Friday, 3 June 2011

A Futile War

So a leading body of drugs experts and no longer politically active politicians have stated the absolutely damn obvious by arguing that the ‘War on Drugs’ isn’t working, never was and almost certainly never will. The attitude of criminalising drug use to the extent nearly every government in the world currently does is not a productive way of dealing with the consequences of both the usage and the business.

There are excellent articles in several newspapers on the report, especially the lead article in ‘The Independent’, but it was an article in a paper I only ever tend to read in an effort to understand what the ‘other side’ are saying in the media that has inspired me to write this blog.

The article in ‘The Telegraph’ referred to a TV show that would make any list of my favourite TV shows, ‘The Wire’, claiming that the report only stated what 'The Wire's' creators had shown already. The show from David Simon focussed on the realities and futilities of ‘The War on Drugs’ in Baltimore over a harrowing 5 series, showing the people behind the statistics, the political manoeuvring and the moral conjecturing that make up the US government’s attempts to deal with the illegal drugs trade.

It’s fascinating TV, the scripting is nigh on pitch perfect throughout, never afraid to show that both the users and dealers are at heart infinitely human and for the most part nowhere near the pantomime villains that politicians and the media like to portray. One of the central messages of ‘The Wire’, a theme you can’t escape from is that the majority of the characters, especially those on the “wrong” side of the law, are trapped; trapped by poverty, poor education and peer pressure, trapped between making a living in areas ruled by the drugs trade and avoiding being arrested.

It’s a lesson repeatedly taught throughout the show, that the Baltimore Police’s best efforts are never going to be enough, that the drugs market is bigger than any one organisation or individual, that arrests, prohibition and millions of dollars of tax payer’s money will never really make a dent.

In season 3 there is a particularly relevant arc in relatio

n to this latest report. After becoming frustrated with the fact that traditional methods were yielding little or no progress in reducing drugs related crime, members of the Police Department’s Western District decide to create a ‘free zone’ where there is in effect legalised drug trade and prostitution so long as it remains within a small, couple of block area that had stood abandoned and unused in the inner city. Over a number of episodes they convince the initially suspicious dealers to move their business to this ‘free zone’, which becomes known as ‘Hamsterdam’ after a failed attempt to describe the Dutch City’s liberal drugs laws to a group of dealers. They do it by keeping their promise of not arresting people for buying and selling drugs or prostitution within the area but stepping up efforts to arrest anyone operating outside the zone.

It’s a scheme which appears to be working with reduced violent crime both inside and outside the free zone, happier local residents and a more focussed aid effort from local charities as the majority of the victims of the drugs trade are now in one area, making outreach programs much more effective and efficient. They took the crime away from people’s front door steps, making it safer for people to go to work and more importantly children to go to school, freed from the fear of violence, the pressure of the gangs and the constant presence of drug culture.

Eventually senior police figures and politicians get wind of the scheme and force it’s closure but while it lasts it is a fascinating experiment into the realities of ‘the war on drugs’. The fact that eventually the scheme is shut down highlights the bizarre contradictions and hypocrisy involved in this particular social conflict; ‘Hamsterdam’ was showing signs of being a success, providing what everyone claimed they wanted in safer streets and better organised, more productive crime fighting, but it flew in the face of traditional political and police thinking and so had to be stopped. It’s bizarre how, in real life, so many former police officers and politicians come out and admit after they have finished working in that field, that they were fighting a war which would never be won, that their approach caused as many problems as it solved, yet while they are in office they parrot the accepted line that they are fighting the good fight and that they are making progress that is beneficial for all.

Baltimore is arguably an extreme example but the truth is that in most major cities, anywhere in the world, there are large areas where buying and selling drugs is rife, despite year after year of supposed crackdowns and tough police attitudes to drug related crime.

Look at Mexico now where the ‘War on Drugs’ is causing a literal war with an ever rising body count. For every cartel leader the Mexican authorities kill or arrest, two more will attempt to claim the former dealer’s market and they will do so with gunfights, murders and extortion, all of which affects the innocent citizens as much as the drugs trade itself.

Pitched battles between cartels and the police or simply between different cartels seem only to cause more civilian deaths without appearing to bring the country any closer to winning the ‘war’ with violence perpetuating violence. I’m not saying that it is wrong to attempt to stop the illegal drugs trade or the variety of crimes associated with it; instead I am arguing that the current methods are pig-headed, naive and simply impractical. The demand is always going to be there, and while it is so will production and distribution, so the seemingly logical thing for governments to do is to look into what elements of the drugs trade can be given some sort of legality, bringing them back under government control rather than criminalising everyone involved, leading to increases in gang violence and other such issues.

One of the ways politicians justify their crusade against illegal drugs is through emphasising the damage the drugs themselves cause, though I’ve always believed that should mean that users should be treated as victims at least to the same degree that they are treated as criminals. It’s also a flawed argument when considering drugs like ecstasy and marijuana which, according to a lot of studies, are at worst comparable in danger to alcohol and cigarettes and there are a lot of scientists and doctors who would claim statistically they are less so. It also strays into questions of liberty and self-regarding acts but that is another essay for another day.

Take the criminalisation of marijuana in the UK; the damage smoking marijuana does to people is not particularly more severe than alcohol or smoking cigarettes, any of them in excess have the potential to have serious long term health risks, yet only one of the three is illegal. Huge amounts is spent on trying to stop marijuana dealing in the UK, they recently raised the classification of the drug so as to try and convince more people it ‘really is a bad thing’ yet I’ve seen little evidence, either statistical or anecdotal to make me believe that it is much harder to get marijuana now than before or that the degree of criminalisation is going to stop people dealing it or smoking it.

The distribution and use will continue, but while it is criminalised I believe it at best merely perpetuates the current situation and at worst it leads to more crimes as anything illegal is left open to be exploited by criminals. If the government were to legalise it and put a tax on it I’m not convinced you’d see a huge rise in people smoking it, least not beyond the levels that regularly take advantage of cheap drinks offers or buy cigarettes on a weekly basis, but suddenly they’d render anyone attempting to sell it on a street corner utterly irrelevant and bring in money to be spent on public services.

The argument that it would lead to increased spending t

reating users is also flawed in my opinion as I suspect any increased healthcare costs would be more than balanced out by the decrease in police spending and the potential tax gains. Once in the government’s hands they can regulate the trade and treatment, taking the power away from the dealers and criminals and creating an opportunity to make some real progress in dealing with the problems drugs pose to our society. By creating a scenario where the government could spend less on policing the drugs trade and more on drugs education and treatments to help addicts break the cycles of use an entirely different and more productive attitude to the illegal drugs trade could prevail.

One final example I’d like to use is to point out that currently in Afghanistan, as has been the case for the past 10 or so years, there has been a huge push to end the opium farming and through that it’s illegal uses around the world. However there is little progress being made and the growth and sale is just controlled by the Taliban, warlords and criminal gangs rather than the government or, arguably more appropriate for a nation like Afghanistan, local communities. Stop this ill-thought out war on the opium farmers, put a tax on it and boost the Afghan economy while also increasing the population’s satisfaction with their government and the Western forces; few things drive men to pick up arms and fight their rulers more effectively than taking away their families livelihood without presenting legitimate alternatives. These people are farmers and in many cases their parents before them were too, it’s symptomatic of the whole ‘war on drugs’ that it is those people who suffer most from the conflict. It would also offer a solution to the global shortage of morphine and other opium based medicines; another example of where the ‘war on drugs’ really tends to hit home.

So I’m sure it’s clear I’m in agreement with a lot of the report, criminalisation isn’t working and a policy of legalising, regulating and taxation is an awful lot more practical. However I can’t see many major Western governments following in the footsteps of Holland and Portugal by at least taking steps to reduce the criminalisation of possession and personal use, interestingly with reduced drug related crime in both countries as I understand it.

'The War on Drugs', like much social policy, get's far too focussed attempting to treat the symptoms and thus ends up seemingly oblivious to the fact that the cause is going nowhere.

Today's song is a light hearted counterpoint to the preceding rant and a tribute to the incredibly nice weather that i enjoyed today.

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