Last week the London School of Economics (LSE) published the ‘Ending the Drugs Wars Report.’ Signed by 5 Nobel Prize winners in economics it explains how this beginning and the intervening years leading to 1961 created a highly imperfect regulatory system to stop the supply of drugs.
After 1961 these prohibitionist ideas – still immune from empirical evidence – became political common sense at the United Nations (UN) and gave birth to the UN’s ‘Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs’. This led to policy formations claiming the impossible: that with enforcement and the diffusion of police measures internationally a 3000-year human habit could be retitled an “illicit market” and tamed.
By 1971 “police measures” had become war as soon to be disgraced President Nixon unleashed his vote-pandering “war on drugs”. An abundance of recent scientific evidence, much of it referenced in the LSE report shows that the now more than 50 year-old, UN-led global plan to achieve a “drug-free world” has failed. As the report notes: “decades of evidence conclusively show that the supply and demand for illicit drugs are not something that can be eradicated.”
Rather than recede the international demand for drugs is stable in many places and increasing in others. In consumer countries like the UK and USA the report goes onto explain that comparatively, illegal drugs are now cheaper, often of better quality and hence more potent then ever.
In transit countries like Trinidad and Tobago the war on drugs has not only failed but the pursuit of an impossible target has damaged the human security and socioeconomic development of all. The costs transit countries end up paying for the drug consumption habits and demand of the richer “first world” include immense everyday violence, a militarised police force fighting militarised criminal forces, damage and corruption to our political system, a rotten criminal justice system that cannot protect its own, out of control white collar crime, the propagation of systematic human rights abuses on all sides, and a vast economic expenditure that could have been invested elsewhere for a very different society than the one we have.
By faithfully embracing the war on drugs and its highly repressive policies our political leaders have incarcerated, criminalised and ruined the life chances and health of innumerable young men over the last 30 years. Instead of rehabilitation we have a criminal justice system that is a factory-like conveyor belt, constantly producing all levels of criminal types and drug users, including the most dangerous – those with nothing to lose.
The LSE report states that there is no easy solution to the illegal drug trade and it is now fact that the historic, one size fit all UN war on drugs policy has demonstrably failed. In its place they suggest a “plurality of policies” is needed. Most importantly for us the report suggests that transit countries need policies designed in their own populations’ best interests.
This does not mean we should legalize all drugs or that we can eradicate the deeply entrenched drug trade over night. It does not mean the security services and an effective justice system should not be improved – they will have an increasingly important role to play moving forward. But it does mean that different drug policies can work in different countries and that transit nations should no longer pay the substantial costs of European and North American drug addiction and demand.
There is need for new ideas like Dana Seetahal’s call for a drug court. The decriminalisation of marijuana or the personal consumption of some drugs needs to be thought through in terms of costs and benefits. It is also time to consider taking resources away from policing prohibition and instead spending them on proven public health initiatives and policies.
Change is not simple or easy but after over 50 years of obedience to international prohibition, clearly we cannot eradicate the demand or supply of drugs. This means we need to start managing it. We need political leaders up to such great societal transformations. As the LSE report concludes. Enough is enough. “Drug policy, like any policy, must be judged by results not intentions.”