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The war on drugs may win elections, but prohibition has been a disaster for source countries

30 May 2015 309 views 2 Comments

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 ­produced 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 … preventing illicit production of, trafficking in and use of such drugs. But the report acknow­ledges 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 riv­alry.

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 ­institutions.

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 ­border.

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.


  • Dr Alex Wodak & Evert Rauwendaal, said:

    War on drugs a loss

    There is increasing acknowledgment around the world that the war on drugs has reached its use-by date (“The war on drugs may win elections, but prohibition has been a disaster for source countries’’, 30-31/5).

    The damage done to the national security of rich countries is an ­additional reason to accelerate efforts to find more effective and less expensive ways of managing illicit drugs.

    It is now six years since UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon began advocating drug decriminalisation.

    Last year, the World Health ­Organisation encouraged countries to begin decriminalising drugs. Our international and national arrangements for drugs enrich drug warlords in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan and by so doing destabilise some of the most precarious countries on the planet.

    The families of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan may not have lost their loved ones if the world had begun reforming its drug laws.

    Dr Alex Wodak, president, Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Darlinghurst, NSW

    No one has ever asked me whether I wanted the drug war or whether I wanted to pay for it.

    What do we get for our money?

    A scourge of drugs plus lots and lots of violence: mass graves in Mexico, torture, executions. Someone once told me that prohibition benefits men with guns; be they cops or criminals.

    Evert Rauwendaal, Glebe, NSW

    Letters to the Editor, The Australian, June 1, 2015, p 11.

  • Simon Copland said:

    US President Barack Obama says his country’s criminal justice system ‘isn’t as smart as it should be.’ It’s time to look at ours, too.
    By Simon Copland

    Last week marked the first anniversary of the murder of Eric Garner by New York City Police. Garner’s death, followed by that of Michael Brown in Ferguson in August, sparked a national movement of reform for the US justice system.

    A year on it looks like the call for change is finally being heard. Now it is worth asking, should Australia follow?

    Reform in the US justice system is very much needed. The US ranks high on all of the worst sorts of statistics — from civilians being killed by police to their prison population. These numbers are heavily skewed to blacks and latinos, who both face higher chances of being killed by the police and entering jail than their white counterparts.

    A year after Garner’s death and it looks like some change to address these issues may be about to be made. President Barack Obama recently became the first ever sitting President to visit a federal prison, using the opportunity to outline a number of reforms he is using as a key part of his plank for his final years in office. Obama’s plans include restoring voting rights for ex-criminals, reducing and/or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes and tackling the extremely high rate of black and hispanic incarceration. And the President is getting support from across the political spectrum, with even the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives lining up to support the changes.

    These changes can only be seen as extremely positive. Given that it is worth us opening the discussion of whether Australia should look at similar changes. While not facing anywhere near the same problems as the Americans, the Australian justice system is heading in a very worrying direction.

    Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics for example found that while Australia’s prison population is much lower than in the US it is climbing. 2014 marked a ten year high in incarceration rates, and a 10% increase over the past year. These increases are largely due to what Ross Fitzgerald calls the “law and order” auctions at state and federal level — successive Governments trying to outdo each other on tough on crime measures. A key part of this problem has been non-violent drug offences, which are increasingly putting Australians being put behind bars for longer periods of time.

    Similar issues with Australian police can also be found. Recent legislation for the Brisbane G20 and Sydney APEC meetings for example have raised genuine concern over the level of power given to our forces. Incidents of police violence, from attacks on revellers at Mardi Gras, the death of a Brazilian teenager in Sydney who was tasered multiple times and the shooting of two indigenous teenagers in Sydney all feel unfortunately similar to what is happening in America.

    Yet, it is in the area of race where the Australian justice system looks far too alike to the US. While overall Australian rates of incarceration are much lower than in the states, this is not true for indigenous Australians. While only making up 3% of Australia’s population, indigenous Australian’s represent 28% of our prison population. These incarceration rates are increasingly significantly — a 57% increase in the past 15 years to be exact.

    On top of this, indigenous Australians continue to face high levels of violence while in the “care” of our system. High levels of Aboriginal deaths in custody resulted in a Royal Commission in the 1990s, yet numbers continue to rise. Too often these deaths could be avoided, occurring either because of a system that lacks accountability and proper safeguards, or in the worst instances due direct abuse by officers. Indigenous Australians are increasingly being put behind bars an face a growing threat of dying while inside.

    A year on from Eric Garner’s death and changes are finally being made in the US justice system. While Australia’s level of incarceration is no where near as high, our problems are slowly becoming just as bad. Indigenous Australians in particular still face extreme rates of incarceration and violence.

    It is easy to look across the Pacific Ocean and wonder how the US justice system got so bad. Yet, if we are not careful Australia faces the threat of heading down the same direction. We should take Barack Obama’s lead and fix it before it becomes even worse.

    Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer and blogs at The Moonbat.
    July 24, 2015

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