Broad Left Blogging


Taking a broader perspective…

Our futile war on drugs….

Cory Hazlehurst blogs at Paperback Rioter.

I used to think that making certain drugs illegal was a good idea. This film is about why I’ve changed my mind. Because it doesn’t work.

That’s how every one of the three parts of Angus MacQueen’s Our Drugs War opened. I recommended it a few weeks ago, and it has now come to an end. In a sense, MacQueen was preaching to the converted as I watched this film. I’ve already said that I don’t like banning things, and Our Drugs War compiled a great deal of evidence that suggests our drug policy isn’t working.

The first episode, which is the strongest, looked at this policy in more detail. Britain spends £1.5bn every year fighting drugs, and in America the figure is a staggering $40bn a year. Given that an academic interviewed by MacQueen (and a police officer also interviewed said this guy knows what he’s talking about) estimated that 99% of smuggled heroin into Scotland successfully goes through this money could be far, far better. I can definitely think of one example. As a senior police officer admits, we could never have enough police officers to stop all drugs coming into the country.

Criminalising drugs does not stop people taking drugs. Instead, it stigmatises drug takers as criminals, making it harder for them to go and seek help or treatment for addiction. As MacQueen argues, legalising drugs would make fighting drugs a health and social issue, rather than one of crime.

As the now-notorious Professor David Nutt has argued, and does argue in Our Drugs War, if the regulation of drugs was “merely” all about health, we would have a different misuse of drugs act. It is only for moral reasons that we ban certain drugs, such as cannabis, but cigarettes and alcohol remain legal.

Anyone who has read their Mill should appreciate that the state cannot legislate on moral matters. It’s the same for prostitution and abortion, for instance, which one cannot ban no matter what you think about the morality of either activity.

These laws also do not apply equally to everyone. This is highlighted nicely by the second slightly disjointed, but very powerful at times, programme in the series. MacQueen argues that America’s drug laws are racist. All sections of society use and supply drugs. Bankers on Wall Street take cocaine, and white dealers supply drugs in posh neighbourhoods. The reality is that 90% of those in prison for drugs-related offences are black and Latino.

The second episode was so disjointed because part of it was a travelogue. MacQueen followed Thomas Winston who had recently been released from prison for drugs-related offences. He was stabbed to death in December last year. Winston received no rehabilitation in prison  – no help to prepare him for life outside the prison walls. And when he was released from prison, he had a choice. Should he go straight and take a minimum wage job which, after 24% of his income is taken for child support, would leave him with $110 a week? Or does he want to go back to selling drugs, and earn %15,000 a week? Do the math(s). It would take a lot of willpower to remain law-abiding in those circumstances.

Another side-effect of criminalising drugs is that the major groups that produce and sell drugs are, well, criminals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the poorer countries which produce drugs before importing it to Britain. MacQueen’s travelled to Afghanistan for his third programme, where he argues that UK involvement in the war on terror have helped fuel the growth of a narco-state. Bear in mind that half of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from the drugs trade and corruption, and that the country also provides Britain with 90% of the heroin that ends up on its streets.

Essentially MacQueen’s logic runs something like this:

a) The US and UK are expending lots of cash and soldiers on supporting lots of cash and soldiers on supporting the Afghan government.

b) Many government officials are corrected to the drugs trade. Officials which tried to prosecute drugs offenders often found they would receive death threats. MacQueen interviewed someone who was sacked by Karzai for asking too many questions about the drugs trade. There seemed to be “a sophisticated network able to drive straight through police checkpoints because the drugs trade had agents inside the police and the government”.

c) Consequently, propping up the Afghan government is also propping up the agents connected to the drugs trade. So “The War on Drugs is undermining the War on Terror”.

America’s main action on poppies in Afghanistan was to destroy the poppy yields, as they were thought to be the Taliban’s main source of income. 60% of the Taliban’s income is estimated to come from the drugs trade. This action did no damage to the Taliban whatsoever, but did alienate many farmers who depended on poppy yields for income. After spending hundreds of millions of pounds, the scheme has now been scrapped. Many are now of the view that some sort of controlled legalisation is definitely worth trying.

Current drugs policy is not working. The prohibition of drugs in most Western countries has not caused drug consumption to fall. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 200m people – 5% of the world’s adult population – take illegal drugs, which is the same proportion as a decade ago (Economist March 7th, 2009). Furthermore, the production of cocaine and opium is the same as ten years ago, and cannabis production has actually increased.

Some form of drugs legalisation is the least worst option. MacQueen argues that money spent trying to stop drug use, and in penalising criminals (in America, 40% of prisoners are inside for drug-related offences) would be better spent on a public education programme about the dangers of drugs, not to incarcerate drugs users. MacQueen devotes little time to dealing with how he could legalise drugs, which is the main flaw I have with the problem. But then, he is a film-maker not a politician, so we can forgive him for not having a decent plan.

Instead, I’m going to quote the Economist I referenced earlier, which has one suggestion of how legalisation can be managed:

Governments would tax and regulate the drug trade, and use the funds raised (and the billions saved on law-enforcement) to educate the public about the risks of drug-taking  and to treat addiction. The sale of drugs to minors should remain banned. Different drugs would command different levels of taxation and regulation. This system would be fiddly and imperfect, requiring constant monitoring and hard-to-measure trade-offs. Post-tax prices should be set at a level that would strike a balance between damping down use on the one hand, and discouraging a black market and the desperate acts of theft and prostitution to which addicts now resort to feed their habits.


Filed under: Law and Order, , , , ,

Climate Camp – Why RBS?

This post was cross-posted from Bright Green Scotland with the kind permission of Adam Ramsay who co-edits Bright Green Scotland.

The camp for climate action came to Scotland this week.

To those wondering why so many people are angry with this bank, the answer is pretty simple: when it comes to climate change, RBS make it happen – and they do it with taxpayers’ bail-out money. RBS is Europe’s biggest financer of the fossil fuel extraction driving climate change. According to a report last year by banking expert Nick Silver, the bank is financing projects and companies which deliver 3% of carbon emissions worldwide: more than the whole UK economy.

And RBS also seems to specialise in facilitating and financing the most destructive projects. Since they were bailed out, they have used €2.3bn of our money to prop-up companies operating in Canada’s tar sands. This mega-project in Alberta – the largest in human history – is up-rooting an area of crucial carbon-sink forest the size of England and Wales. It’s poisoning the land and water and so killing the indigenous people who live there. It’s doing this to extract vast quantities of oil mixed with sand and mud – a substance so dirty, and so plentiful, that NASA scientists tell us that, unless we stop extracting these tar sands, we can’t stop runaway climate change.

RBS is also behind disastrous oil projects inflaming war in central Africa. When they lent around $100 million of our money to Tullow Oil earlier this year, they were financing a project drilling for oil right on the border between the DRC and Uganda. The resource war between these countries has killed roughly 5 million in the last 15 years. That’s nearly 1 in every thousand people on earth. When Tullow moved in with their partners Heritage Oil, they decided to arm both sides in the conflict as they mobilized around the area where oil was discovered. Which helped.

Most recently, they were the funders behind Cairn Energy’s deep drilling project in pristine Arctic waters. Cairn’s Chief Exec recently welcomed climate change. He said that the melting ice will give access to more oil. Nice.

And since they were bailed-out, they’ve been doing all of this with our money. At a time when the Government claims it can no longer afford to finance the much needed switch to a low carbon economy, it is allowing RBS to throw billions of our money down the fossil fuel drain – which can only lead to long term losses, if the world is weaned off fossil fuels, or to catastophic climate if it isn’t.

RBS is a failed bank. Their insanity with sub-prime mortages kick-started the credit crunch. They are 84% owned by the taxpayer because we had to bail them out with billions. We must stop mis-using this money, or my generation will pay a much bigger price.

Filed under: Activism, Economy, , , , , ,




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