Drugs: towards a global tolerance regime

The once closed debate on drugs policy shows signs of opening up. But liberalisation would require the international restrictions on narcotics which do untold harm to the developing world to be relaxed
Mick Moore
22 January 2010

Real movement on drugs policy is in prospect. The Economist highlighted this in November 2009, running a story that pointed out that ‘In many countries, full jails, stretched budgets and a general weariness with the war on drugs have made prohibition harder to enforce.’ Over the past year the American government has reduced sanctions on personal drug use through low profile administrative decisions. Mexico has decriminalised possession of small amounts of any drug, to allow the authorities to focus more on large scale trafficking. Several countries in Latin America are headed in a similar direction.

A small news item this month may eventually lead to big changes in Britain – a country where the actual treatment of drug use and personal possession is already very liberal. A young City of London hedge fund manager is putting up close to half a million pounds of his own money to fund an Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. This will be chaired by Professor David Nutt, who was sacked as chair of the official British government’s Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs last October for pointing out publicly that alcohol and tobacco are more dangerous than some illegal drugs.

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Why is this move so significant? Because to date the public sector has enjoyed a near monopoly on the employment of the professionals who have expertise on drugs. Nearly all of the senior medics, civil servants, policy advisers, social workers, academic researchers, customs officials, judges, lawyers, and police, prison and army officers who should be contributing to the policy debate are either employed directly by government or depend on it for funding. The Nutt affair seemed to confirm the long-established principle that they put their careers at risk by speaking openly against the absurdities of prohibition. Politicians, fearful of a media drubbing and punishment at the polls, were always poised to come down on them like a ton of bricks.

Professor Nutt received his ton of bricks, but seems to be emerging all the better for the experience. He will now be able to present his views, as a professional scientist, without fear of retribution. The prohibition on open debate has not yet disappeared, but it is likely steadily to crumble. It is hard to envisage any future government being in a position to prevent high profile professionals from joining in the debate on drugs policy.

We should welcome that, for two reasons. The first is simply the absurdities and costs of prohibition, and the need to find less damaging ways of dealing with the inevitability of drug consumption and trading. The second is that we are likely to get a much more sensible debate if the professionals play a major role. The combination of prohibition and intimidation by government means that, to date, the public case for reform has been made principally by libertarians. They frame it in terms of ‘legalisation’. The language is wrong. The implication that governments might actively give legal blessing to chemicals that clearly do often damage human health and welfare can only solidify support for prohibition.

The options for reform need to be framed in more pragmatic terms, with much more focus of the responses of the police, doctors, prison officers, judges, customs officers and social workers to the cases they confront. Even among European countries, the actual treatment of drug users differs more widely than the formal provisions of national law. In you are found in possession of small quantities of drugs in the Netherlands, you face a significant chance of imprisonment, and the near-certainty of punishment of some kind, including a fine or community service. In Britain or Portugal, you have an 80% chance of avoiding punishment entirely, and receiving a warning, a treatment order or a suspended prosecution. The important policy question is not whether certain drugs should be ‘legal’, but what kind of drug trade and use is tolerable, and how could it be adequately regulated?

After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation (Transform, Bristol, 2009) explains in impressive detail how Britain could manage more open tolerance of drug use. We have plenty of working models available from our much tried and tested systems for regulation of the supply and use of alcohol and tobacco and treatment of alcohol and tobacco addicts. We could formally decriminalise and tolerate drug use while also doing our best to limit it and treat addictions as the social and medical problems that they are. A number of other European countries are similarly well placed. Once the retailing of drugs is in public hands, the business might easily generate enough profit to cover the costs of regulation and treatment.

So far, so good. We can imagine a regime of drug tolerance in Britain, and perhaps indeed the whole of the European Union, that would cost governments nothing. Indeed, once we take into account the policing, court, prison and social work resources that might be freed up, the taxpayer might well end up better off. And we should certainly be able to reduce the frequency of drug-driven crime. But there is a large blank space in this cheerful scenario. Except for a little cannabis and a few more complex manufactured chemicals, most drugs consumed in Europe are based on cannabis, cocaine or opium imported from poorer part of the world, especially the Andean region, Afghanistan, and North Africa.

It is inconceivable that our hypothetical National (or European) Drugs Procurement Board would purchase from illicit international supply chains. A sensible policy can only be practiced within Britain if it is possible to purchase openly and legally from the countries of origin. But Britain, like the rest of Europe and virtually every country in the world, is signed up to a number of UN-brokered international treaties that prohibit all international trade in drugs, except for tiny quantities grown under licence for medical uses.

The prohibition on international trade leads to further absurdities. Opium production for pharmaceutical purposes has long been licensed in Australia, India and Turkey. Yet the National Health Service is so short of morphine that in 2008 the British government began quietly licensing the production of the opium poppy by British farmers. Many commentators have asked how this can be squared with expensive, politically damaging British military efforts to destroy standing poppy crops in Afghanistan.

Rural drug user

Nabin Baral/Demotix. All rights reserved

The poorer half of the world has little access to affordable pain-relieving medication, in part because prohibition makes it difficult for the pharmaceutical industry to conduct research on opiates. The adulteration that inevitably accompanies the illegality of the long international drug supply chains poses major health risks for users. The increasing potency and hazardousness of cannabis, cocaine, opium and their derivatives stem directly from illegality.

For cocaine and opium, the economic pressures have been towards more elaborate, capital-intensive processing to produce goods with a high value-to-bulk ratio that can be smuggled more cheaply across international borders. As cannabis production simultaneously has moved indoors to escape aerial detection, and shifted more to the rich consuming countries, large investments have been made in heating, lighting and hydroponics. From an agronomic perspective, the rate of increase in plant productivity has been astounding.  From a public health perspective, the result is a much more potent and potentially dangerous product, with unusually high levels of THC.

The technical progress that prohibition has stimulated cannot be reversed. However, a regime of regulated tolerance should shift the economic incentives toward the supply of less potent, less dangerous products.

Both domestically and internationally, a regime of regulated tolerance makes sense. However, the political obstacles are as strong internationally as domestically. The United Nations agency that leads on drugs issues, the Vienna-based United Nations Office for Drugs Control and Crime (UNODC), is militantly prohibitionist. It exhibits a belligerence that is rare within an organisational system better known for circumlocution, discretion and caution. In the eyes of UNODC, and occasionally on its website, proponents of reform are demonised as the ‘pro-drug lobby’. Why are the UNODC, and its sister organisation, the International Narcotics Control Board, so uncompromising? There are several potential explanations.

Jobs in the UN system are very well remunerated; employees cling to them. Organisations that have developed around one narrowly defined mission tend to resist a serious challenge to that mission. The US and prohibitionist Sweden are major funders of the UN system. Do drugs traders pay sufficient protection money to political elites in enough poorer, smaller countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and Oceania to motivate a voting bloc in the UN keen to maintain profitable prohibition policies?

There does seem to be a perverse problem arising from pride in the historical record of UN and international cooperation in drugs control. It is exactly 100 years since the first international initiative, the establishment in 1909 of the International Opium Commission in Shanghai. This quickly achieved its objective of quashing a long-standing trade of importing large quantities of opium into China from South and Southeast Asia. During the Cold War years, when the UN struggled hard to transcend East-West rivalry and to find an effective independent role, it successfully brokered a series of international arrangements aimed at eradicating drug trade and use. These arrangements were agreed with a high degree of unanimity, widely incorporated into national legislation, and implemented to the extent that governments could enforce them. In historical terms, drug control is one of the UN’s flagships. It may be difficult for an organisation that is now struggling even harder for respect and authority to admit that one of its flagships is leaking badly.

The prohibitionism of the UN system is especially perverse. The people in Africa, Asia and Latin America tend to think of the UN as ‘their’ organisation, as opposed to bodies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organisation, that they associate with the wealthy parts of the globe. Yet the costs of the illegality of the drug trade fall dominantly on those poor people from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Let us not delude ourselves that the poor farmers who produce the drugs at least get a good income. They don’t. At the farm gate, prices of raw material just after harvest are very low. The price only starts to inflate as drugs cross a national border; international smuggling is a risky, expensive business. Poor farmers receive very little for their labour. They typically live in remote, conflict-ridden areas from which the processors and traffickers exclude normal development activities like schools, road-building, banks and agricultural advisers.

Addict injects drugs

Nabin Baral/Demotix. All rights reserved

The traffickers can be more confident of a reliable, cheap supply of coca leaf and poppy if government employees, honest politicians and armies can be kept at bay, if farmers have little access to alternative sources of credit, and if they have to pay high prices to transport fertiliser or to ship bulkier non-narcotic crops to market. The processors and traffickers prefer that there be little economic infrastructure in producing areas. They want and create weak states and misrule. They finance separatist and insurgent armies to keep the government at bay, and simultaneously buy off politicians, police, armed forces and customs officers. The illegality of drugs makes it rational for traffickers to lock producing areas – and sometimes whole countries – into multi-dimensional underdevelopment. The same corrosive consequences for governance, public authority and democracy are replicated as traffickers tranship heroin and cocaine through the Caribbean, Central America, Central Asia and, increasingly, West Africa.

Increased tolerance and decriminalisation of drugs use within the main consumer markets of Europe and North America would do nothing to alleviate these upstream effects of illegality in the producing and transhipment countries. We need a simultaneous shift toward a more tolerant, effectively regulated regime on both the supply and the demand side of the business.

It is no longer utopian to talk of substantial policy change within a few years. Where and how will it come about? There are clear, strong links between prohibition and the growing likelihood of defeat for the Western military forces in Afghanistan. But a certain kind of puritan populism is so well entrenched in American electoral politics that it would be very hard for the Obama administration overtly to promote significant policy change, domestically or internationally.

The prospect of reducing public expenditure on the ‘war on drugs’ and generating public revenue from a system of regulated tolerance may have some traction in all those OECD countries facing large fiscal deficits, government spending cuts and higher taxes. Latin America is likely to become a major source of reformist pressure. The ‘war on drugs’ launched along the US-Mexico border by President Calderon of Mexico has generated many deaths, revealed even more clearly the extent of penetration of the state apparatus by the narco-gangs, but approached nothing resembling victory. In March 2009 the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, chaired by three distinguished former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, published a report telling the US that ‘your war on drugs is killing our democracy.’

In the non-democratic parts of the world, concerns about national security might become significant. One of the main forces behind the establishment of the International Opium Commission in 1908 was long-standing Chinese nationalist concern that the use of opium, reportedly by up to a quarter of the adult male population, was weakening China militarily and morally when it was facing repeated challenges from European imperial powers. Two powerful undemocratic countries, Iran and the Russian Federation, currently face epidemics of heroin use. Because of official intolerance there are very few facilities to support or treat addicts, and no needle exchange programmes. The incidence of HIV/AIDS infections resulting from needle-sharing is fast increasing in both countries, with over a million HIV positive drug injectors in the Russian Federation alone.

It will be easier for everyone if the first moves were to be made in Western Europe, by countries like Britain that already have learned how to cope with problems caused by alcohol, tobacco and the other drugs that are not going to go away. We have relatively extensive and sophisticated networks of organisations and procedures that make sterile needles consistently and easily available to injectors, support addicts, encourage them to seek health treatment and other advice, provide them with less damaging drugs substitutes, and make it possible for them to find a livelihood without resorting to crime. We could be practically very helpful to many poorer countries by assisting them in developing equivalent systems of their own. If we could combine that with helping to lift the curse of the illegal international drug trade, then we should really have made our contribution the well-being of the world’s poor, and done ourselves a large favour in the process.

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