In the war on drugs, Europe must make a separate peace
Give addicts a prescription and end the crime wave destroying our cities
Wednesday November 3, 2004
Waiting to see who has won the most important US election for decades, the world has been an anguished bystander, pressing up against the window of the superpower. So much depends on America - from climate change to terms of global trade and haphazard forays into global policing.
But one policy on which the US has always had an iron grip was not mentioned at all - because both candidates would agree on it. Both would say the global "war on drugs" must go on. Since 1961 the US has strong-armed most countries into signing UN conventions to join this futile and destructive battle. Drug prohibition has torn apart poor drug-producing countries and wreaked drug-fuelled terror on the streets of every city in the world. It has created crazed addicts lurking in dark streets everywhere from Rio to Russia.
"A drugs-free world - we can do it!" is the slogan of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. It is, it says daftly, "on target to reach its goals". What goals? To eradicate drug abuse and the cultivation of coca, cannabis and opium by the year 2008. Yes, in just four years.
Prohibition not only hasn't worked, it makes things ever worse. If ever there was a good example of a policy where Europe needs to make its own way, this is it. The former Interpol chief (and now its honorary secretary general) Raymond Kendall has broken official silence in Europe over this.
Writing in Le Monde, in a preview of a key lecture later this month, he declared the drugs war lost and said that enforcement policies had failed to protect the world from drugs. It was time for "harm reduction" instead of the UN's "obsolete international conventions". He called for Europe to take the lead in an international movement to reform policy when the UN's drug conventions come up for renewal in 2008.
Under the conventions, all countries are obliged to pursue growers, dealers and users in an expensive attempt to hold back an unstoppable tide. Prohibition has bred crime on an unimaginable global scale. Bravely, most countries have to pretend that they are winning - when it is painfully obvious there are only losers.
Look at the absurdity of our own Home Office's five-year plan, published this summer. Here are its drug targets: "We aim to increase the proportion of heroin seized from 10% in 2003 to 16% in 2006 and cocaine from 12% to 26%. We will make the UK a more hostile environment for organised drugs trafficking."
These figures are almost touchingly barmy. The Home Office has no idea what proportion of any drug it is seizing. If it does seize more, it may only be a bad sign that there is more on the streets.
The Home Office appears not to have read the prime minister's strategy unit report (unpublished), which found that UK police enforcement had failed to have any meaningful impact on illegal drug supply. Sadly, this report took fright at the logic of its own findings, and ended up calling for mandatory treatment for heroin addicts - now expected in the Queen's Speech. Evidence suggests forced treatment rarely works: even the results for voluntary treatment are not always brilliant.
Meanwhile, out there in the real world far from UN or Home Office fantasy targets, Time magazine reports that the revenue from opium grown in Afghanistan this year is $30bn already; 95% of the crop is destined for Europe, and it is the source of most of the heroin arriving in Britain. But how is Hamid Karzai supposed to prevent it? Who can stop the poorest country on earth from growing the only crop that brings in wealth? In the chaos of the Iraq war and its aftermath, the Jordanian anti-narcotics department is alarmed, the BBC reports, to find a new and unfamiliar sea of drugs from Afghanistan pouring across its borders and out across the region.
Look at other opium-growing regions, and it's the same story. Their governments are obliged to crack down as best they can or risk US revenge in loss of aid, trade and other penalties. Drugs harm individuals, but it is not drugs that cause social calamity. It is their prohibition that brings a wave of criminality and corruption, chasing profits of up to 3,000%.
What the former head of Interpol is saying echoes the excellent new report by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, setting out a step-by-step route map towards controlled legalisation. There is now a free market in the most dangerous drugs - absurdly known as "controlled drugs" when the opposite is the case. Their availability is in the hands of the worst people on any street corner on the globe. A rational, evidence-based policy would seek to kill the market, put dealers out of business and put control of these drugs into the safe hands of pharmacists.
Raymond Kendall calls for Europe to "medicalise" drugs, instead of criminalising them. He cites British research that finds every £1 spent on treatment saves £3 in the criminal justice system. By prescribing pharmaceutical opiates, he says there is an 80% cut in addict deaths, a drop in the spread of disease and, above all, a "sharp cut in the delinquency rates of drug addicts".
He has spent his working life trying to cut off supply, only to see it soar, prices drop and the number of addicts rise. Now he comes to the only sensible conclusion: the war on drugs doesn't work. Give all addicts a prescription, and they can lead reasonably normal lives, with no need to commit crime. The £300bn global market would grind to a stop with an end to its violence, corruption, fraud, money laundering and financing of terrorism.
In Britain, drugs are cheaper than ever. The lowest estimate suggests half of all prisoners are jailed for offences related to their need to sustain a habit of, on average, £50 a day. The government spends far more on enforcement than on treatment. But treatment is not the whole answer: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. For many addicts, maintenance is the best option. Most citizens only care about stopping addicts committing crimes and rescuing inner-city zones that have become battlegrounds for drug gangs and pimps running drug-addicted prostitutes. No one is suggesting selling the stuff in corner shops, but destroying the market by making it easy to register for controlled drug use is the only hope left.
No American politician would find it easy to start a revolutionary rethink on the drugs war. But Europe can and should; Holland began and now has a shrinking, ageing number of addicts. Together the EU could move step by step to rationalise drug policy; it is just one example of what Europe could do together to offer another, non-US, liberal model of democracy.
· After the War on Drugs: Options for Control is available on Transform's website: www.tdpf.org.uk