The new parliamentary report on the cocaine trade lacks evidence and contradicts current expert thinking on the drug
The home affairs select committee (HASC) yesterday published its report on the cocaine trade, and what a woeful job they have done. It is hard to believe that this committee was the same one that in 2002 called for the government to initiate talks at the UN level to discuss "alternatives ways – including the possibility of legalisation and regulation – to tackle the global drugs dilemma". The current report lacks evidence, contradicts current expert thinking and, frankly, panders to a "tough on drugs" stance that by their own admission does not work.
There are a number of serious problems with the report itself, but from Release's position it is important that two points in particular are addressed.
Firstly, the environmental costing in the report is truly disingenuous. The report in its summary boldly states: "For each gram of cocaine consumed, 4 sq m of tropical forest is destroyed." The HASC points to the submission from the Colombian government that if consumers were made aware of how their drug money was used "they would not only rethink their cocaine habit but actively support the eradication of coca crops from Colombia".
Release has previously pointed out that the environmental argument that cocaine use and production are destroying large swathes of the rainforest is a distorted view. The damage caused to the rainforest is a direct result of the decision to use crop eradication as a method of tackling the production of coca. Sebastian Saville, executive director at Release, was recently invited as part of an international delegation to witness the spraying of crops through aerial fumigation in Colombia. He saw first-hand the devastation caused by spraying poisonous herbicides, ones that would not be tolerated for use in the US or EU, in an attempt by the Colombian government, supported by the US, to destroy coca. In reality, this aerial fumigation causes long-term damage to the land – destroying both coca and other vegetation – making it impossible to grow any crop for a number of years. This forces farmers to move further into the rainforest to locate new land and also to avoid detection by the government.
If HASC want this issue to be taken seriously, then it should have presented all the facts and evidence on this matter. Our colleagues at Transnational Institute have done some great work in this area. It is also worth watching the documentary film Shovelling Water where one can actually see the disastrous effects of this futile political gesture.
Secondly, the position taken by the committee in respect of the role of sentencing is frankly ridiculous. The HASC criticises the length of custodial sentences, stating that 47 months for the supply or intent to supply cocaine "may be tending to leniency". This is at direct odds with the opinion of the Sentencing Advisory Panel (SAP), which last year highlighted that current sentencing for offences involving drugs was disproportionate when considering other more serious offences such as violent offences.
The SAP consultation paper compared the average sentence for importation and exportation of drugs (84 months) with a number of other offences including death by dangerous driving (44 months), GBH with intent to wound (50.1 months) and rape (79.7 months) – it is shocking that a violent sexual attack is treated less seriously than drug trafficking. Furthermore, SAP identified that the evidence shows lengthy sentences have little deterrent effect, especially considering the profits to be made from drug dealing. It is surprising, considering the level of academic and legal expertise on the Sentencing Advisory Panel, that HASC in their report paid no attention to the consultation paper on sentencing for drug offences.
Finally, and continuing on the sentencing issue, the HASC stated that: "We strongly believe that, if custodial sentences are handed down to cocaine users, they should be sufficiently long to ensure that the user can complete a treatment programme in prison." There are so many things flawed about this statement but, most importantly, to suggest that one of the considerations of sentencing should be the completion of a treatment programme is frankly outrageous – people who need treatment for health problems should not be in prison, and that should have been the recommendation.
It is time that politicians realised the futility of pursuing the current strategy of prohibition – a strategy that has serious and harmful consequences for the whole of society. A proper debate must be had by the public, the media and politicians about how best to regulate and control all drugs. The HASC report dismisses the notion of legal regulation (which it incorrectly refers to as decriminalisation) but gives no good reason as to why this model should not be given serious consideration.
March 4, 2010