Fight the war, not the drugs Print
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Thursday, 01 September 2011 18:05
Fight the war, not the drugs
September 1, 2011 12:54 pm by John Paul Rathbone
The “drugs war” is stuck in an expensive and gory rut. The 40-year old policy o*f p*rohi*bitio*n *ha*s failed. Production of illegal drugs has increased, so too consumption, and the violence associated with trafficking has only got worse – last week’s massacre of 53 people at a Monterrey casino in Mexico is just the latest grotesque incident.
The conventional alternative is legalisation. It argues that prohibition creates illicit markets worth billions of dollars a year. If cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and cannabis were instead handled in the same way as alcohol – available for taxed sale across the counter to any adult – the illicit markets would disappear and so would their attendant problems, especially violence.
This approach is theoretically neat but no panacea. What would be the effect of greater drugs availability on addiction rates? Impossible to know, although alcohol’s example is discouraging: it already accounts for far more prison incarcerations and substance abuse in the US than all illicit drugs combined. The taxes required to bring legalised drugs anywhere close to their current illicit prices would also have to be extremely high. That would prompt tax evasion – and subsequent enforcement problems comparable to that created by prohibition in itself. Finally, there is no will to legalise hard drugs, anywhere. Thinking about legalisation as a politically viable alternative is mere onanism.
So what’s the alternative, indeed is there one?
Over the past year, I’ve asked senior Pentagon, Mexican and Colombian officials what their definition of “success” in the drugs war might be. Their responses were the same. “To reduce violence to levels so that the military is no longer required and it becomes a police problem.” “To reduce violence so that citizens can lead otherwise normal lives.” “The legalisation debate is interesting, but in the meantime governments must act to reduce violence.” In short, the mindset of people who live the problem every day is more focused on reducing the “war” element of “the drugs war” rather than reducing the “drugs”.
This has the merit of realism. Reducing violence is feasible. Human experience – recent and ancient – shows that reducing drug demand and supply is not. When the Psalmist sang of “wine that maketh glad the heart of man”, the truth he recorded was already old. But how to reduce violence? A strategic approach would need to use market incentives to penalise or discourage violent behaviour.
Mark Kleiman, UCLA professor of Public Policy and author of “Drugs and Drug policy: what everyone needs to know” elaborates on the idea in Foreign Affairs.
Among his suggestions:
Switch the focus away from casual drug users. Instead, focus on the hard core users of heavy drugs who constitute the bulk of drug demand. Legalisation of cannabis should be considered: it is already so ubiquitous that its use can hardly rise further. In any event, eliminating the $10bn of illicit revenue the cannabis trade currently generates, and approximately 10 per cent of US drug-related incarcerations, might well outweigh the damage from any increase in abuse.
Stop heavy users of hard drugs from re-offending. This hard core segment accounts for much of the violence associated with drugs. Drug-substitution programs have worked well for heroin addicts; expanding them could cut the 20 per cent of US-Mexican drugs trade made up of heroine. Other approaches, with track records of success, can be used for methamphetamine and cocaine.
Break-up violent drug retail networks. One project in North Carolina did just that by prosecuting the most violent pushers in an active dealing area, and publicly warning the rest they faced the same if they continued. The street market disappeared almost overnight, and affected neighbourhoods became fit places to live once again.
For producers countries, the task is different: to create market disincentives for violence by attacking hardest the most violent cartels. For example, the US Drug Enforcement Agency could announce a crackdown on those US distributors supplied by Mexico’s designated “most violent organisation”. It has the intelligence to do so. The result would be a scramble for new sources and the suppression of violence.
To this list, I would add: curb the illegal flow south of US arms, which account for as much as 70 per cent of the weapons used in Mexico. A serious effort at reducing drug-related violence could also enhance, perhaps incomparably, the US’s standing in Latin America – and at a time when many in Washington and US business circles bemoan its relative decline in the face of China’s rise.
But could such a strategy actually work? Unlike conventional approaches, targeting violence at least has logic behind it. It recognises that there is a spectrum of drugs and behaviours associated with them. Unlike full-scale legalisation, it would not cause a huge increase in drug abuse. It economises on scarce budgetary resources, and squares with what those in the front line of the drug war believe is achievable. It even has a political chance of being adopted. “In the absence of another plausible way out of the current situation,” writes Kleiman, “it might be worth trying.” Indeed.

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