12 February 2009

Bryan Hemmings - The Myth Peddlars

There are no easy solutions to the world economic crisis. So the current mantra goes. Maybe, but there is one that could ease it dramatically. The main problem is, most world leaders are far too timid to consider it.

Not only will it fire up the world economy; it will fill government coffers with massive revenues from previously untapped sources. It will help tackle terrorism, and stop much of the illegal trafficking in weapons, women and children. It will reduce petty crime dramatically, create new businesses and increase employment. Unlike most present solutions, it doesn't come from waving the magic wand of colossal - and far from guaranteed - financial bail-outs.

As things stand the main beneficiaries of the drug laws are highly dangerous criminals. The global trade in illegal drugs is estimated to generate a hefty $400 billion of untaxed income annually. Though, if the black hole of toxic investments is anything to go by, I imagine that figure to be on the extremely conservative side.

A large proportion of the income is used to finance other forms of crime including, prostitution, money-laundering, corruption, pornography, and paedophilia. Drug barons raise private armies, buy ships, planes, and even submarines to help ply their trade.

But they have a problem. They have staggering amounts of cash left they hardly know what to do with. There are only so many houses, private jets, luxury yachts and Rolex watches a man can use. Slamming suitcases of used notes onto bank counters is no longer viable, as large cash deposits are reported to the authorities, so they invest in the global economy by the back door.

Money laundering creates more crime. Dirty money is 'cleaned' by unorthodox property deals involving corruption, shady investments in art and antiques, and slipping fat brown envelopes under tables. It is used to start up hotels, restaurants, clubs, and pizza chains. Service industries and other business handling large amounts of cash on a daily basis are particularly attractive. But injecting huge amounts of untraceable paper money into labyrinthine business deals distorts the real economy. Often those businesses couldn't exist without what amounts to hidden subsidies. They operate in direct competition with businesses that have no such advantage. Bona fide businesses have to pay bills and staff out of what goes through the till, not what comes out of a mattress. Bad enough in normal times, in the midst of a financial crisis such clandestine deals can prove a deathblow to otherwise healthy enterprises.

Drug dealers aren't primarily interested in profiting from their investments immediately; they can wait. Their main purpose is to disguise the primary source of their tainted income. A climate facilitating violent criminals to make such investments is madness itself. They have the greatest vested interest in drug laws remaining as they are. They don't obey the law; they're drug barons. The only way to stop them is economically, to smash the supply lines by creating a regulated market.

The global war against drugs has been long and costly. So far, all the successes have been on the other side. If it is to be judged on results, it has been as miserable a failure as the global war on terrorism. Like terrorism, the drug menace is spreading throughout the world at an alarming rate and is a direct result of the draconian measures taken to stop it. Ignoring the scale of the defeat has left Mexico on the verge of being officially designated a failed state. The violence is spilling across the border into the US. Some US Government agencies are calling it the biggest threat to democracy the country faces.

Drug wars are claiming far more victims than drugs themselves. Last year over five thousand Mexicans lost their lives in what can only be described as warlords battling for turf. Torture, decapitation and murder are commonplace.

But Mexico isn't the only country where unsustainable numbers of police officers, judges, and government officials at local and national level are now in the pay of drug lords. Nigeria, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Pakistan all have regions where governments have lost control. In effect, these regions have become mini narco-states. The numbers are growing. Without all the fuss and bother of elections, drug dealers have taken over. Last year, things got bad enough in one large European metropolis for the army to be called out onto the streets. Naples is probably the worse, rather than an isolated, example of what lies in store for the rest of us.

On a local level, burglaries, assaults, street robberies, shoplifting, prostitution and protection rackets, are largely conducted by those controlling the drug trade, or drug addicts looking for cash to fuel their habits. They keep the fences of stolen goods in business. Gang warfare and most gun crime in the UK has a drug background.

In public, and in private, many police chiefs admit the war against drugs is unwinnable. The drug laws are unenforceable. Police time is being wasted and courts are being swamped unnecessarily. Valuable resources being wasted in tackling so-called 'global terrorism' while drug barons strut the boulevards of Marbella and Miami unmolested. Millions of pounds and countless man-hours are being squandered gathering intelligence on petty drug dealers instead of being invested in supervising distribution, along with rehabilitation schemes where required.

Drug users are no longer on the fringes of society; they form part of its very fabric. A drug user is just as likely to be a teacher, stockbroker or MP, as a homeless squatter living on social security. A sizeable proportion of the population, particularly the young, is being criminalised and alienated by the present lack of joined-up thinking. Essentially honest citizens are being saddled with unjustifiable criminal records and serving prison sentences. Not only does this damage their opportunities later in life; it can lead them into pursuing lives of crime for lack of other options.

Governments' fears and predictions of what might occur to society, were drugs legalised, are unfounded, and amount to pathological paranoia. Yet they bear an uncanny and ironic resemblance to what is actually happening while drugs remain illegal. Eradication of drugs having failed so dismally, it is time to look at alternatives.

We must stop treating drugs and their clients as the problem, and turn our attention to the organised criminal activity that is a direct result of the proscription of them. There are ways of solving problems other than all-out war.

Like any commodity that has a market, drugs should be regarded as an economic issue, not a moral one. The current arguments against drugs cannot be based on the unsustainable premise that all are bad for you while one drug is sold freely in supermarkets, corner shops and restaurants. The idea that alcohol is somehow better than other drugs is blatantly hypocritical and doesn't stand up. Where's the proof? Different drugs pose different risks and dangers, but those risks and dangers aren't necessarily greater than those of alcohol.

If we compare the social damage caused by drugs to the social damage caused by alcohol, from a disinterested perspective, a different picture emerges. To assess the problem properly we need to take away the hysterics and look at the pros and cons as we do with other sectors of the economy. The wider potential gains to society have to be weighed properly against the potential harm drugs cause.

Of course there are adverse effects to taking drugs, as there are with alcohol. There are adverse effects to driving. The numbers of deaths directly caused by the ingestion of drugs pales into insignificance against the numbers of deaths on the roads. Not only that, whereas death on the roads involves a high percentage of people who aren't driving, nearly all drug-related deaths occur at the hands of the person knowingly taking those drugs. Those that aren't, fit into the category of murder, or unlawful killing, the same way as driving a car at someone with the deliberate intent of causing death does. Most drivers don't set out to cause injury or death; neither do most drug users.

The reason we accept the death rate caused by traffic is because society considers the benefits of driving outweigh the risks. Many of those benefits are economic. They come in the form of tax revenues, manufacturing, distribution and service jobs. Others include the ability to commute freely and recreational activities. But few governments bother to put the immense cost of global warming into the equation, nor the strain on emergency services, the energy crisis, pollution and the negative effects on health. If we apply the same criteria to cars as we apply to drugs ie: the threats they pose to the health and security of the nation, cars would be banned tomorrow.

As far as violence against the person is concerned, alcohol presents a far greater danger to society than cannabis. Incidents of violence, crime, preventable physical and mental diseases, and days lost at work are increased dramatically through misuse of alcohol.

Excessive drinking over long periods of time has led to domestic violence, child abuse and the break-up of families. By ignoring the social and economic benefits of drug deregulation while tolerating the problems caused by alcohol, not only are our politicians effectively putting drug policy in the hands of the drug barons, but they are also putting the health, safety and lives of citizens at risk. Present legislation gives the impression drinking alcohol is safer than taking drugs. When all factors are taken into consideration that isn't a clear-cut case.

Recent reports have suggested - to the relief of many reformed hippies of the 1960's and 70's, and probably compiled by them - today's varieties of cannabis are far stronger than in the days of flower power. Well, whisky's a lot stronger than beer, so sensible drinkers don't drink it by the pint.

Without regulation and proper control, consumers are often unaware of the strength of the drugs they consume, which accounts for a large proportion of deaths from overdose of heroin. The same applies to ecstasy; yet, despite press hysteria, recorded deaths attributed to overdosing on ecstasy are nowhere near deaths attributed to alcohol. Legislation would ensure that the products were not only free from dangerous additives, but that the strength was indicated in the same way as alcohol. Like tobacco, health warnings would be prominently displayed.

In such reports a lot of emphasis has been placed on the fact that cannabis use can trigger schizophrenia and cause psychotic behaviour. But schizophrenia can be triggered by a variety of drugs - including prescribed drugs - and other conditions, such as stress. The answer is for schizophrenics to be advised of the dangers. The notion most schizophrenics can never make rational choices is as patronising as it is false. It presupposes all alcoholics are making a rational choice in drinking too much. Alcohol is well-known for producing psychotic behaviour when drunk irresponsibly, yet nobody suggests alcoholics should not be given that choice, or is seeking to ban it for that reason. If it's a question of the worst evil, then the worst evil is prohibition.

Prohibition laws against the production and vending of alcohol were introduced to the US in 1919. They were revoked in 1933, four years after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. They didn't prevent drinking, but they did make it easy for the Mafia to become the most powerful criminal organisation the world had ever seen. When prohibition ended, the Mafia didn't disband, they moved into the lucrative drugs, extortion, and protection rackets. Other international criminal organisations such as the Chinese Triads, the Russian Mafiya, the Yardies, the Comorra, the Medellin and Cali Cartels have taken up the baton. As things stand, some of them pose a serious threat to democracy.

Drug consumption is rising and will rise even further as the financial crisis really bites. People drink more and take more drugs in times of stress. As people feel the pinch more will turn to drug dealing as a means of income. It's not a theory, it's happened and it's happening.

The high moral ground assumed by a majority of governments is akin to having a Temperance Society formulate drink laws. In leaving the distribution of drugs in the hands of drug barons we have turned the running of the asylum over to the inmates. The term 'controlled substances' is risible. They are completely out of real control and that is the problem.

It is impossible to conduct a rational debate on the morals of consuming drugs in a situation created by the legislation against them. The only relevant argument in the present climate has to begin with the advantages and harms of drugs remaining criminalised against the advantages and harms of decriminalisation. At the moment all benefits appear to be in favour of the billionaire global traffickers. Even users suffer by the trade being in their hands. They are often cheated, robbed, and on occasion, poisoned or murdered by dealers.

Critics against legalisation point the finger at Holland to show it hasn't worked. Little wonder, one country in Europe surrounded by other countries with populations seeking to get high without the threat of arrest, attracts drug tourism. If Germany, Belgium, Britain and France had legalised spliff, at the same time, there wouldn't have been a problem. It's not the Dutch; it's the rest of us. Inevitably along with drug tourists came drug criminals to prey on a centralised market. Nevertheless, loosening up legislation hasn't resulted in lawless bands controlling large areas of Holland.

A fresh look at the way we deal with the drug problem is imperative. There are no panaceas; legislation to decriminalise and control more addictive drugs such as heroin and cocaine will be difficult, but not impossible.

Change requires international co-operation at government level. It screams for imagination, and courageous statesmen. The governments of producer nations should be consulted and asked to draw up plans to oversee farming and guarantee quality control. Growers, manufacturers and retailers must be vetted and be able to show they have never been involved in the illicit supply of drugs. Duties and taxes must be set at a price that doesn't encourage users to overuse, but neither must it be so expensive as to stimulate a black market. It's up to trade partnerships, such as the EU, to begin serious debate. The first to take up the challenge will have an advantage in a global market.

It's all very nice for governments to 'protect' drug users from themselves, but what about protecting non-users from the much greater threat illicit drug dealing creates in their neighbourhoods? The issue is no longer how bad drugs are for users but how bad does the situation have to get before the health and security of non-users is taken into consideration.

If we really want a society without excessive alcohol or drug consumption it must come through choice and not imposition. A society that feels the need for too much alcohol, illegal - or even legally prescribed - drugs, is by definition a sick society. We are administering temporary cures to ourselves on an increasingly regular basis. The real cure is to look at the way we lead our lives and the satisfaction we obtain from them. With or without it, for better or worse, drugs and alcohol - legal or illegal - will always play a part in our lives to a greater or lesser extent. The biggest danger comes from peddling the myth, not the drugs.

© 2009 Bryan Hemming
Reprinted with permission from author


David Sketchley said...

Great article Bryan. Thanks for letting me publish it. Only one small quibble though. You say "Growers, manufacturers and retailers must be vetted and be able to show they have never been involved in the illicit supply of drugs." Why growers? There are many, many growers who are smallholders such as in Bolivia. Why should they be penalised for trying to survive?

David Sketchley said...

Some important people think the same way:

Cardoso, Gaviria, Zedillo Urge Obama to Decriminalize Marijuana

By Joshua Goodman

Feb. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Former presidents of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia said the U.S.-led war on drugs has failed and urged President Barack Obama to consider new policies, including decriminalizing marijuana, and to treat drug use as a public health problem.

The recommendations by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, along with Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, were made in a report today by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy.

Among the group’s proposals ahead of a special United Nations ministerial meeting in Vienna to evaluate global drug policy is a call to decriminalize the possession of cannabis for personal use.

“We need to break the taboo that’s blocking an honest debate,” Cardoso said at a press conference in Rio de Janeiro to present the report. “Numerous scientific studies show that the damage caused by marijuana is similar to that of alcohol or tobacco.”

Gaviria, who as president of Colombia from 1990-1994 worked with U.S. anti-narcotics agents to hunt down and kill cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, said he hoped Obama invests in harm reduction and prevention efforts that would relieve Latin America of the burden of fighting drug traffickers.

Recognize the Failure

“It makes no sense to continue a policy on moral grounds without getting the desired results,” said Gaviria, citing an October report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office showing drug reduction goals in Colombia have not been met. “Obama, being a pragmatist, should recognize these failures.”

The group was created last year to focus the global drug debate on harm reduction and prevention efforts and away from policies based on the eradication of production and the criminalization of consumption.

Latin America is the world’s largest exporter of cocaine and cannabis and a major supplier of opium and heroin. It’s also been the main focus of U.S.-led drug eradication and interdiction efforts ever since U.S. President Richard Nixon declared “war on drugs” in 1971.

The GAO report, made at the request of then Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, now vice president, Joseph Biden found that production of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine, increased by 15 percent in Colombia since 2000. The U.S. has provided Colombia with $4.9 billion in anti-narcotics aid since 1999 with the goal of reducing coca production by half.

Gaviria said Mexican President Felipe Calderon should demand Obama do more to reduce drug consumption. The U.S. pledged $400 million and increased cooperation with Mexico last year as part of an anti-drug plan known as the Merida Initiative.

More than 5,300 people were killed in drug-related violence in Mexico last year, and Mexican lawmakers have said the U.S. holds some responsibility for the bloodshed because demand for narcotics has made the cartels powerful.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joshua Goodman in Rio de Janeiro at jgoodman19@bloomberg.net
Last Updated: February 11, 2009 16:15 EST