How Governments Try and Fail To Stem Flow of Drugs

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  1. From The Economist Print Edition
    Source: The Economist

    When, 80 years ago, America prohibited the sale of alcohol, it imposed a milder policy than it currently applies to drugs, since people were allowed to possess alcohol for home use.
    Yet the 13-year experiment showed how easily a ban could distort and corrupt law enforcement, encourage the emergence of gangs and the spread of crime, erode civil liberties, and endanger public health by making it impossible to regulate the quality of a widely consumed product.

    The drugs war has achieved all these things but, since the business is global, it has done so on an international scale. In the United States particularly, and in those developing countries that supply it, the attempt to stamp out drugs has had effects more devastating than those of the drugs themselves.

    The main targets of American supply-reduction campaigns over the years have been Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Mexico. The net effect appears to have been a relocation and reorganisation of production, not a cutback. Dramatic falls in coca cultivation in Peru and Bolivia in the late 1990s coincided with an equally dramatic rise in Colombia, even though almost all the top people in Colombia's notorious Cali cartel had been jailed in the mid-1990s. Estimates are sketchy, but the area under cultivation may have doubled. The decline in the price of cocaine in America has led the industry to look for new markets in Europe, and to diversify into the even more profitable opium.

    Given the right conditions, it is clearly possible to suppress drug-growing in some regions. A country can shift the problem elsewhere, at least temporarily. However, the real factors that lead countries into or out of drug production seem to have much less to do with policy or prosperity than with culture and social institutions. As Mr Thoumi, author of the work on drugs in the Andes, points out, every country in the world that can produce bananas does so. Yet, in spite of a much larger gap between the export and import price of cocaine or heroin than of bananas, by no means every potential grower is in the business. He sees the explanation for Colombia's booming business in its tradition of individualism, with few social controls. By contrast, Ecuador, a much poorer country that does not produce cocaine, has a stronger religious tradition.

    If Mr Thoumi is right, government policy may have little durable impact on drug production. Basic economics suggest the same thing. Last year Congress voted $1.3 billion of emergency funding to Colombia to step up crop eradication over the next three years. But there are good reasons, spelled out in a recent article by Mr Reuter in the Milken Institute Review, why cutting off supply is doomed. The stuff is simply too profitable. Production is cheap. If a kilogram of cocaine retails for upwards of $110,000, the exporter can easily afford to double the few hundred dollars paid to the grower without much damage to his overall margin. Attempts to persuade growers to switch to planting pineapples are equally doomed: the cocaine exporters can readily outbid any reasonable scheme.

    The same logic applies to shipping. American policy at the Mexican border concentrates on trying to stop the torrent of drugs that passes mainly through the Tijuana crossing, the world's busiest border. But in Tijuana, once a dirt-poor town, drugs pay for smart new homes and cars. Some youngsters go to school with packets in their backpacks to sell at lunchtime.

    The costs of seizure are small compared with the profits. Earlier this year, the US Coastguard seized two vast shipments of cocaine, one of 8 tonnes and the other of 13 tonnes. Together, they could have supplied 21m retail sales. To the astonishment of law-enforcement officers, the retail price of cocaine did not appear to budge. The enormous street value of the product makes it extremely cheap to ship. As Mr Reuter puts it, “A pilot who demands $500,000 for flying a plane with 250 kilograms is generating costs of only $2,000 per kilogram-less than 2% of the retail price. Even if a $500,000 plane has to be abandoned after one flight, it adds only another $2,000 to the kilogram price.”

    The power to corrupt

    A profit margin such as this leaves enormous scope for corruption. Victor Clark Alfaro, a doughty human-rights campaigner in Tijuana, insists that: “Corruption goes from the police on the street to the top officials.” The federal police, understaffed and underpaid on $700-800 a month, are no match for the big cartels. Francisco Ortiz Franco, an editor on Zeta, a newspaper that has had several run-ins with Mexican drug gangs, guesses that at least 20% of the agents fighting the drug trade are paid by the gangs; one dealer captured a couple of years ago put the figure for state and federal police officers at 80%. The problem is not that the police are particularly greedy: their option is usually to accept drug pay or risk retribution from the gangs.

    Faced with such economics, the Bush and Fox administrations have been building closer links. For the first time, a big Mexican drugs boss was recently extradited to America to stand trial. And the American administration is at last willing to admit that-as President Bush said on a visit to Mexico earlier this year-the real problem is demand. But tackling demand is just as tricky as cutting off supply.

    Superintendent Dean Ingledew of London's Metropolitan Police is in charge of policing Soho, the city's main nightclub district. His territory is full of Victorian alleyways, hostess bars and illegal drinking clubs. The customers who support Soho's thriving crack trade are mainly “rough sleepers”, homeless folk who can make up to £100 ($140) a day begging in the street. But the market is changing: many more young professionals are coming in to sample a drug that has never before been popular in Britain, but now seems to be becoming more affordable.

    Mr Ingledew and his colleagues use a mixture of community co-operation and street design, trying to improve lighting in Soho's darkest nooks. They are developing ingenious ways to trap those dealers who keep their stock of “rocks” in their mouths and swallow them when arrested. But ultimately their main goal is protecting public safety and the quality of life in Soho. Drug-dealing causes less disruption than belligerent drunks, but he is frank about the difficulty of tackling it. “Our aim is to arrest the dealers,” he says, “but there are a huge number of people who want to buy from them. So whenever we take a dealer out, the gap is filled. Enforcement is at best able to displace the market a few hundred yards, and to keep a lid on it.”

    In New York, where the drug problem once bred horrific gang violence, the emphasis has been different. Michael Tiffany, deputy chief of the Bronx Narcotics Division at the New York Police Department, explains how putting a lot of officers into drug enforcement over the past eight years has brought successes. Up until 1994-95, he says, New York was the main distribution point for cocaine in the north-eastern United States. A decade ago, 50% of the people arrested for drug offences in the Bronx might have been from out of town. Now 95% of them are local. The wholesale distribution network has moved on.

    Gone, too, has much of the violence. Bridget Brennan, special narcotics prosecutor for the City of New York, argues that increased enforcement has “taken out the most disorganised-and most violent-organisations, that were shooting each other over spots. The ones left are more careful. They have a business interest in keeping violence down and not attracting attention to themselves.”

    Her fear is that, with the violence gone, public support for tough policing may fade: “The greater our success, the harder it may be to go on.” Mr Tiffany has a different worry. “We can control the distribution of narcotics to a reasonable degree. We can control the violence.” But, with so many drugs pouring into the country and a popular culture that accepts them, “we will reach the point where all we can do is to hold the line.”

    Both in London and New York, the police rightly give priority to stopping the threats to public order and safety that drug-dealing can bring. Enforcement everywhere ought to have effects on the supply of drugs: it should drive up the price, reduce the competition and restrict the supply. But the increased efforts that governments have made to stem the flow do not appear to have raised the price, lowered the purity or discouraged the purchase or the use of drugs. That is true even in America, where policy has been concentrated on trying to reduce the availability of illegal drugs. This has been vastly expensive; it has sometimes corrupted the law-enforcement process; and it has damaged civil liberties and led to the imprisonment of hugely disproportionate numbers of non-whites.

    Complete Title: Stopping It - How Governments Try-and Fail-To Stem the Flow of Drugs

    Collateral Damage

    The drugs war has many casualties.

    The most conspicuous victim of the war on drugs has been justice, especially in America, where law enforcement and the legal system have taken the brunt of the harm. But all over the world there are human victims too: the drug users jailed to punish them for the equivalent of binge drinking or smoking two packs a day-except that their habit is illegal. Many emerge from prison more harmed, and more harmful, than when they go in.

    The attack on drugs has led to an erosion of civil liberties and an encroachment of the state that alarms liberals on America's right as well as the old hippies of the left. At the Cato Institute, a right-wing think-tank in Washington, DC, Timothy Lynch is dismayed by the way the war on drugs seems to be corrupting police forces. Not only does it breed what some might see as excusable dishonesty: “testalying”, or lying on the witness stand in order to put a gang behind bars. It also breeds police officers who, says Mr Lynch, “use the powers of policing to put a rival gang out of action”.

    Now for some colour-blind justice

    The drugs war perverts policing in other ways too. For example, the police can keep property seized from a drugs offender, which may be giving the wrong incentives. Another undesirable effect has been the militarisation of America's police forces. Some 90% of police departments in cities with populations over 50,000, and 70% of departments in smaller cities, now have paramilitary units. These Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, teams are sometimes equipped with tanks and grenade launchers. In Fresno, California, the SWAT team has two helicopters complete with night-vision goggles; in Boone County, Indiana, an amphibious armoured personnel carrier. Set up initially to deal with emergencies such as hostage crises, such teams increasingly undertake drugs raids. Inevitably, from time to time they raid the wrong premises or shoot the wrong suspects.

    Civil liberties also suffer because there is usually no complaining witness in a drugs case: both buyer and seller want the transaction to take place. The police, says Mr Lynch, therefore need to rely on informants, wire-taps and undercover tactics that are not normally used in other crimes. The result is “a cancer in our courtrooms”, as he puts it, that proponents of America's drugs war rarely acknowledge as one of the costs of prohibition.

    To these intrusions should be added many smaller ones. All manner of benefits have become conditional on a clean drugs record. Employers routinely test staff for drugs: in the mid-1990s, 14% of employees said their bosses tested people when they hired, and a further 18% said they subsequently conducted random tests. Access to student loans, driving licences and public housing are all now jeopardised by taking drugs. Since traces of cannabis stay in the urine longer than those of more dangerous drugs, the greatest threat to such privileges comes from the mildest offence.

    Out of sight

    But by far the worst consequence of the war on drugs is the imprisonment of thousands of young blacks and Hispanics. Of the $35 billion or so that the American authorities spend each year on tackling drugs, at least three-quarters goes not on prevention or treatment but on catching and punishing drug dealers and users. More than one in ten of all arrests-1.5m in 1999-is for drug offences. Some 40% of those drug arrests were for possessing marijuana. Fewer than 20% were for the sale or manufacture of drugs, whether heroin, cocaine or anything else. The arrests also sweep up a distressingly large number of teenagers: 220,000 juveniles were picked up for drug offences in 1997, 82% more than in 1993.

    A case for clean needles

    Many of those arrested receive mandatory minimum sentences of five or ten years for possession of a few grams of drugs, a dire punishment rushed through Congress in 1986 amid hysteria about crack cocaine. Eric Sterling, now head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a campaigning group, worked in Congress on drugs policy at the time. He recalls that Congress set small quantities for no better reason than ignorance, politicking and “a lack of fluency in the metric system”.

    Because congressmen did not know their grams from their kilos back in 1986, America's prisons are crammed with drug offenders, who now account for roughly one in four of those in custody, and more than half of all federal prisoners. Most of these drug offenders are locked up for non-violent crimes: in only 12% of cases was any weapon involved. Almost all are from the broad bottom end of the drug-dealing pyramid. America's imprisonment rate for drug offences alone now exceeds the rate of imprisonment in most West European countries for crimes of all kinds.

    Disturbingly, even though drug use is spread fairly evenly across different racial groups, three-quarters of those locked up are non-white (see chart). For example, most users of crack cocaine are white, but 90% of crack defendants in federal courts are black or Hispanic. White people, being generally richer, do their deals behind closed doors, whereas blacks and Hispanics tend to trade on the streets, where they can be caught more easily. A report by The Sentencing Project, a group lobbying for criminal-justice reform, notes that black people account for 13% of monthly drug users; 35% of those arrested for possessing drugs; 55% of those convicted; and 74% of those sentenced to prison.

    Thanks to the war on drugs, says JoAnne Page, head of the Fortune Society, which campaigns on behalf of ex-prisoners, there are now more young black men in prison than in college. “The consequences are devastating,” she says. “We are taking a whole generation of young black and Latino kids and teaching them a set of survival skills that allow them to live in prison but get them fired from any job.” A recent study by Human Rights Watch reports that 20% of men in prison are victims of forcible sex. “The rage that these people come out with affects their relations with their families,” says Ms Page.

    If they go to prison without a drugs habit, they may soon acquire one. “I've seen heroin, marijuana, cocaine in prison,” reports Julio Pagan, a former convict who is now a counsellor. “I've seen people injecting drugs.” Those who inject in prison are at extreme risk of contracting HIV, because they are far more likely than users outside to share needles. Dr Alex Wodak, director of an alcohol and drugs unit at St Vincent's Hospital, in Sydney, Australia, calculates that at least half the inmates in Australia's prisons are injecting drug users, half of whom continue injecting in jail, where they might typically share needles with 100 people in a year.

    This risk is unique neither to Australia nor to the rich world. Dr Wodak cites disturbing evidence that the sharing of needles by injecting drug users in prisons in Thailand has been the origin of that country's terrifying AIDS epidemic. Locking up drug injectors and failing to provide them with clean needles may thus be one of the biggest threats to global public health.

    These immense costs to society must, of course, be set against the benefits gained from banning drugs. But there is another, more mundane cost that should be taken into account: the loss of potential revenue. One of the main reasons Prohibition eventually came to an end in America was that it yielded no tax revenues. Likewise, prohibition of drugs hands over to criminals and rogue states a vast amount of revenue-say $80 billion-100 billion a year, based on the gap between rich-world import prices and retail prices-that governments could otherwise tax away and spend for the common good.

    Better Ways

    If enforcement doesn't work, what are the alternatives?

    Imprisonment is unlikely to clinch the war against drugs. What other weapons are there? Education for the young is one possibility, although its record is discouraging: one recent report complains that “large amounts of public funds...continue to be allocated to prevention activities whose effectiveness is unknown or known to be limited.” However, for habitual users, the alternatives are more promising. Drug reformers advocate projects collectively known as “harm reduction”: methadone programmes, needle-exchange centres, prescription heroin.

    Going Dutch

    One of the most remarkable projects designed to reduce harm is going on in a clinic two floors up in a side street in Bern, in Switzerland. The clinic is tidy: no sign, apart from covered bins full of spent syringes, of the 160 patients who come two or three times a day to receive and use pharmaceutical heroin. This Swiss project grew out of desperation: an experiment in the late 1980s to allow heroin use in designated sites in public parks went badly wrong. Bern had its own disagreeable version of Zurich's more notorious heroin mecca, Platzspitz. In 1994 the city authorities in Zurich and Bern opened “heroin maintenance” clinics, of which Bern's KODA clinic is one.

    It takes addicts from the bottom of the heap. By law, patients must not only be local residents: they must be the addicts with the greatest problems. Christoph Buerki, the young doctor in charge, describes the typical patient as a 33-year-old man who has been on heroin for 13 years and made ten previous efforts to stop. Half his patients have been in psychiatric hospitals, nearly half have attempted suicide, many suffer from severe depression. Given such difficult raw material, the clinic has been remarkably successful.

    First of all, relatively few drop out of the programme, in contrast to most other drug-treatment schemes. After a year, 76% are still taking part; after 18 months, 69%. Of those who drop out, two-thirds move on either to methadone, a widely used heroin substitute, or to abstinence. Two-thirds of the patients, stabilised on a regular daily heroin dose, find a job either in the open market or in state-subsidised schemes. Crime has dropped sharply. “To organise SFr100-200 ($57-113) a day of heroin, you need either prostitution or crime, especially drug-dealing,” says Dr Buerki. Yet a study that checked local police registers for mentions of patients' names found a fall of 60% in contacts with the police after the addicts started coming to the clinic. Hardly any patients attempt suicide or contract HIV, because the clinic sees them daily, monitors their physical and psychological health, and administers other medicines when they come in for their heroin.

    Interestingly, one side benefit of the programme seems to be to reduce the use of cocaine. Dr Buerki dislikes the idea of prescribing that drug because of its unpredictable effects. The vast majority of his patients are taking it when they first arrive, 56% occasionally and 29% daily. After 18 months of treatment, 41% have stopped using cocaine and 52% use it only occasionally. Given that there is no equivalent of methadone to wean cocaine users off their drug, that is a hopeful finding.

    “It's always hard to tell politicians that abstinence is quite a risky thing for these people”

    Switzerland's experience, says Robert Haemmig, medical director of Bern's Integrated Drug Services Programme, suggests that abstinence may not be the right goal for heroin addicts. People can tolerate regular doses of heroin for long periods, but if they give up for a period and then start again they run a big risk of overdosing. “It's always hard to tell politicians that abstinence is quite a risky thing for these people,” he says.

    Heroin maintenance is still used sparingly in Switzerland, for about 1,000 of the country's estimated 33,000 heroin addicts. Most of those in treatment get not heroin but methadone. But the programme's success suggests that there are ways to help even the most “chaotic” drug users, if governments are willing to be open-minded. Predictably, the Swiss doubt whether it would work everywhere: “You need a society with well-paid professionals and a low rate of corruption in the medical profession,” says Thomas Zeltner, the senior official in the federal health ministry. But the economics of the programme are impressive. It costs much the same as methadone maintenance, and considerably less than a therapeutic community or in-patient detoxification. It reaches patients that no other programme can retain. It reduces crime and legal costs and saves much spending on psychiatric hospitals.

    Market separation

    The Swiss heroin maintenance programme shows what can be achieved when a country starts to think of drug addiction as a public-health problem rather than merely a crime. The Netherlands has taken a similarly pragmatic approach to marijuana for the past quarter of a century. It has aimed to separate the markets for illegal drugs to keep users of “soft” ones away from dealers in the harder versions, and to avoid marginalising drug users. “We have hardly a single youngster who has a criminal record just because of drug offences,” says Mr Keizer, the Dutch health ministry's drug-policy adviser. “The prevention of marginalisation is the most important aspect of our policy.”

    The Dutch Ministry of Health helps to finance a project by the independent Trimbos Institute of mental health and addiction, to test about 2,500-3,000 ecstasy tablets a year for their users. “When we find substances such as strychnine in the tablets, we issue a public warning,” says Inge Spruit, head of the institute's department of monitoring and epidemiology.

    What makes this approach work is the Dutch principle of expediency, which has already proved useful in dealing with other morally contentious issues such as abortion and euthanasia. The activity remains illegal, but under certain conditions the public prosecutor undertakes not to act. Amsterdam's famous coffee shops, with their haze of fragrant smoke, are tolerated provided they sell no hard drugs, do not sell to under-18s, create no public nuisance, have no more than 500 grams (18 ounces) of cannabis on the premises and sell no more than 5 grams at a time.

    Erik Bortsman, who runs De Dampkring, one of Amsterdam's largest coffee shops, grumbles that the police (and, worse, the taxmen) raid him two or three times a year, weighing the stock, checking the accounts and examining employees' job contracts. Sounding like any other manager of a highly regulated business, he complains that ordinary cafés that stock cocaine behind the counter get by with no restraints. He points out, too, that it does not make sense to allow youngsters to buy tobacco and alcohol at 16 but stop them from buying cannabis until they are 18.

    But his main grouse is that, although Dutch police allow the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, he is forbidden to stock more than 500 grams, and his purchases remain technically illegal. This contradiction is at the heart of Dutch drugs policy. Ed Leuw, a researcher from the Dutch Ministry of Justice, believes that a majority of Dutch members of parliament would like to legalise the whole cannabis trade. Why don't they? Partly because it would further increase the hordes of tourists from Germany, Belgium and France that come to take advantage of the relaxed Dutch approach; but mainly because the Dutch have signed the United Nations convention of 1988, which prevents them from legalising the possession of and trade in cannabis.

    However, Switzerland may have found a way around that obstacle. In a measure that must still pass through parliament, the government proposes allowing the growing of, trade in and purchase of marijuana, on condition that it is sold only to Swiss citizens and that every scrap is accounted for. All these activities would remain technically illegal, but with formal exemption from prosecution, in line with Dutch practice. There is no precedent for this in federal Swiss law. “We wouldn't have done things this way if we hadn't signed the UN convention,” admits Dr Zeltner.

    Extending the model

    Could Dutch and Swiss pragmatism be the basis of wiser policies across the Atlantic? Among lobbyists, the idea that the aim of policy should be to reduce harm is extremely popular. At the start of June, the Lindesmith Centre, newly merged with the Drug Policy Foundation, another campaigning group, held a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where speaker after speaker argued that current American policies did more harm than good.

    A brave minority of politicians agrees, including Gary Johnson, New Mexico's Republican governor. He is aghast at the lopsided severity of drugs laws. “Our goals should be the reduction of death, disease and crime,” he says, claiming that many other governors share his views.

    For the moment, Mr Johnson is seen as a maverick. “The harm-reduction approach doesn't sell well in the United States,” says John Carnevale, formerly of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. What is forcing more debate, he reckons, is a movement among the states to allow the medical use of marijuana, and perhaps the perceived injustice of imprisoning so many young black men.

    The campaign to allow the use of marijuana for medical treatment recently received a setback with a ruling by the Supreme Court against the cannabis buyers' co-operatives that have flourished mainly in California. But public opinion seems to be cautiously on board: a 1999 Gallup poll found 73% of Americans in favour of “making marijuana legally available for doctors to prescribe in order to reduce pain and suffering.”

    Change, if it comes, will start at state level. But it will come slowly. Governments everywhere find it hard to liberalise their approach to drugs, and not just because of the UN convention: any politician who advocates more liberal drugs laws risks being caricatured as favouring drug-taking. Still, the same dilemma once held for loosening curbs on divorce, abortion and homosexuality, on all of which the law and public opinion have shifted.

    Public opinion is clearly shifting on drugs, too. When the Runciman Report in Britain last year advocated a modest relaxation of the laws on marijuana, the Labour government raced to condemn it. It hastily changed its tune when most newspapers praised the report. And it is worth recalling that at the time of America's 1928 election, Prohibition enjoyed solid support; four years later the mood had swung to overwhelming rejection.

    Set It Free

    The case for legalisation is difficult, but the case against is worse.

    Should the ultimate goal be to put drugs on a par with tobacco and alcohol? That would mean legalising both possession and trade (one makes no sense without the other), setting restrictions on access that reflect a drug's relative danger, and insisting on quality controls. Many people understandably recoil at such a prospect. There is little doubt that legalising drugs would increase the number of people who took them, whatever restrictions were applied; and it would raise difficult issues about who should distribute them, and how.

    Gateway drugs

    The number of drug users would rise for three reasons. First, the price of legalised drugs would almost certainly be lower-probably much lower-than the present price of illegal ones. This is because prohibition raises the price by far more than any conceivable government impost might do. If cocaine, say, were legal, estimates Mark Kleiman, a drug-policy expert at the University of California in Los Angeles, the price would be about a 20th of its current street level. As for legal cannabis, he thinks, it would cost about as much as tea. Surely no government would impose a tax large enough to replace that imposed by enforcement. Indeed, if it did, legalisation might backfire: smuggling and so crime would continue.

    Second, access to legalised drugs would be easier and quality assured. Even if the stuff were sold in the sort of disapproving way that the Norwegians sell alcohol, more people would know how to buy it and would be less scared to experiment. And third, the social stigma against the use of drugs-which the law today helps to reinforce-would diminish. Many more people might try drugs if they did not fear imprisonment or scandal.

    “Imagine Philip Morris and the Miller Brewery with marijuana to play with”

    A fourth force might be that of commercialisation. “Imagine Philip Morris and the Miller Brewery with marijuana to play with,” says Mr Kleiman. In no time at all, the market would be backed by political contributions, just as those for tobacco and alcohol have been for so long. And, judging by the way state lotteries offer games designed to create compulsive gambling, state distribution might well act as a positive encouragement to consumption.

    So more people would dabble in drugs, including many more young people. “Anything available to adults will be available to children,” says Mr Kleiman. In America, where-to the astonishment of Europeans-nobody under 21 is allowed to buy drink, plenty of youngsters have fake identity cards. Some 87% of American high-school seniors have sampled alcohol, but only 45% have tried cannabis. So the potential market is large. Drugs might become as widely used as alcohol-and alcohol abuse might also rise. Work by Rosalie Pacula of RAND, a think-tank in California, shows that young people tend to see the two as complements, not substitutes.

    Legalisation, argue Mr Reuter and his co-author, Robert MacCoun, would result in “a clear redistribution of harms”. Poor people would on balance be better off, even if many more of them used drugs, if they were no longer repeatedly imprisoned for doing so. But there would be a greater risk “that nice middle-class people will have a drug problem in their family”.

    True, it is difficult to prove from past episodes of drug liberalisation that such consequences would indeed occur. Crucially, it is hard to measure the responsiveness of drug demand to changes in price. But the evidence for cocaine and heroin suggests that demand may be at least as responsive as that for cigarettes. The same may be true for other drugs.

    In fact, nobody knows quite what drives the demand for drugs. Fashions come and go. Some societies seem to resist drugs even though they are widely available (the Dutch have moderate rates of marijuana use by European standards); in others, such as Britain's, use is high despite tough laws. As with other social trends-crime, unmarried motherhood, religious observance-countries seem to be heading in roughly the same direction, but with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

    The best answer is to move slowly but firmly to dismantle the edifice of enforcement.

    The best answer is to move slowly but firmly to dismantle the edifice of enforcement. Start with the possession and sale of cannabis and amphetamines, and experiment with different strategies. Some countries might want the state to handle distribution, as it does with alcohol in Scandinavia. Others might want the task left to the private sector, with tough bans on advertising, and with full legal liability for any consequent health risks. If countries act together, it should be possible to minimise drug tourism and smuggling.

    Move on to hard drugs, sold through licensed outlets. These might be pharmacies or, suggests Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Centre, mail-order distributors. That, after all, is how a growing number of people in America acquire prescription drugs, including some that are not licensed for use in their country. Individual states could decide whether to continue to prohibit public sale. Removing the ban on possession would make it easier to regulate drug quality, to treat the health effects of overuse, and to punish drug-users only if they commit crimes against people or property.

    The result would indeed be more users and more addicts, though how many is unknowable. But governments allow their citizens the freedom to do many potentially self-destructive things: to go bungee-jumping, to ride motorcycles, to own guns, to drink alcohol and to smoke cigarettes. Some of these are far more dangerous than drug-taking. John Stuart Mill was right. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. Trade in drugs may be immoral or irresponsible, but it should no longer be illegal.

    Source: Economist, The (UK)
    Published: July 26-28 2001
    Copyright: 2001 The Economist Newspaper Limited
  2. good read but to put the holy herb at par with Cocaine and heroin WTF
  3. Excellent artical, I couldn't agree more. I have worked in the drug rehabilitation industry working closely with addicts. Many of my collegues and myself included recognise that the imprisonment of drug users only compounds the problem. Giving someone a criminal record seriously affects employment oppertunities leading to unemployment and a strain on the system. Unemployed people are statistically more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and commit crime to feed those habits. Being in a prison is not a nice experience, being locked away from your family and friends, to be segregated with violent and abusive prisoners is not equal to the offence - smoking or growing weed for personal use for example.

    If users of the milder drugs - amphets, hallucinogenics and marijuana - are sent into a rehabilitation or prison they are statistically more likely to develop a hard drug habit by being around a sort of people who use hard drugs regularly. The drug rehabilitation system is so unsuccessful that more soft drug users actually end up with a hard drug habit through going through rehab than hard drug users actually rehabilitated. The average statistic for successful long term drug rehabilitation is less than 20%, the system doesn't work, it only makes things worse. Police are forced to divert resources from serious crimes to deal with a guy with a weed plant in his cupboard or someone buying a couple of Es for a mate. I'll give you an example:

    In Soho London several years ago a journalist was seen having a spliff out the back of a club, and the police were called. A van turned up with six officers to arrest the journalist and his friend, they then took them to the police station to charge them with use and possesion of cannabis (then a class B drug). At the same time two streets away from where the journalist was arrested a woman was beaten and murdered. The crime was reported as it was going on, but the police couldn't respond in time to save her because resources were immediately elsewhere. This caused a great deal of anger in the pro legalization community, but unfortunately fell on deaf ears when it came to the govornment.

    Reports and researchers have studied users of soft and hard drugs in legal situations are far less likely to commit any crime. Those who use moderatly are just as likely to get a job and work as non drug users are, even heroin and cocain users! The system is so fucked up, and harmful to the economy, the public and public services (police, benefits agencies, courts, prisons etc).

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