War or peace? Prohibition, endangerment and the war on drugs

If prohibition was a genuine protection racket, at least we would be protected from harm. But it isn’t. It is much worse than that. It is effectively an “endangerment racket”, says Danny Kushlick.

Fifty years ago almost every United Nations member state signed up to support a global prohibition on the non-medical use of certain drugs. Ever since, citizens all over the world have repeatedly voted for governments that proclaim the virtues of fighting a “war on drugs”. Through taxes we pay governments to enforce drug laws to protect us, our children, our communities and our countries from the all too real harms of drug misuse.

However, the regime of prohibition (the criminalisation of production, supply and use) has been applied only to certain drugs. It has rarely been applied to tobacco and alcohol. But who does this prohibition protect?

In a classic protection racket, a racketeer threatens damage to a business, or harm to an individual, unless the victim pays the racketeer “protection” money. The 1961 UN Single Convention on drugs, to which the UK is a signatory, frames its approach in terms of a concern for the “health and welfare of mankind” and a desire to “combat” the “serious evil” of“addiction to narcotic drugs”. It then places an obligation on signatories to put in place a blanket prohibition (and thereby eliminate use and eradicate supply) in order to protect us from this “evil”.

The threat, as articulated, is that if we do not support the prohibition, the “evil” will take over and we will no longer be “protected” from addiction. But the global prohibition – the“war on drugs” – has singularly failed to stop people using drugs. The reality is that worldwide there are up to 300 million users. All the evidence shows that the level of law enforcement has little or no direct relationship with levels of drug misuse.

A gift to the drug barons

Not only has law failed to regulate drugs misuse, like alcohol prohibition, the war on drugs has gifted the multi-billion pound trade to drug-trafficking organisations and unregulated dealers, who are genuinely dangerous to all of us, our children and our communities. In 2008, The UN Office on Drugs and Crime conceded that the “drug control system” (a euphemism for prohibition) itself fuels the $320 billion a year criminal trade, describing it as one of five major “unintended consequences”. The recently published Alternative World Drug Report gives an even more comprehensive exposition of the harms caused by the war on drugs.

Governments use this “unintended consequence” – the creation of the second largest money earner for organised crime globally – as a further pretext to demand more “protection” money. However, this second payment, now apparently spent on fighting organised crime, does nothing to stop drug trafficking organisations. In fact, it serves as a price support mechanism, turning simple agricultural products into commodities literally worth more than their weight in gold. An understanding of basic economics tells us that squeezing the supply of any trade that has a heavy demand will serve only to raise the price (notwithstanding the fact that prices are further hiked by virtue of the risk undertaken throughout the supply chain). And so a self-perpetuating vicious circle is created, whereby control of the market by unregulated suppliersis used to justify continuation or escalation of the war.

These two “rackets” (the one built upon the other) have not only failed to protect communities and children, but have also brought entire nation-states to their knees. Prohibition has turned Guinea Bissau, for example, from a fragile state to a narco-state within months of the cocaine trade crossing its borders.

Dirty and dangerous

Prohibition has also brought the law into disrepute around the world, as millions break an unenforceable law and use whatever drugs they want, and the vast criminal profits are used to corrupt officials at all levels. Prohibition has made the drugs trade as dirty and dangerous as it could possibly be; unregulated dealers sell adulterated drugs to minors and violent criminals control much of the trade, and more than 50,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence since 2006. Year after year the Afghan poppy crop supplies the majority of the raw material for the manufacture of illegal heroin.

If prohibition was a genuine protection racket, at least we would be protected from harm. But it isn’t. It is much worse than that. It is effectively an “endangerment racket”. The first payment we make creates plentiful money-making opportunities for organised crime. The second payment provides the budgets for those given the task of“fighting organised crime” – FBI, CIA DEA, SOCA and many others around the world. The second payment of “endangerment money” distracts us from the fallout from the first racket and further serves to perpetuate the overarching prohibitionist regime.

However, there is good news. Governments are not organised crime groups. We can stop paying “endangerment money” any time we like, by voting for an individual or party that is seeking alternatives to global prohibition, and the endangerment racket that accompanies it.

We can stop governments spending our money on a regime that ultimately endangers those who are most vulnerable and at risk, and press them to reassign the vast sums involved to a “post-drug war Marshall Plan”. Around the world we are seeing the beginning of more pragmatic approaches to legalisation and regulation. As citizens we have a choice. We can use our vote for peace – or for war.

Danny Kushlick is director of Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which he founded in 1996. He is a former drug counsellor and now campaigns for an end to the war on drugs. He was contributing editor for After the War on Drugs –Blueprint for Regulation, 2009

This article was originally published on the Open Democracy site in August 2012.

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1 Response to War or peace? Prohibition, endangerment and the war on drugs

  1. Gart Valenc says:

    As far as drugs are concerned, we need to ask ourselves, what sort of “view of the world” or more generally, what sort of moral code is consistent with the prohibition regime and the War on Drugs policies.

    When Prohibition was trumpeted as the panacea to society ‘oldest vice’, its goal was to allow us to live in a drug-free world. Well, fifty years later we are still waiting for the utopia to materialise. Meanwhile, all Prohibition and the War on Drugs have delivered is utter dystopia: massive incarceration, corruption, destruction of democratic institutions, thousands upon thousands of killings, intimidation and execution of journalists, judges, politicians and anybody brave enough to question the corrupting and murderous practices of the drug trafficking gangs that control the US$320 billions the illegal drug market generates in revenue every year, that’s right, EVERY YEAR.

    What sort of moral code encourages a government to support Prohibition, a regime whose “positive” results (i.e. cessation of consumption and elimination of supply) are negligible, whereas its negative effects are of such extent that people with a different moral code, or at least a more consistent one, would not hesitate to consider them a price too high to pay, were them the result of any other policy but the War on Drugs.

    What sort of moral code makes a government believe that is right to wage a war with such appalling consequences: almost 100,000 killings in the past six years in Mexico alone, people sentenced to death in Asia and the Middle East, systematic violation of human rights, extrajudicial killings, thousand upon thousands of widows and orphans, large number of displaced and dispossessed people… and the list goes on and on and on.

    There is no doubt in my mind that were such levels of criminal acts been happening as a result of policies other than the War on Drugs, people with a different moral code, or at least a more consistent one, would be condemning them as crimes against humanity.

    Gart Valenc
    Twitter: @gartvalenc

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