Decriminalisation would be disaster for poor countries. We need a balanced approach covering health, development and security
Observer, Sunday 20 September 2009
There is a growing chorus, not least in the pages of the Observer, calling for an end to drug control. The arguments are by now well known: too many people are going to jail and not to treatment. Eradicating the supply of illicit drugs is meaningless without reducing demand. Drug control has spawned a massive criminal black market. Some even say that the costs of prohibition far outweigh the benefits (although there is no body count of people who haven't died thanks to drug control versus those who have been killed in the crossfire).
Policies are changing. Three former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico recently called for a major rethink. The new US anti-drugs chief, Gil Kerlikowske, has called the expression "war on drugs" unhelpful. A number of countries, such as Portugal and Mexico, have decriminalised the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal consumption.
The United Nations and development banks are promoting programmes to eradicate poverty, not just poppies or coca. The UN and the World Health Organisation are increasing access to drug treatment and prevention. Inspired by my office, many countries have introduced alternatives to imprisonment for people caught in possession of drugs. Regional organisations - from West Africa to the Caribbean - are taking action to keep drug traffickers out of their neighbourhoods.
But no member state, even among those calling for changes in policy, is suggesting it wants to legalise drugs. This is not for lack of courage. It is due to concerns about health. Drugs are controlled (not prohibited) because they are dangerous.
Last week, in an emotional article in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins said drugs were the greatest social menacein the 21st century. That's debatable. But abolish controls and he would be right.
At the moment, fewer than 5% of all adults in the world take drugs at least once a year, compared with around one-quarter who smoke tobacco and about a half who drink alcohol. Drugs kill about 200,000 people a year, tobacco 5 million and alcohol 1.8 million. Why open the floodgates to addiction by increasing access to drugs? Would the world really be a better place with a lot more people under the influence of drugs?
John Gray seems to think so. In last week's Observer he argued that the case for legalising all drugs is unanswerable. Yet who would answer for the havoc wrought on the vulnerable? Maybe western governments could absorb the health costs of increased drug use, if that's how taxpayers want their money to be spent.
But what about the developing world? Why unleash an epidemic of addiction in parts of the world that already face misery, and do not have the health and social systems to cope with a drug tsunami?
Critics point out that vulnerable countries are the hardest hit by the crime associated with drug trafficking. Fair enough. But these countries would also be the hardest hit by an epidemic of drug use, and all the health and social costs that come with it. This is immoral and irresponsible.
Certainly improvements are needed. So far governments have mostly pursued disjointed interventions that have displaced the problem from one country or one substance to another; put a lot of resources into law enforcement and little into health; eradicated crops rather than poverty; and have used drug control as a blunt instrument when a chisel is needed (for example, by criminalising addiction instead of treating it).
But it is a big - and dangerous - jump to say that drug control should be eliminated rather than nuanced. What is needed is a balanced, three-pronged approach covering health, development and security.
First, drugs should be regarded as a health issue.
Addiction is an illness, not a lifestyle, and should be treated as such. Reduce demand for drugs and you improve the wellbeing of society. Legalisation would merely increase demand. Let's not try to solve a threat to public security by creating an even greater danger to public health.
Second, reduce vulnerability to drugs in regions of the world where governance is weak.
Most opium is grown in parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban hold sway. Most coca comes from regions of Colombia that are controlled by insurgents, like the Farc. Drugs (and other illicit goods) are generally trafficked through parts of the world (like West Africa) where corruption and instability are rife, or where social antibodies are weak. By strengthening the rule of law and development in these regions, social and market forces will be unleashed that can increase prosperity and reduce vulnerability to crime.
Third, get serious about organised crime.
Ten years ago, at Palermo, member states agreed to a UN convention against transnational organised crime. But in the past decade terrorism and other priorities have taken the limelight and the bulk of resources. All the while, criminal groups have increased their wealth and power - certainly from drugs, but also from economic fraud, cybercrime, trafficking natural resources, people, weapons, oil and cigarettes. Will they be stopped by legalising drugs?
Let's be open-minded about how to improve drug control. But let's do it in a way that will improve the health and safety of our communities and not just make it easier for City bankers and high-street models to snort cocaine.