Fifty years ago almost every United Nations member state signed up to support a global prohibition on the non-medical use of certain drugs. Ever since, citizens all over the world have repeatedly voted for governments that proclaim the virtues of fighting a “war on drugs”. Through taxes we pay governments to enforce drug laws to protect us, our children, our communities and our countries from the all too real harms of drug misuse.
However, the regime of prohibition (the criminalisation of production, supply and use) has been applied only to certain drugs. It has rarely been applied to tobacco and alcohol. But who does this prohibition protect?
In a classic protection racket, a racketeer threatens damage to a business, or harm to an individual, unless the victim pays the racketeer “protection” money. The 1961 UN Single Convention on drugs, to which the UK is a signatory, frames its approach in terms of a concern for the “health and welfare of mankind” and a desire to “combat” the “serious evil” of “addiction to narcotic drugs”. It then places an obligation on signatories to put in place a blanket prohibition (and thereby eliminate use and eradicate supply) in order to protect us from this “evil”.
The threat, as articulated, is that if we do not support the prohibition, the “evil” will take over and we will no longer be “protected” from addiction. But the global prohibition – the “war on drugs” – has singularly failed to stop people using drugs. The reality is that worldwide there are up to 300 million users. All the evidence shows that the level of law enforcement has little or no direct relationship with levels of drug misuse.
A gift to the drug barons
Not only has law failed to regulate drugs misuse, like alcohol prohibition, the war on drugs has gifted the multi-billion pound trade to drug-trafficking organisations and unregulated dealers, who are genuinely dangerous to all of us, our children and our communities. In 2008, The UN Office on Drugs and Crime conceded that the “drug control system” (a euphemism for prohibition) itself fuels the $320 billion a year criminal trade, describing it as one of five major “unintended consequences”. The recently published Alternative World Drug Report gives an even more comprehensive exposition of the harms caused by the war on drugs.
Governments use this “unintended consequence” - the creation of the second largest money earner for organised crime globally - as a further pretext to demand more “protection” money. However, this second payment, now apparently spent on fighting organised crime, does nothing to stop drug trafficking organisations. In fact, it serves as a price support mechanism, turning simple agricultural products into commodities literally worth more than their weight in gold. An understanding of basic economics tells us that squeezing the supply of any trade that has a heavy demand will serve only to raise the price (notwithstanding the fact that prices are further hiked by virtue of the risk undertaken throughout the supply chain). And so a self-perpetuating vicious circle is created, whereby control of the market by unregulated suppliers is used to justify continuation or escalation of the war.
These two “rackets” (the one built upon the other) have not only failed to protect communities and children, but have also brought entire nation-states to their knees. Prohibition has turned Guinea Bissau, for example, from a fragile state to a narco-state within months of the cocaine trade crossing its borders.
Dirty and dangerous
Prohibition has also brought the law into disrepute around the world, as millions break an unenforceable law and use whatever drugs they want, and the vast criminal profits are used to corrupt officials at all levels. Prohibition has made the drugs trade as dirty and dangerous as it could possibly be; unregulated dealers sell adulterated drugs to minors and violent criminals control much of the trade, and more than 50,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence since 2006. Year after year the Afghan poppy crop supplies the majority of the raw material for the manufacture of illegal heroin.
If prohibition was a genuine protection racket, at least we would be protected from harm. But it isn’t. It is much worse than that. It is effectively an “endangerment racket”. The first payment we make creates plentiful money-making opportunities for organised crime. The second payment provides the budgets for those given the task of “fighting organised crime” – FBI, CIA DEA, SOCA and many others around the world. The second payment of “endangerment money” distracts us from the fallout from the first racket and further serves to perpetuate the overarching prohibitionist regime.
However, there is good news. Governments are not organised crime groups. We can stop paying “endangerment money” any time we like, by voting for an individual or party that is seeking alternatives to global prohibition, and the endangerment racket that accompanies it.
We can stop governments spending our money on a regime that ultimately endangers those who are most vulnerable and at risk, and press them to reassign the vast sums involved to a “post-drug war Marshall Plan”. Around the world we are seeing the beginning of more pragmatic approaches to legalisation and regulation. As citizens we have a choice. We can use our vote for peace – or for war.