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.”
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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