The fight against drugs has been lost. Yet the US right continues to squander vital resources on a worldwide, irrational crusade to rein in the 'evil perpetrators'
THE 25-year-old war against drugs has been lost but there are still bitter-enders on both sides of the Atlantic who want to fight on. Like American generals in Vietnam, they believe they see a light at the end of the tunnel. Realists know that, rightly or wrongly, the campaign is over.

Imagine a courtroom scene in Oklahoma. The prosecutor is suggesting to the jury the sentence it should recommend for a man who has been found guilty of possession of cannabis. "Two hundred years, two thousand years ... Just pick a number and see how many zeros you can add on," he says. "Put this druggie away and God will bless you all."

They did, and Will Foster, a computer software consultant, married with two children, is now serving 93 years for growing marijuana plants for cigarettes to relieve his chronic rheumatoid arthritis.

There are other examples of the draconian nature of American drug laws: anyone convicted of drug dealing, or even an intention to do so, faces not only imprisonment and a heavy fine but confiscation of almost all their possessions, including their house - a display of wartime zeal, one commentator said, that was the legal equivalent of a My Lai massacre.

And yet such harsh policies have simply not worked, and it is not "wishy- washy liberals" who are leading the fight to recognise that the war is lost but the backbone of the American right. The magazine National Review, William F Buckley Jr's "keeper of the conservative tablets", says: "The war on drugs has failed, it is diverting intelligent energy away from the problem of how to deal with addiction; it is wasting our resources and it is encouraging civil, judicial and police procedures associated with police states ... it is time to go home and to mobilise fresh thought on the drug problem in the context of a free society."

At a conference last year at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, hardly a hotbed of drug-takers, Milton Friedman, the economist and Nobel Prize winner, and George Schultz, former Secretary of State, agreed that the war on drugs had not only failed miserably, but did not even have a moral dimension.

Friedman says: "Can any policy, however high-minded, be moral if it leads to widespread corruption, imprisons so many, has so racist an effect that it destroys our inner-cities, wreaks havoc on misguided and vulnerable individuals and brings death and destruction to foreign countries?"

Yet it is this bankrupt policy that the United States seems determined to export to the rest of the world. And it is prepared to wage war, overt and covert, to do so. The overt war is high- profile - raids, shoot-outs, boardings and seizures on the high seas, crop destruction, invasions by American troops.

Even here though, the might of American fire-power is meeting its match. A recent search-and-destroy operation on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan was co-ordinated by the new chief of the United Nations Drug Control Programme, Pino Arlacchi, whose qualifications for the job included a tour of duty fighting the Mafia in Italy.

But Arlacchi discovered that it is no longer a matter of taking on a few primitive farmers who protect their crops with antiquated firearms. The flood of weapons into the area during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan means that these farmers now own machine-guns, rocket launchers and anti- aircraft missiles and they are prepared to use them. It is not surprising, therefore, that opium production in Afghanistan has soared - 400 tons in 1980; 2,800 tons in 1996.

The covert war has been successful in a way that bodes ill for Britain's new drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell. Britain is a signatory to long-standing international treaties, some going back to the League of Nations, others the work of the United Nations, that, whether we like it or not, tie us to the American policy of total prohibition, of a world free of all recreational drugs except alcohol and tobacco.

If any country wavers a little, or begins to suggest an easing of the laws on marijuana as an experiment, or wants to try weaning addicts off heroin by prescribing it for them, or even proposes having a debate on drugs policy, then the covert battle will begin in earnest. The United States' presence is President Clinton's chief international drugs enforcer, Bob Gelbard, who is known to his friends and enemies as the State Department's "diplomatic Doberman".

Two years ago this month, Gelbard flew into Australia. He had been alerted to some worrying "backsliding" there by a State Department officer in the United States embassy in Canberra, the Australian capital. Every American embassy in most major countries now has an officer with a drugs intelligence role, who is specially charged with keeping the Washington authorities informed of any significant local developments.

The officer in Canberra was a woman in her late forties who had been seen at every public meeting in Australia where drugs policy had been discussed, and she reported two important developments to her masters in Washington DC. The first was that an experimental scheme was being considered in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) under which doctors would prescribe heroin for addicts (as once happened in Britain) and, secondly, that the Prime Minister of the state of Victoria, Jeff Kennett, had appointed a Drug Advisory Council to reconsider the state's laws on drugs which, by general consensus, were not working.

GELBARD'S mission was meant to be secret, but American drugs warriors are not very popular in Australia, where they are blamed for the country's heroin problem, which did not exist until the 1970s. The accusation is that when the war in Vietnam was over, the Drug Enforcement Administration managed to stop heroin following the GIs home. Forced to find alternative markets, the South-East Asian drug barons diverted heroin intended for the United States to Australia and Britain.

So when Gelbard waved his big stick, some Australians working in the drugs field were so outraged by what had happened that they have since spoken out (principally to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Four Corners programme and to writers David Marr and Bernard Lagan). Thanks to them, we have details of a chilling example of Clinton's drugs enforcer in action. It is the only case study I have come across - although we may assume that similar missions have been sent secretly to this country, and will be sent again if we happen to stray from the rigid American line.

Gelbard, an avuncular figure with grey hair and glasses, is a veteran of the drugs war.He wrote the speech for Clinton in which the President said that now that the Cold War was over, the next frontier was the war on drugs. Gelbard was in Bolivia when the United States sent troops there in order to try to wipe out the cocaine industry. He pushed for cutting off US aid to Colombia because of its failure to curb its drug barons. He was behind the American decision to cut trade with Burma over its opium business. And he warned Nigeria's ruler, General Sani Abacha, about the dangers of being involved in the drugs business.

Gelbard is a pragmatic diplomat who knows he is representing the most powerful nation on earth and he is experienced at using that power to crush any other country's attempts to liberalise its drugs laws. He wants to make it clear that no nation can go it alone on drugs - as far as he is concerned, the United States sets the agenda.

When Gelbard flew into Australia, the US embassy had already arranged for him to meet Professor David Pennington, one of the country's leading medical experts, who has accumulated widespread knowledge about drugs and who is chairman of Victoria's Drug Advisory Council. Pennington was perfectly willing to see Gelbard but he was puzzled that the US embassy set up the meeting in Hobart, capital of the island state of Tasmania, rather than in Canberra or Melbourne, the state capital.

The reason soon become apparent. Tasmania, the poorest of the Australian states, has a licence from the American-dominated International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) in Vienna to grow opium poppies under a quota system for the legal manufacture of medicinal morphine and codeine. Tasmania employs some 700 growers and two processors in this industry, between them earning A$80m (pounds 33m) a year, an important part of the island's economy.

For years the Australian federal government has hoped that the INCB could be persuaded to lift Tasmania's quota for poppy production and therefore, to keep in its good books, notified it of the proposed "heroin on prescription" trial in the ACT.

The INCB replied that it would allow the trial to go ahead "provided it is part of a genuine commitment by the Australian government to achieve a drug-free society rather than a concession to living with drugs". The INCB sticks to the American line that trials are dangerous because of the message they send to heroin-producing countries - set up trials and behind them you can do what you like. But like the drugs warriors, it too is fighting a losing battle.

It has attacked both California and Arizona for allowing easy use of cannabis "for alleged medical purposes"; it has congratulated Washington for its firm stand against "such indirect attempts to legalise the drug"; and it has expressed its concern that reputable foundations have provided sums of money in the United States for institutions that are "developing strategies for the legalisation of drugs".

But the INCB is a UN agency set up to supervise drug treaties signed by some 158 nations and it has the power to cut off the supply not only of morphine-based drugs but of many essential pharmaceuticals to any nation that incurs its displeasure.

So when the Tasmanian government received the INCB response to the proposed "heroin trial" in Australia, it did not regard it as very reassuring, and began to campaign against the trial in Canberra, claiming it was a foolish exercise that could jeopardise a valuable local industry. Its concern turned out to be justified.

Gelbard's meeting with Pennington took place in the office of Ron Cornish, the Tasmania state Minister for Justice. Gelbard began by saying that he was on the island simply to check out the opium industry, one he understood to be "the most efficient producer of crude morphine and morphine-based drugs in the world". Pennington was too polite to ask: if that's all you're here for, why invite me to attend this meeting?

But then Gelbard moved on to a general discussion about the ACT heroin trial and heroin trials in other parts of the world. He was scathing about the Swiss decision to try prescription of heroin and contemptuous of the Dutch attitude to all drugs. He took a very traditional law enforcement position - heroin was too dangerous a substance to play about with. It was imperative that the United States and its allies held the line. But, of course, a heroin trial in the ACT was purely an Australian issue. Washington would not dream of interfering in the affairs of a friendly country.

Then, in private conversations with Pennington, Gelbard suddenly raised the prospect of a bigger quota for the Tasmanian opium poppy industry. He had been impressed with what he had seen in Tasmania and might be prepared to push the Tasmanian poppy growers' case. "Let's wait and see," he said.

The message seemed clear - toe Washington's line on drugs and you will be rewarded; go your own way and you will be punished. And Gelbard had played on the rivalry between the Australian states and the Federal government like a master diplomat. The state of Victoria and Pennington could plan what drug reforms they liked, but they would come to nothing; the real decisions on drug policy would be taken in Canberra, which had all the authority because of its international treaty obligations.

In August last year the ACT heroin trial was abandoned, and instead the Prime Minister, John Howard, launched a new, hard-hitting "National Illicit Drug Strategy". Special strike teams would target drug syndicates, there would be a concerted effort to make Australia a much more difficult target for drug traffickers. Australia was going to get tough on drugs, real tough. Some listeners thought that the Prime Minister's speech sounded as if it had even been written for him by Bob Gelbard.

What is behind the irrational passion that the United States brings to the war on drugs? What is it that motivates one American anti-drugs campaigner, William Bennett, to call for the beheading of drug dealers, and the former police chief of Los Angeles to suggest that even casual users should be taken out of the courtroom after conviction and immediately shot?

In the early years of this century drugs were legal (or as the American right says: "There was a free market in drugs"). In Britain and the United States there were many recreational users of opium and cocaine and some addicts, few of whom needed to finance their habit by crime. A far greater number of people took their cocaine in highly-diluted forms, such as patented medicines sold over the counter at chemist's shops and in Coca-Cola. (Today's Coca-Cola contains caffeine instead of cocaine.)

But an anti-opium lobby had been around in the United States ever since the Californian gold rushes. American racial contempt for the Chinese became focused on their opium-smoking habits, and the Protestant missionary societies in China, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and other such organisations set out on a crusade to protect the world, especially the white world, from the horrors of opium.

In 1909 America called a conference in Shanghai to fight drugs through international co-operation and in 1914, against the wishes of most of the police forces in the United States, the Harrison Act criminalised drugs. With the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, Britain - which had fought wars to protect its opium trade - tightened up to try to make the world drug-free.

That this was a religious crusade rather then a law-and-order issue is obvious by the rhetoric of today's anti-drug lobby. It speaks of drug- taking as "immoral ... a sin ... an offence against God". A leading American conservative supporter of the drug crusade, an intelligent, rational man, conceded in debate that, yes, alcohol and tobacco were unhealthy and could even cost lives. But illegal drugs were different because "addiction to illegal drugs can result in the loss of your soul".

MANY anti-drugs crusaders believe that even the use of drugs to relieve pain in the terminally ill is morally wrong. Leading drugs realists say that the most pervasive drugs scandal in the United States today is the refusal of many doctors to prescribe pain-killers for their patients in case they come to the attention of the Drug Enforcement Administration for over-prescribing.

Ethan A Nadelmann, director of the Lindsmith Center, a New York drug- policy research institute, says: "The only reason for the failure to prescribe adequate doses of pain-relieving opiates is the "opiaphobia" that causes doctors to ignore the medical evidence, nurses to turn away from their patients' cries of pain, and some patients themselves elect to suffer debilitating and demoralising pain rather than submit to a proper dose of drugs."

Such is the moral conviction of the drugs war warriors that it is difficult to engage them in rational debate. Dr Thomas Szasz of the department of Psychiatry at Syracuse University suggests that it is a waste of time presenting facts to the anti-drug lobby to convince them that the war is lost.

He says that the war on drugs is a mass movement characterised by the demonising of certain objects and persons - "drugs", "addicts", "traffickers" - as the incarnations of evil. Hence it is foolish to dwell on the drug prohibitionist's failure to attain his avowed aims. "Since he wages war on evil, his very effort is synonymous with success."


What do we do now?