[h2]Reformers sense switch of focus in US campaign against illegal drugs[/h2]
By Harvey Morris in New York
Published: March 16 2009 02:00
The US spends $1,400 a -second in the war on drugs, according to a recent -Harvard study, while the savings and revenue that could be generated by legalising narcotics would equal a 10th of Barack Obama's -fiscal stimulus plan.
With neighbouring Mexico descending towards the -status of a narco-state and with US jails crammed with small-time drug offenders, experts in the field have launched a debate on whether a 40-year crackdown, and the more than $1,000bn (£716bn €773bn) that has been spent on it, has had any impact on -narcotics abuse or on the violent trade that feeds it.
Government ministers and officials gathered in Vienna for the highest-level international conference in 10 years on the drugs question last week issued a declaration re-affirming a commitment to combating narco-trafficking.
But differences emerged at the United Nations' Commission on Narcotic Drugs over whether the emphasis should be on prevention or cure.
Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, acknowledged in Vienna that the "world drug problem has been contained but not solved". However, an unintended consequence of international drug control efforts had been the creation of a "criminal black market of staggering proportions".
While opposing calls for the legalisation of narcotics, Mr Costa said: "When mafias can buy elections, candidates, political parties - in a word, power - the consequences can only be highly destabilising. While ghettos burn, west Africa is under attack, drug cartels threaten central America and drug money penetrates bankrupt financial institutions."
Drug reformers greeted the Mr Obama's nomination of Gil Kerlikowske, at present the Seattle police chief, to serve as head of national drug control policy as indicating a likely switch in emphasis from enforcement to treatment. "The success of our efforts to reduce the flow of drugs is largely dependent on our ability to reduce demand for them," the drug tsar nominee said.
As the debate intensifies, some experts are offering radical solutions, including decriminalisation, at least in the case of marijuana. The anti-prohibitionists include civil libertarians, former drug war enforcers and some legislators.
In cash-strapped California, Tom Ammiano, Democratic assemblyman for San Francisco, has introduced a bill to tax and regulate -marijuana, which is estimated - at $14bn annually - to be the state's most lucrative crop. "With our state in an on-going fiscal crisis, it is time to bring this major piece of our economy into the light of day," he said.
Jeffrey A. Miron, a senior economics lecturer at -Harvard and free-market -libertarian, estimated in a paper published in December that the drugs war in the US alone cost authorities $44.1bn a year. Legalising all banned drugs, in contrast, would raise $32.7bn annually in taxation.
Federal spending in this area alone has risen 10-fold since the presidency of -Ronald Reagan.
While mainstream experts do not believe legalisation is either likely or socially beneficial, Jack Cole, a former enforcer turned reformer, disagrees: "I think it's going to happen."
The former New Jersey undercover drug enforcement agent told a church audience: "I felt very bad about my part in implementing what today I've decided is not just an unjust war on drugs but is a terribly destructive policy."