Ed Howker: We can't go on prohibiting drugs

Our policy is based on the belief that the war against drugs is winnable. It is not
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The Independent Online

The first I ever heard of drugs was "Just Say No". Coined by Nancy Reagan, the phrase became a rallying cry for prohibitionists and preachers of abstinence on both sides of the Atlantic. I was five when the cast of Grange Hill used the slogan as the title of a spin-off chart hit. Though at least one of the young actors was using illegal substances at the time, their preaching earned them a trip to the White House. That the cast of a "progressive" BBC children's drama and the First Lady were united in the Rose Garden shows just how messed up things had become. Nancy's words, even now, continue to colour public discourse.

Never mind that the sentiment is patently fatuous. Never mind that 30 years ago Britain had around 1,000 "hard" drug addicts while we now have 270,000. Never mind the fact that whole nations – from Colombia to Afghanistan – are enslaved by the fetid corruption of murderous drug lords. "Just say no", was designed to help get the fat-cat abstinence-peddling Christian Republicans on side, to build a two-term coalition and to foster the Reagan Democrats. Right about the time her husband's administration was funding the Contras with drug money. She was just saying no – but not, of course, to that.

It beggars belief that the Western world – the free world as it was then – chose its approach to drugs policy from the populist sloganeering of the ageing wife of a B-movie actor. It's like asking Al Capone to fill in your self-assessment tax return: you won't pay much tax but you will go to jail. Nevertheless, the UK and US drugs policies have germinated from the theory that abstinence will save all, that we are engaged in a "war on drugs" – another slogan, this one coined by Nixon – and that the war is winnable. It is not.

Tomorrow officials of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs will convene in Vienna to discuss all this. They did the same 10 years ago and set an ambition of extreme vacuity – "a drug-free world". In a show-and-tell expression of Einstein's definition of insanity, they will most probably say the same thing this time, expecting a different result. They won't get one. We can deduce this by comparing their stated aims with the real results.

This is called evidence-based analysis and the sooner international policy makers get their head around it the better. The UN hoped to achieve their goals by "eliminating or significantly reducing" the production of opium, cocaine and cannabis by 2008. Well, here we are, so let's see how they have been getting on. Today the UN places a value on the international drugs trade at around $320bn (£227bn) a year – that's more than twice the annual budget of the European Union – while the US spends $40bn in fighting it. We are hopelessly out-gunned.

Since 1998 we've read a Downing Street strategy memo which admitted that the UK government seizes less than 20 per cent of the hundreds of tonnes of cocaine and heroin that enters our country, and that to make trafficking unprofitable would require us to capture 80 per cent – a plain impossibility.

So, why did we lose the drugs war? The answer is simple economics. Demand will find a supply. That the political parties on both sides of the Atlantic who preached prohibition were the same ones that advocated market liberalism is no small irony. While Nixon, Thatcher and Reagan pointed to the Reds in the East and said you can never be free without free-markets, the freest market of all was the one they created with the war on drugs. There is no regulation of actual consumption, no regulation of production, no enforced quality standards, no labour rights and no money-back guarantee.

Instead we have an international drug mafia more powerful and wealthy than any organised criminals in the history of human society. They are the beneficiaries of the alchemy of prohibition which turns virtually worthless crops into a commodity worth its weight in gold. And, unsurprisingly when the product is so valuable, they will stop at nothing, literally nothing, to get it to market and realise the profit. If you were not stung by the banking crisis and are still looking for a justification for market regulation, this is it. The results are all around us.

We lose around 2,600 people to drug poisoning every year. More than half of all property crime is drug-related. And while one in eight members of the prison population arrives there on drug-related charges, tens of thousands more are users – able to service their habits in our prisons. A sick joke and a criminal waste of life this may be, but – relatively speaking – we are the lucky ones.

To see the real horror show, look at the drug gangs who closed Sao Paolo, in Brazil in 2006, the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan after the poppy crop was threatened by coalition troops; or even the West African narco-state of Guinea Bissau which lost both a President and the head of the army to assassins last week.

This is a devastating toll, given that drugs policy is, basically, a matter of public health not national defence. Our politicians do not see it that way.

However, they will have to try a different approach eventually, for one very good reason: Mexico, which is already increasingly unstable. The US cannot afford to allow its nearest neighbour to become a Guinea Bissau. The only question is how much resources the US will commit to its "war on drugs" before trying something that works.

Before the last UN convention more than 100 political and community leaders, including the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote to the UN Secretary General to call for an open, honest and rational debate about drugs. Last week, this plea was repeated by 26 peers, who seek the immediate creation of an intergovernmental panel to do the same. They perceive, rightly, that our nations are addicted to a policy which is ruining the lives of their own people while enslaving the peoples of others.

Tomorrow, in Vienna, the UN has another opportunity to stage an intervention. Like any addict, their first step should be to admit to themselves that they have the problem.

e.howker@independent.co.uk

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