Whose morality? Johann Hari on the future of the ‘war on drugs’

“If your morality doesn’t look at the actual practical effects of what you’re doing, it’s not a moral debate, it’s just posturing.”

Johann Hari Benjamin Ramm
19 August 2016

Benjamin Ramm: One of the most interesting developments over the last couple of years has been in the United States, the arch-home of prohibition, where we’ve seen legalisation in states such as Colorado. What do you make of that development?

Johann Hari: Well there’s so many important things about it. One is that the US is, as we were saying, the country that imposed this war on the rest of the world. So for it to be collapsing from within, due to democratic votes from ordinary Americans, could not be more powerful and encouraging to reform movements across the world. It’s the reason why Latin America is speaking up. If the US had remained frozen in prohibition and threats…the US is still threatening people, but it’s much harder for them to do it when they are themselves breaching all the kinds of rules of the drug war.

I think the most important thing about what’s happened in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, is – it’s the same thing that happened everywhere I went, where there has been reform on this. It’s hugely controversial at first, people are really nervous, and then when people see the alternative in practice, support massively goes up. So, you know, you had 55% of people in Colorado voting for legalisation. Now they’ve seen it in practice for two years, 70% of people support it: they’ve raised a huge amount of money in taxes, there’s been a significant decline in cartel smuggling, teenage rates of drug use have remained the same, but it’s still lower than the American average. And even John Hickenlooper, who was the governor who opposed the legalisation, has started saying ‘it seems to work well, this is a good idea.’

I think the most important thing is the living example of reform.

So I think the most important thing is the living example of reform, and of course in November, we’re going to have more states voting on whether to legalise – California is obviously the big prize. It looks pretty certain that California is going to vote to legalise, people are expecting a high turn-out because of the insanity that’s occurring. So you’re going to have, you know, by November (obviously it’ll take a little while for the legalisation to actually happen), but you’re going to have very significant parts of the United States with legal cannabis. Not just decriminalised, but legalised, and that’s a really big shift. And you know, by the way, a big majority of Americans are supporting full legalisation nationally.

Benjamin Ramm: You speak about popularity, and I mean the big story over the last week has been in the Philippines, where almost 400 people have been killed and over a thousand arrested and injured. We know that the president who was elected in a landslide has over 90% approval ratings, he served for 30 years as a mayor, implementing very harsh prohibitionist policies. In terms of popular appeal, that type of populist prohibitionism still has an appeal in south-east Asia, in China. How do you challenge that, from civil society?

Johann Hari: This is a big question, and what president Duterte is doing in the Philippines is horrifying. Just so people know, he ran as a kind of Trump-style, mad populist. I mean, actually, it degrades the term ‘populism’ to call him populist, but you know, insane authoritarianism. And he pledged that he would just have summary executions of drug users and drug dealers. And that’s in fact what has begun. There’s been 700 people just shot in the streets – a bit like what happened in Thailand around 2000 when Thaksin Shinawatra did the same thing there. The Asian drug war is a really difficult and painful debate.

I went to Vietnam and it was really disturbing. Basically, about seven years ago now, Vietnamese drug users and drug addicts started to just disappear off the streets, and no one knew what was happening. At first, people thought it might be Thailand-style – just irrationally murdering them. And then about six months later, they started to reappear, and what they described is, they’d basically been put in these – there’s no other word to use here – gulags. The Open Society Foundation have done really good work on this in case people want to look it up. Just forced labour camps, where they were humiliated, shamed, made to do forced labour, in the belief that that would cure them of their addiction.

 They really thought they deserved to be put in these forced labour camps.

In fact, as the OSF research showed, 99% of them immediately relapsed, or relapsed very rapidly. And I went and interviewed some of the survivors at these camps and it was really a disconcerting experience because when you interview people, as I did in American prisons, they’re angry, they know – not always, but often – that an injustice has been done to them. They know that they’re in a kind of madness. In Vietnam, it took a while for me to really understand what the people were saying. They really thought they deserved it. They really thought they deserved to be put in these forced labour camps, that they were disgusting people, that they were evil. And that was very challenging. That’s my concern.

Benjamin Ramm: That’s very interesting, I mean there’s double standards in terms of diplomacy as you say, but there’s also a double standard in terms of implementation. I mean obviously, the United States you have written about. We’ve talked about how that doesn’t get enough coverage in terms of the UK, in terms of the disparity between white and black arrests for possession of drugs, but also in France. Now you’ve just written a very interesting piece for openDemocracy about the relation between jihadism and punitive drug laws. Can you tell us a little about that?

Johann Hari: There’s this weird thing about the French debate. So, France is like the US and Britain in that basically, middle-class white people think drugs have already been effectively been decriminalised. And black people are…you speak to French people of African or Arab descent and they are just constantly harassed. France has the most extreme drug laws in western Europe. You can go to prison for five years for having a single joint, it’s extraordinary. And people do get picked up the whole time, constant harassment.

So partly you have this effect where, and if you look at the biographies of the Kouachi brothers, the guy who did that horrific attack in Nice, almost all the French young men who have been carrying out these atrocious attacks, this is their formative experience of the police. It’s being constantly harassed in a racist way, an explicitly racist way. Police frequently use racist epithets towards these kids. So you have this incredibly racist drug war that makes their neighbourhoods feel like they’re under military occupation and these grotesque and disproportionate punishments. So you partly have that. That’s a factor, right? And I don’t want to overstate it, it is one of many, many factors. But it is a significant factor. So that’s one thing that’s going on.

The second is, how are these people getting guns, right? How do the people who carried out the Bataclan massacre and the others…France has an incredibly intense ‘war for drugs’. So France has a huge drug market, and not coincidently it has the biggest drug war, and also has the worst drug problems. Again, that’s only seen all over the world that these policies not only don’t work, they actually make the problems worse. So France has this very intense drug war and the highest drug use in western Europe. And when you ban drugs, they don’t disappear, obviously. They’re transferred from doctors and pharmacists to armed criminal gangs. And those armed criminal gangs fight for the market.

France has an incredibly intense ‘war for drugs’. I mean it’s come to light, and briefly got news coverage in France, when Manuel Valls – the prime minister – was in Marseille and a gunfight between rival drug gangs just broke out across the street. And at the moment they thought it was a terrorist attack, and then were like ‘no, no, just a typical afternoon in Marseille’, you know. So you have these huge networks of criminals, which these guys are all connected to through drug dealing, that then also supplies violence. Also means these young men grow up in a climate where violence is not only normalised, but actually necessary to operate in this market.

Violence is not only normalised, but actually necessary to operate in this market.

And so they grow up with a training in violence, a training in how to use violence, a training of violence being normalised, a training of being made to think that you are a stranger within the society, that you are under siege, that you are an enemy, an alien, people the police hate, people the police will crack down on really hard, when white people don’t get treated that way. So it just creates a toxic brew that feeds into this wider jihadism. It’s not the main cause, I don’t want to be simplistic about it, but I do think it’s a really significant factor.

I think the British debate is rather depressing; a couple of weeks ago I went on the Radio 4 Moral Maze debate and oh god…

Benjamin Ramm: You got a grilling, I think it’s fair to say?

Johann Hari: Oh no, it wasn’t that I mind being challenged, but it was just the whole way the thing was framed as in like, you know, the debate here is, ‘is drug use evil?’ You know, really, are we still talking in this backward, childish way?

Benjamin Ramm: Isn’t this one of the problems, in that, I think what you argue quite persuasively in the book and one you hear drug reformers saying, is that there is a strong, really powerful moral argument for reform, not least for the consequences of current policies in Latin American supply countries. Isn’t the problem here that reformers have not engaged in the language of ethics enough, and they’ve left the language of morality to prohibitionists like Melanie Phillips who you were up against on the Moral Maze?

Johann Hari: I think there’s something in that, that sometimes it can be a bit like the Brexit debate – where you had one side saying, ‘brown people are coming to rape and kill you’ and you have the other side going, ‘we don’t give 350 million pounds a week to the European Union, we give 200 million pounds a week to them.’ And you’ve just got to see the disjunction between those two rhetorical modes. It is catastrophic for our side, right? And in the same way, if you’ve got someone like Melanie Phillips going ‘you believe in evil’, and actually to try reply with a kind of technocratic thing saying ‘well actually, we would save X million pounds a year’…actually no. The system that Melanie Phillips supports – and to be fair there aren’t that many prohibitionists in Britain at all like her – is literally killing enormous numbers of people.

We had the highest number of deaths in Britain due to addiction-related causes in the last year, that we have ever had. More than 3000 people, more people than died in the World Trade Centre. Enormous numbers of those people would have lived if we’d done what Switzerland and Portugal have done. So I think the debate is complex because firstly – and to be fair, Melanie Phillips doesn’t represent the mainstream of the British drug debate at all, although except that she’s sincere and genuinely thinks people will be better off, and this is part of the frustrating thing about the ‘moral debate’.

You’ve just got to see the disjunction between those two rhetorical modes.

If your morality doesn’t look at the actual practical effects of what you’re doing, it’s not a moral debate, it’s just posturing. You know, if you can do a kind of ‘addicts are disgusting, drug use is evil’…I don’t think either of those things is true, but even if you believe them, if the practical effect of that is far more people die, and far more people get addicted to drugs as well, as we know from the overwhelming evidence…this is as uncontroversial as saying that fossil fuel emissions cause global warming (which also Melanie Phillips doesn’t believe, but anyway)…

Benjamin Ramm: So, if we acknowledge this is a global system of institutionalised cruelty that particularly disproportionately hits not just poorer people in developed societies, but largely those in developing countries always take the brunt of it, is it not time for a sort of global abolitionist movement that makes primarily a moral case that we are taking part and voting for time and again, an amoral global system?

Johann Hari: Absolutely, and I think that movement is forming, and one of the most moving experiences I’ve had talking about that was in Colombia. One of the things I said when I first spoke in Colombia was that ‘the world owes you all a massive apology for what we’ve done to you. You know, what we’ve done is unforgivable.’ And it was really interesting because I remember one young woman said, ‘no one has ever said that to us before, we’ve always been told that we were the evil ones.’ So I think what you’ve got is this movement forming – you know, you literally saw it with your own eyes at the UNGASS – I think we have got a movement forming, that is exactly saying that this is not a debate between on the one side, the moral argument, and on the other side the pragmatic, ‘oh well, we’ve got to accept evil.’

I’ll tell you what’s profoundly immoral. What’s profoundly immoral is to kill 200,000 people in the ‘war for drugs’ in the last seven years alone. What’s profoundly immoral is to take the most vulnerable people in our society and condemn them to die horribly when they could live and have better lives and have their lives turned around. And what’s immoral also is to take drug users, most of whom (the vast majority of whom) are not addicts, and punish them for something that’s purely giving them pleasure and not harming anyone else, when it’s in a legal context. So I think the trifecta of immorality is involved in that, which I’ve seen, as you know, in so many countries now – that’s a moral scandal, right?

Benjamin Ramm: So finally, people watching and listening to this, what would you say to them in terms of getting them engaged to petition, to advocate for drug reform?

Johann Hari: It’s strange, I’ve been to I think 15 or 16 countries, and the difference between the ones where they’d adopted reform – and they had much lower levels of addiction, much lower levels of fatal overdose, much lower levels of violence in the places that had legalised – the difference between them and the places where it was catastrophe was really simple. The places where it was better were places where small numbers of people organised, banded together, and didn’t give up. Why did Colorado legalise cannabis? I told this story in Chasing the Scream: small groups of friends, in Colorado, 12 years ago now, just thought ‘you know what, we can get this on the ballot, and we can persuade enough people here to do that.’ And people thought they were crazy, they were told they were kooks, there was only 10% in support of legalisation, they were regarded as loons, and they didn’t give up, and they kept doing it, and they gave us our Berlin wall moment.

And I tell the story of – perhaps the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met – Bud Osborn, he was a homeless drug addict in Vancouver who started a movement for drug reform in Vancouver that has transformed Canadian law and is about to lead to the fact that Canada will be the second country after Uruguay to fully legalise cannabis again. And the thing that was the most striking to me –in the time I’ve been promoting the book, a year and a half since it came out, very often TV people say to me, ‘so who can we get to be on the other side?’ It’s really hard for them to find anyone who will defend the ‘war on drugs’ in public. That’s how hollow it is. They have to go to like, the craziest Republican congressman or you know, a handful of right-wing commentators like Peter Hitchens, who actually I quite like.

So this is a hollow policy, it is there to be taken down, but every day we don’t do that, every day we don’t form a movement, more people die, more people are butchered in Ciudad Juárez, and in Calais, more people are stabbed in London in these fights between drug gangs, more people die of overdose, who should be living and should be alive with us, and should be having good lives. So the sooner we organise this, the sooner – and it’s actually, the encouraging thing about Britain is that there’s already a majority for legalising cannabis in Britain, right? It’s just that, because there’s no public pressure, because there’s no movement – we have the best groups doing drug policy analysis in the world in Britain, Transform are amazing. What we don’t yet have is public pressure and organised movements to make that happen on the model of the gay rights movement, or so many other movements.

So we can win this. There’s some things that you and I strongly believe in, but I’m not sure that, even if we did the most noble and best fight, we would win it. Global warming is one of them, that’s slightly problematic since we do need a planet, but you know, I hope we can win, but I’m not sure. With this, if we fight, we will win. And the sooner we do it, the more lives we’ll save.  

This video is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights.

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