Vancouver in British Columbia, Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico and Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan are unlikely cousins. But together these three places and their ilk have wrought a remarkable change in one of the world’s most important debates over the past two years.
For decades, the idea of legalizing narcotics was supported by only a small minority. But as global markets in illicit drugs have expanded exponentially since the early 1990s, policy makers and law enforcement agencies alike have been overwhelmed by the challenge posed by the prohibition of a long list of drugs. Markets have spread to places that for decades had no significant drug problem, like China and Indonesia, while the numbers of addicts in countries like Iran have grown hugely.
Two significant developments are contributing to the sudden surge in calls for reconsidering prohibition. The first is that drugs are now damaging long-term Western security interests, especially in Afghanistan and Mexico. The second is that production is migrating away from its traditional homes like Colombia and the Golden Triangle and moving into the heart of Western consumer areas like Canada, the Netherlands and Britain.
The problem is becoming so dramatic that elder statesmen, senior law enforcement officers, intellectuals and philanthropists the world over are speaking out loud and clear: The “War on Drugs” is a disastrous policy that achieves none of its aims and inflicts huge damage on global security and governance wherever it is prosecuted.
They argue that state regulation of the drug market would reduce the health and social risks posed by narcotics and generate huge tax revenues, which could be hypothecated to absorb any costs. At the moment, the vast profits from the illegal drug trade go into the pockets of organized crime syndicates and terrorist groups.
The most urgent appeals for a rethink have emanated from South America, where respected figures like the former president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have highlighted how the war on drugs has done nothing to stop the trade in illegal narcotics but has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the perpetuation of ruthless gang cultures in the most deprived areas of the continent.
Diego Gambetta, an Oxford University criminologist and one of the world’s greatest authorities on the Sicilian Mafia, has spoken out forcefully for an end to the war on drugs. In the United States, the most effective group demanding change is Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, which is made up of current and former police officers, including erstwhile operatives of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Commentators in Europe and America have highlighted how prohibition is responsible for the thousands killed in Mexico’s cocaine wars. The United States is being drawn into the violence as Mexican cartels purchase most of their weapons in Texas and other states.
Most critically, the Taliban in Afghanistan is waging an effective battle against NATO forces because opium’s inflated value, caused by prohibition, enables the insurgents to purchase hundreds of millions of dollars of weaponry every year. Worse, the Kabul government that NATO is propping up is itself riddled with corruption fueled by the lucrative narcotics trade.
Moreover, is the world going to do nothing as Colombian and Venezuelan cartels use their immense financial muscle to corrupt and destroy fragile West African states like Sierra Leone and Liberia by turning them into a springboard for cocaine exports to Europe? The cartels already have swept aside stable governance in Guinea Bissau.
There has been no concerted attempt by the Obama administration or other Western governments to counter the growing sentiment in favor of drug law reform, although the president himself is on record as opposing legalization.
I have spoken to countless politicians who agree in private that, as one of them put it, “in 100 years we may look back and ask what on earth were we doing by prohibiting narcotics?” But they remain hesitant to articulate this in public for fear of the opprobrium it will bring.
Supporters of legalization have all but won the moral and intellectual debate, but they now face the most difficult argument of all — the political one. That is unlikely to be won in Washington, where prohibition continues to enjoy powerful support. But we are seeing an erosion of the drug-war consensus in countries like Argentina, Mexico, Portugal and Switzerland — where drugs either have been decriminalized or de facto legalized.
Canada faces special pressure — not only is it one of the world’s major producers of cannabis, but it also has been identified by the U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime as one of the manufacturing centers of synthetic drugs such as ecstasy and methamphetamines, supplying users in the United States and as far away as Australia.
Vancouver has become a global hub, exporting marijuana and methamphetamines while importing cocaine destined for the United States and the local market. Drug-related killings have proliferated during the past 18 months, provoking a sense of crisis. The campaign for marijuana legalization continues to grow there, garnering support from politicians around the country.
After 80 years of war on drugs, consumers have easier access to a greater variety of these products than ever. Prices continue to drop while the profits of narco-traffickers go up. But — given the developments in South America, Europe and Canada — we are perhaps for the first time seeing the emergence of a coalition determined to challenge a policy that generates unimaginable misery year in and year out.
Misha Glenny is the author of “McMafia: A Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld.”
By MISHA GLENNY
September 18, 2009