Until it ends its war on drugs, Britain will keep going backwards

Christian Aid has just broken ranks with a brave report that highlights the UK’s dangerous hypocrisy

There can be no doubt that the daft war on drugs is devastating many of the world’s poorest countries, from Africa to Latin America. 

But this has been ignored by major charities that claim to campaign for international development, presumably for fear of upsetting their donors. 

Now one has broken ranks, with the release of an important report from Christian Aid condemning what it calls “a blind spot in development thinking”.

The group rightly insists that the scale of the problem demands attention, with legal and illegal economies woven together so tightly in many nations after rapid expansion of operations by a rampant drug industry. Although stopping shy of demanding the obvious solution, which is to legalise and regulate all drugs worldwide, the authors say “the current cure is not working... and despite the hundreds of billions spent on eradication, the illicit drugs industry is bigger than ever”.

Christian Aid deserves credit for this report, which caused internal palpitations. It highlights the hypocrisy of successive British governments that pour money into aid yet support the prohibition ripping apart poor communities. One day they will see that sanctimonious talk of saving the world is not a solution to complex problems. Yet the charity’s move is just one more sign of how fast attitudes are shifting on this issue.

The world’s drug warriors face defeat – and they are being beaten back by insurgents in unexpected places, as we saw again last week. In Mexico – a land cursed by drug cartels – the nation’s top judges declared the prevention of cannabis use to be an infringement of human rights. This paves the way for legalisation; four similar rulings will force an official review into a trade that provides perhaps a quarter of the profits for some of the planet’s most-savage gangsters.

Then in Ireland, traditionally seen as a country of social conservatism under the influence of Catholic clerics, ministers are moving towards decriminalisation of all narcotics. Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who oversees the country’s drug strategy, revealed there is strong consensus on a “cultural shift” to tackle addiction. First will come plans to establish “shooting galleries”, where heroin users can take their fix using clean needles under medical supervision. This follows nine other Western nations with similar set-ups, which are shown to reduce infection and overdoses.

And now Canada has a prime minister whose election-winning platform includes a pledge to legalise cannabis.

“To ensure that we keep marijuana out of the hands of children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals, we will legalise, regulate and restrict access,” says his party manifesto. The logic is correct – although precisely the same argument applies also to amphetamines, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin. Yet for all the excitement in Ottawa, the nation will only be following a lead set by Uruguay.

Even in the United States, where a president launched the worldwide war on drugs, there is fast progress as voters force change on their leaders. Ohio may have just said no to cannabis legalisation, but it was stopping monopoly control. A majority nationally back reform – and already recreational cannabis use is allowed in four states and medical use in 21 others. Several more states hold ballots next year, including probably California, while Vermont could soon become the first to legalise weed through legislative process.

Since the US may soon be sandwiched by countries that permit cannabis, such votes are becoming increasingly symbolic. Yet without rehearsing the tired and obvious arguments for legalisation, it is worth pointing out that dire warnings of doom in pioneering Colorado do not seem to have materialised. A recent report by Transform Drug Policy Foundation revealed no spike in cannabis use, a significant reduction in the size of the criminal market, and a predicted $125m (£83m) boost in tax revenues for this year. 

Around the world, about 25 countries including Australia, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Switzerland have initiated reform. Even Iran’s theocracy brought in progressive harm-reduction measures and has influential voices calling for cannabis and opium legalisation. Slowly but surely we are seeing the end of stupid policies to prohibit drug use that are not only stunningly illiberal but damage users, families, communities and entire countries.

One country is missing from these moves – although led by a prime minister who once espoused a more-sensible approach. But now David Cameron claims the British stance is working, adds scores more substances to the banned list and rules out even cannabis decriminalisation, despite revelations that the cash-strapped Treasury says it could raise useful sums in tax while cutting costs for police and prisons. Given Britain’s blinkered approach, it is both unsurprising and depressing that last year saw the most deaths from drug poisoning since records begun, with substantial rises in mortality linked to cocaine and heroin.

There are politicians in all parties sensibly pushing reform, now joined by subversive police leaders in three counties who have effectively decriminalised cannabis themselves. How sad that a country for so long a leading player on the international stage, which still claims to be a global force for good, remains stuck in the past on this important issue. 

The end of the worldwide drug war is nigh. And, when Britain realises its current approach does more harm than good, it will rejoin the ranks of enlightened nations.

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