Over the 50-odd years the global war on drugs has been fought, it’s been a catalogue of failure on pretty much every level you’d care to examine – bar the bank balance of those profiting from the outcome. There may yet be another half century of futility and broken promises ahead of us, but one man has a vision of what a post-drug-war world could look like.
In his latest book, Legalizing Drugs: The Key to Ending the War, Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst on drug policy with the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, provides a brief history of the global war on drugs, outlining the cost five decades of the policy has had on public health, the economy and human rights, and then goes on to suggest how the market should instead be “managed by governments, not gangsters”.
Approximately 247 million people now use drugs around the world, pumping money into a global industry worth more than $300bn (£233bn), according to a UN report from 2015, with a quarter of a billion adults worldwide having potentially taken illegal drugs such as cannabis, cocaine or heroin in 2014 alone.
The prohibition of drugs has had “little or no impact” on the rate of drug use, the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s annual report said last year, as the number of drug users had increased by almost 20 per cent between 2006 and 2013.
Last year also saw one of the world’s oldest general medical journals, The BMJ, call for the legislation of illicit drugs the first time. An editorial said prohibition laws had failed to curb either supply or demand, cut violence or reduce profits for organised crime. It went on to say the ban on the production, supply, possession and use of some drugs for non-medical purposes was causing immense harm.
In an interview with The Independent, Rolles, who has previously served as an adviser to the Global Commission on Drugs, argues that the “most striking thing about the war on drugs is its spectacular failings on its own terms”.
He says the idea behind the policy was to eradicate drugs from the globe in order to create a drug-free world by 2008, with the official slogan of the 1998 UN conference on the world drug problem being: “A Drug-Free World: We Can Do It.”
“Not only did that not happen but actually things continued to get worse so drug markets were founded, prevalence increased and all the problems related to drug use and illegal drug markets increased as well,” Rolles says. “For a policy that is specifically trying to eradicate drugs from the world, it has overseen the most rapid expansion of drug use in human history.”
The policy has instead backfired, he points out, leading to the creation of an “enormous illegal market where hundreds of billions every year are controlled by violent gangsters. So we have all of this crime and violence, both on UK city streets and around the world, which is fuelled by the illegal drug trade. We don’t have those issues with legal drugs. We don’t have tobacconists gunning each other down in the streets. All the problems associated with the vast illegal drug trade are essentially a result of prohibition.”
Instead of protecting the health of the public, the war on drugs has made drugs more dangerous, Rolles maintains. “It’s not deterring youth. It’s not preventing availability of access to drugs. It’s actually making drugs more dangerous.
“All drugs are fundamentally risky but when they’re produced and supplied through an illegal market they become more risky. People don’t know how strong they are, people don’t know what’s in them, their potency can vary wildly. All of the things that that the war on drugs is supposedly achieving in terms of protecting our health or protecting us from crime, it’s actually doing the opposite.”
World's 10 deadliest street drugs
World's 10 deadliest street drugs
1/10 10. Purple Drank
One of the more unusual drugs around at the moment, purple drank was popularised in 90s hip hop culture, with the likes of Jay Z and Big Moe all mentioning it in their songs. It is a concoction of soda water, sweets and cold medicine, and is drunk due to cold medicines high codeine content, which gives the user a woozy feeling. However it can also cause respiratory issues and heart failure
2/10 9. Scopolamine
Scopolamine is a derivative from the nightshade plant found in the Northern Indian region of South America (Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela). It is generally found in a refined powder form, but can also be found as a tea. The drug is more often used by criminals due its high toxicity level (one gram is believed to be able to kill up to 20 people) making it a strong poison. However, it is also believed that the drug is blown into the faces of unexpecting victims, later causing them to lose all sense of self-control and becoming incapable of forming memories during the time they are under the influence of the drug. This tactic has reportedly been used by gangs in Colombia where there have been reports of people using scopolamine as way to convince victims to rob their own homes
3/10 8. Heroin
Founded in 1874 by C. R. Alder Wright, heroin is one of the world’s oldest drugs. Originally it was prescribed as a strong painkiller used to treat chronic pain and physical trauma. However in 1971 it was made illegal under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Since then it has become one of the most destructive substances in the world, tearing apart communities and destroying families. The side effects of heroin include inflammation of the gums, cold sweats, a weak immune system, muscular weakness and insomnia. It can also damage blood vessels which can later cause gangrene if left untreated
4/10 7. Crack cocaine
Crack cocaine first came about in the 1980’s when cocaine became a widespread commodity within the drug trafficking world. Originally cocaine would have attracted a high price tag due to its rarity and difficulty to produce, but once it became more widespread the price dropped significantly. This resulted in drug dealers forming their cocaine into rock like shapes by using baking soda as a way of distilling the powder down into rock form. People were doing this because it allowed for them to sell cocaine at a lower quantity and to a higher number of people. The side effects of crack cocaine include liver, kidney and lung damage, as well as permanent damage to blood vessels, which can often lead to heart attacks, strokes, and ultimately death
5/10 6. Crystal meth
Not just famous because of a certain Walter H White, but also because it is one of the most destructive drugs in the world. First developed in 1887, it became widely used during the Second World War when both sides would give it to their troops to keep them awake. It is also believed that the Japanese gave it to their Kamikaze pilots before their suicide missions. After the war crystal meth was prescribed as a diet aid and remained legal until the 1970s. Since then it has fallen into the hands of Mexican gangs and has become a worldwide phenomenon, spreading throughout Europe and Asia. The effects of crystal meth are devastating. In the short-term users will become sleep depraved and anxious, and in the long-term it will cause their flesh to sink, as well as brain damage and damage of the blood vessels
6/10 5. AH-7921
AH-7921 is a synthetic opioid that was previously available to legally purchase online from vendors until it became a Class A in January 2015. The drug is believed to have 80% of the potency of morphine, and became known as the ‘legal heroin’. While there has only been one death related to AH-7921 in the UK, it is believed to be highly dangerous and capable of causing respiratory arrest and gangrene
7/10 4. Flakka
Flakka is a stimulant with a similar chemical make-up to the amphetamine-like drug found in bath salts. While the drug was originally marketed as a legal high alternative to ecstasy, the effects are significantly different. The user will feel an elevated heart rate, enhanced emotions, and, if enough is digested, strong hallucinations. The drug can cause permanent psychological damage due to it affecting the mood regulating neurons that keep the mind’s serotonin and dopamine in check, as well as possibly causing heart failure
8/10 3. Bath salts
Bath salts are a synthetic crystalline drug that is prevalent in the US. While they may sound harmless, they certainly aren’t the sort of salts you drop into a warm bath when having a relaxing night in, they are most similar to mephedrone, and have recently been featured throughout social media due to the ‘zombification’ of its. The name comes from the fact that the drug was originally sold online, and widely disguised as bath salts. The side effects include unusual psychiatric behaviour, psychosis, panic attacks and violent behaviour, as well as the possibility of a heart attack and an elevated body temperature
9/10 2. Whoonga
Whoonga is a combination of antiretroviral drugs, used to treat HIV, and various cutting agents such as detergents and poisons. The drug is widely available in South Africa due to South Africa’s high rate of HIV sufferers, and is believed to be popular due to how cheap it is when compared to prescribed antiretrovirals. The drug is highly addictive and can cause major health issues such as internal bleeding, stomach ulcers and ultimately death
10/10 1. Krokodil
Krokodil is Russia’s secret addiction. It is believed that over one million Russians are addicted to the drug. Users of krokodil are attracted to the drug due to its low price; it is sold at £20 a gram while heroin is sold for £60. However, krokodil is considered more dangerous than heroin because it is often homemade, with ingredients including painkillers, iodine, lighter fluid and industrial cleaning agents. This chemical make-up makes the drug highly dangerous and likely to cause gangrene, and eventually rotting of the flesh
Rather than continuing the war on drugs, Rolles argues that the drugs market could be reformed in a way that would leave it “managed by governments, not gangsters”. He advocates strict legal regulation from licensed vendors and different forms of regulation for different drugs, with greater restrictions placed on the more risky drugs.
His book outlines five tiers to regulate the drugs market. At the highest tier, the most risky drugs would only be available on prescription for people who are dependent users. The next tier down would be a pharmacy sales model, with a trained and licensed member of staff enforcing a code of practice in terms of age control or not selling to people who are intoxicated, but also available to give advice on health issues or refer people to other services if there are any concerns.
The third tier “is just more familiar licensed retailing, a bit like tobacconists or off licences,” Rolles explains, regulated in terms of opening hours and age access controls. The next model would “be a bit like pubs,” a licensed venue where people could consume drugs on the premises. “So it would be like pubs for alcohol or cannabis coffee shops in the Netherlands.
“You could imagine potentially extending that model to some other drugs. So perhaps membership-based clubs where you could buy and consume MDMA, for example, or perhaps an opium den model where you could go to licensed premises where you can smoke opium.”
The least regulated model would “be basically just a supermarket” for mild stimulants, such as coca or poppy tea, “very mild products that don’t really need much significant regulation at all over and above normal descriptions and sell-by dates and the usual stuff”.
Rolles believes regulating the drugs market would ‘‘make less risky drugs relatively more available and more risky drugs relatively less available. And in that way, over time, perhaps shepherd people towards safer products and safer behaviours. Prohibition tends to do the exact opposite. It tends to encourage the use of the most risky products but also encourages people to use them in risky ways and use them in risky environments. Regulation enables us to tilt the market in the opposite direction and encourage safer behaviours, safe products and safer using environments.”
Rolles goes on to describe how human rights have historically been marginalised in the enforcement of drug laws around the world.
“At its most extreme, the war on drugs can licence horrific state violence. At a less extreme level, it still can have awful impacts: mass incarceration in the US for example. We see grossly disproportionate penalties and enormous prison sentences for really quite trivial crimes. In a lot of countries you can be flogged or whipped or beaten for minor drug offences. In a number of countries you can actually be executed for trafficking offences. Countries like Iran are executing one or two people a day for drug offences on average and in places like China it’s even more.”
A significant portion of the prison population in the UK is there because of the war on drugs, Rolles points out, with “some estimates putting it as high as half the entire prison population in there being related to drug markets, or specifically drug offences”.
“Even though not everybody who uses drugs gets a criminal record, we do still have 27,000 people who are criminalised for cannabis possession alone. So tens of thousands of people in the UK are getting criminal records just for using drugs.”
The cost of the war on drugs is “carried by the most marginalised people in society,” he says, adding: “It tends to be young people, it tends to be people from socially deprived communities and it tends to be ethnic minorities. The people who are swept up in the enforcement net tend to be the ones whose drug use is more public.”
The “white middle-class dinner party set using cocaine doesn’t engage with the criminal justice system at all because the system never encounters them. It is a profoundly disproportionate racial make-up of people who are both stopped and searched, and if drugs are found on them then in terms of when they are actually prosecuted, we see a huge disproportionate number of young black men in particular finding their way into criminal records, criminality and prison.”
Cannabis drug reform is picking up pace around the world. It has been legalised in Uruguay, Canada and eight states in the US, including California, which Rolles points out is of a similar size to the UK.
Asked how likely it was for cannabis to be decriminalised in Britain, his response is measured: “Neither Labour nor the Conservatives are interested in cannabis legalisation. I wouldn’t expect legalisation of any drugs under the next government, but perhaps the one after that.”
So what would a post-drug-war world look like? “I don’t think society would look more different. It’s not as if people aren’t using drugs now and if they were legal everyone would be, ‘hurrah let’s go and take loads of drugs’. It doesn’t work like that.
“People who want to use drugs use them already and they are effectively freely available to anyone who wants them. The idea that prohibition is stopping that in any way is nonsense.”
‘Legalizing Drugs: The Key to Ending the War’ is available now at £7.99
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