The war on drugs may win elections, but prohibition has been a disaster for source countries
Who suffers most from drug prohibition? The conventional wisdom is that Western countries pay a very high price for illicit drugs originating from and transiting through some developing countries. But the truth is the highest price for our failed “war on drugs is paid by those relatively few countries where the drugs are Ã‚Âproduced or through which they move.
This perspective was usefully analysed in a recent report from the United Nations Development Program, headed by former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark. Entitled “Perspectives on the Development Dimensions of Drug Control Policy”, it shows the worst damage from global drug prohibition is not in places such as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, but in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Mexico.
These are the producer and transit countries where civic institutions have been eroded, their highest courts bought, the environment trashed, politics corrupted and lives severely damaged.
The report notes the international drug-control system regards the health and welfare of humanity as its overarching concern. Hence it strives to ensure “adequate availability of narcotic drugs, including opiates, for medical and scientific purposes, while Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ preventing illicit production of, trafficking in and use of such drugs. But the report acknowÃ‚Âledges that drug control policy has not only failed to achieve its objectives, it also has generated considerable harm to health, social and economic development, peace, security and stability.
Indeed it seems clear that improved global security would be a key benefit of transnational drug policy reform.
While the unintended negative consequences of drug prohibition are worst for some of the most vulnerable countries, it is difficult to bring this international perspective to rich countries, including Australia. Politicians fighting to be elected or re-elected here would have a tough time explaining to anxious parents that we should be concerned about vulnerable populations in faraway places.
Australia cannot make illicit drugs disappear. But efforts to repress the industry, which is worth billions of dollars a year, have had dramatic unintended consequences, including a criminal black market of staggering proportions.
Unsurprisingly, voters in middle Australia are concerned about what they see as threats to their loved ones, especially children, ignoring the fact legal drugs — alcohol and tobacco — pose a much greater threat. Many of these parents will even support policies that have been tried again and again and haven’t worked, and that attempt to shift the costs and blame to people living far away.
This is an even greater problem in Struggle Street, where the battle for survival is much harder and parents are even more desperate for a quick fix to protect their children.
The reality is that the blowback from the failed war on drugs in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Colombia is like chickens coming home to roost.
As long ago as 2008 the US Joint Forces Command concluded: “In terms of worst-case scenarios for the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico.
This annual review of US national security stated: “The Mexican government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels. The assessment concluded that a serious threat to US national security was an end result of attempts at drug prohibition.
Australia and the US spent much blood and treasure across more than a decade in Afghanistan for very little gain. Afghanistan would not have become so unstable without a huge opium and heroin industry.
Seventy per cent of the opium cultivated in Afghanistan comes from the two southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, which have been run by the Taliban. The profits from the opium and heroin trade helped fund the Taliban’s weapons, aimed at Australian and other soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force.
Endemic corruption and instability in drug producer and transit countries have many terrible consequences. Those responsible for 9/11 didn’t seek refuge in Pakistan and Afghanistan by accident. Both countries had been destabilised by decades of drug production and trafficking, and their legal and political systems were and still are corrupt.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, was known to be an opium war lord.
Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, a former president of Pakistan, was thought to have been involved in opium trafficking, and his death in a mysterious plane crash was attributed by some commentators to opium rivÃ‚Âalry.
Multiply this by 10 times for countries such as Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, where the narco-traffickers have had an even stronger grip on government and civic Ã‚Âinstitutions.
The West’s indifference to the havoc visited on producer and transit countries changed after the violence seen in Mexico following the declaration of a war on drugs by incoming president Felipe Calderon on December 1, 2006. In the next six years, drug traffickers, police and the army murdered more than 70,000 Mexicans. Kidnappings and extortion went through the roof. Foreign investment dried up. US security agencies became nervous about the potential for Mexico’s problems to spread across the Ã‚Âborder.
For decades the war on drugs has been used to win elections around the world, but global prohibition clearly is approaching its use-by date. Dismounting from a tiger is not easy. But if it is to be effective, global drug policy is going to have to change its target to something well beyond and quite different from prohibition.
A useful beginning would be to redefine illicit drugs as primarily a health and social issue; increase funding for health and social interventions; improve treatment for drug users; and try to regulate as much of the drug market as possible. A good start would be taxing and regulating cannabis.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, is available as an e-book and a talking book from Vision Australia.
The Weekend Australian, May 30-31, 2015, Inquirer p 24.