiteering.

Other leaders have been more forward and called for the legalisation of drugs. It is also not just the more liberal-minded who are calling for an end to the drug wars. Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina, a general during the country’s “dirty war”, came to power promising an “iron fist” against drug consumers. He recently called the war on drugs a failure and argued that “consumption and production should be legalised” within certain limits.

There certainly seems to be much benefit in re-casting drugs as a social problem of dependency on stimulants rather than a criminal concern. This is the approach that is taken with alcohol and cigarettes, the most popular legalised drugs in society.

Regulation of drugs would raise quality, removing dangerous products from the streets. It would also lower prices and raise tax revenues that would pay for the health and social services needed to provide support to those suffering from drug abuse.

Consumers could still be required to be a certain age - 18, say - before they could purchase drugs (just as with alcohol); advertising would be banned (as with tobacco); drug-driving would remain illegal; and the law relating to liability whilst intoxicated would remain the same.

Substances could also remain banned if they are deemed to be above a certain addiction threshold. This would encourage legal drug producers to concentrate on creating the stimulating rather than addictive effects of drugs.

The negative side of legalisation is that it would likely lead to higher use as drugs would become more available. This would likely lead to higher numbers of drug-related health issues in society. When prohibition was introduced into the United States in the 1920s it reduced alcohol-related illnesses dramatically. As the monetary cost of drinking tripled, deaths from cirrhosis of the liver declined by a third. This improvement in health, however, hid and fed rampant criminality and a dis-respect for the law by all sections of society.

The law must protect us from other humans but, concerning our own bodies we have seen progressive strides, from abortion to sexual freedoms, in allowing humans the choice to do what they will with their own selves. Considering both the law and society already accept the right of humans to intoxicate themselves through alcohol, tobacco, coffee and other legal stimulants, it may be time to accept other drugs onto this list.

It would be naive to assume that the vast death toll and social cost of drugs in the Americas will not soon reach Europe. In many deprived areas it already has. To pre-empt such a social disaster we should respond to the call of Latin American governments and review our own government policy and attitudes towards drugs.

A drug-free utopia, after all, is a fantasy we could never achieve naturally.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

Begin Muse, when the two first broke and clashed

Alexander Pannett 8.23am

The world appears to be in the grip of a tumultuous period.  A crescendo of failures, misfortune and myopic strategy seems to be dragging the global economy towards a double dip recession.  The Euro, once lauded as the irresistible replacement to the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, is itself facing possible collapse.  The American economy is slowing and inflation in China has been growing to worrying levels. 

In the Middle East, the Arab Spring has removed the oppressive fist of decades of autocratic regimes, but no-one can foresee who will fill the political vacuum or whether the successors will be more progressive and benevolent for the Arab people.  In East Africa, famine is spreading, which, it has been estimated, will cost the lives of up to 750,000 people.  In Latin America, drug wars are destabilising political and social security, leaving a growing list of macabre fatalities.  

Worse, it seems as if leaders are running out of ideas for tackling the many pressing problems that the world faces.  European leaders have been unable to either provide or agree to any credible solution to saving the euro, whilst the bond markets and rating agencies have mercilessly punished this intransigence.  In America, politicians seem more prepared to fight for narrow, partisan interests rather than place the holistic needs of their nation at the forefront of their concerns.  In both Russia and China, there have been no serious attempts to tackle the devastating environmental costs of un-fettered industrialisation, nor address the social concerns of a growing underclass. 

Amidst all these chaotic misgivings, the hubristic faith in un-mitigated progress must lie in the same tattered heap that other ideologies of utopia have found themselves.  History has not ended.  The business cycle was not broken.  Humans have not tamed nature.  Increasingly, age-old ethnic and tribal rivalries are dominating human concerns as the world moves towards a multiplicity of values.  There is now no unifying vision to guide humanity to its future.  We have realised that we simply do not know what tomorrow will bring.  This should be welcomed.  

The return of mystery to the realities of our existence is vitally important in re-adjusting government policy to accommodate our erratic behaviour, rather than directing it.  A government must protect the traditions that stem from the various cultures it represents, not impose its own idealised vision of human nature.  Politics is not a tool for engineering a particular view of the world but a servant that caters for an ever-changing reality. 

We should be less concerned with the opaqueness of economic statistics and more with the immediate concerns of social and environmental harmony.  What benefits does rapid economic growth bring if it merely entrenches the opportunities of a privileged minority and widens the gap between the affluent and dispossessed?  As the world fluctuates between unstable and unforeseen circumstances, we must recognise the limits of our grand designs and instead concentrate on policies that accommodate human needs.

A fairer and more stable society reaches out for answers, it does not impose them.

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