Make drugs legal

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I was sitting in a cafe drinking cola with two drug soldiers. Their guns were on their knees, ready. They were smiling. The woman running the cafe was serious, not smiling. The window was open and we could hear small planes taking off and landing in the jungle of Peru. Earlier, I asked a local mayor if the planes carried drugs, and he had smiled and said “They are air taxis.”

Later I went out with the soldiers. We ran through the jungle and saw coca plants between the bananas. Then we found a coca lab. It was simply two piles of coca leaves, a wood and plastic table and some cans of kerosene. “They have left,” said one of the soldiers, with no emotion. “Will they be back?” I asked. “Probably not. Not if they know that we have been here. They will make another lab in another place. It’s easy.”

This was 27 years ago, early in the “war on drugs”. Already then it felt hopeless.

Danny Kushlick works for Transform, a British group that is trying to change drug laws. People often ask his group to support the ending of prohibition, started in 1961 with the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. They research other possibilities, including the idea of making all drugs legal. Many well-known people agree that change is necessary: Nobel prize economists, police chiefs, comedians and drug activists. Politicians are usually quieter. They are worried that they will lose votes. Barack Obama and David Cameron said they wanted change, with some legalisation, before they were in power. But now they are both silent. The former leader of Mexico, Vicente Fox, waited until he was no longer in power to start his legalisation movement. But today, even world leaders are starting to speak. “That’s new,” said Kushlick.

Recently, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has started global discussions to change thinking about drug laws. Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica said that using drugs is a health problem, not a legal problem. President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala wants legal use and sale of drugs. And in Uruguay, President Jose Mujica wants a new law to allow the government to sell marijuana to people to get tax. “Someone must be first,” he said.

Also, things are changing in the US. In November, three states – Washington, Oregon and Colorado – will vote on legalization of marijuana for adults. This is against federal law and the UN Convention. “We will have difficult arguments,” said Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. “I think things are about to change with cannabis. People want change.”

War on drugs

President Nixon started the global “war on drugs” 40 years ago. However, in Mexico, where 33 people are killed in drug crime every day, this is a huge failure. The “war” has cost over a trillion dollars. Hundreds of thousands of people have been involved: military, customs officers, police and prison staff. But the drug trade is doing very well – earning $320 billion a year – and drug use is still growing. And there are many other terrible results. “It’s like trying to put out an electrical fire with water,” says Sanho Tree.

Drug groups make more profit when they are illegal. There is far more violence when groups compete for power after a large drug group is destroyed by the government. The global war is making societies military and taking away democracy and rights. Also, it allows illegal drug money to go to Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Colombian FARC, ELN, AUC etc. And prisons are full of drug users and sellers, and there is more drug addiction. We must do something.

“It is the biggest, most complicated challenge we have today,” says Mauricio Rodriguez, the Colombian ambassador in London. He is a good friend of President Santos, who has a group of global experts working under the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD). They will report within 12 months.

mexican%20soldiers%20hr_opt.jpeg Mexican soldiers burn 7.6 tonnes of cannabis

Colombians understand the effects of the war on drugs. They are at the front of the Plan Colombia, $7 billion of US money to fight against drugs, and also against leftwing rebellion. In 2002, 28,000 Colombians were dying every year from this war. Now, violence has reduced by about a third, and 58 per cent less coca is produced. “But improvements in Colombia mean other parts of Latin America and the world get worse,” says Rodriguez. “Production has gone to Peru and Bolivia, and traffic has gone mostly to Central American, West Africa and the Caribbean.” This is the “balloon effect”. If you take action in one place, it pushes the illegal drug problem to another place.

Ambassador Rodriguez says that Latin Americans don’t want this drug-related violence any more. “Why do we have to suffer for something that is not our problem. It’s unfair that tens of thousands of Mexicans, Colombians and Guatemalans die because of drug use in the US. The people who use drugs are responsible, and so are the people who created the illegal system. The countries with large drug use need to cut their drug use, or help us change the system.”

The damage?

Many people in the main drug-using countries agree. Recently more people are supporting legalization of some drugs. In Colorado, a survey showed that 61 per cent of people agreed with legalization of cannabis. Other surveys in Britain, Australia and Canada have shown that many more people are changing their opinions.

The number of people who have never tried an illegal drug is going down. So the hysteria around drugs is also going down. People have always taken drugs that change the mind – psycho-active drugs. Animals do too, for example elephants eating too much fermenting fruit, and goats eating coffee beans.

There are many different effects of drugs. But many people think the way drugs are classified is not related to reality, for example with cannabis or “party drugs” like ecstasy. Also, many people think that some legal drugs – alcohol and tobacco, for example – are much more harmful than many illegal drugs. Some illegal drugs have good effects, eg. cannabis (to help with multiple sclerosis) and ecstasy or magic mushrooms (to help with post traumatic stress disorder). But they cannot be researched properly by doctors or patients.

But what about hard drugs?

Heroin and crack cocaine are harmful. Most of the 27 million “problem drug users” in the world are addicted to these. There are many other drugs, like krokodil (a cheaper drug made from heroin) in Russia which has horrible effects.

Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt works with Harm Reduction. She used to be a heroin addict in London. She says drug addiction is a disease and we must treat it as a disease. Also, she thinks the only solution is to make drugs legal so we can control them. “I am afraid, because I think that drug use will increase. But that will not last long.”

In 2001, Portugal started to make the personal use of drugs (including hard drugs) no longer criminal. The results were interesting. The use of drugs increased, but not as fast as in Spain or France. But the important thing was that hard drug addiction fell by half, from about 100,000 to 40,000 addicts in 2011. The number of people dying from hard drugs and HIV infection also fell, HIV by 17 per cent. This is also because Portugal had a good public health programme to help people get off drugs.

This seems strange, but making drug use illegal does not stop people using drugs – making drug use legal does stop them.


Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt understands this well. “I have heard thousands of stories of people who are on heroin, cocaine etc. Most of us were interested because these drugs were illegal. Also, we were at a difficult point in life, we had little love for ourselves, and so we put ourselves in danger. It isn’t important to us that it is a crime and we could go to jail. We just want to use the drug that gives comfort, excitement or pleasure.” She explains more: “People do not want to make problems: they are doing something that they think will help in their lives, maybe only for a while, maybe with lots of other problems. But for most of us, it is clear that the punishment is the cause of most of our other problems, like poverty, homelessness, sex work, stealing and dealing drugs.” These problems create more need for the drug and make it harder to stop using drugs. “It makes me sad that some of the intolerant people who want to punish most are the people who are directly affected. We need to argue that if you make a drug legal, this does not mean that you are saying it is good. You can say: look, we are not changing the laws because we want people to take drugs, but because they are very dangerous.”

There are many good ideas, bringing together supportive treatment and making the drug use no longer criminal. “In Switzerland they saw that people stopped taking heroin faster because they had nothing to fight against; they were still addicted, but when the other problems in life were improved, they didn’t have this huge monster that needed drugs every day.” In Vancouver, Canada, after too many deaths from drugs, they made a “drug use room”. There, drug users can inject legal or illegal drugs safely. They called this the “demilitarized zone”. There are similar ideas in Australia, Spain, Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands.

Decriminalize or legalize?

So why don’t all countries follow Portugal and make the use of all drugs legal?

This is already happening in some ways in about 25 countries, mainly in Europe and Latin American. Here, they take drugs away from people, but they are not prosecuted. However, making drug use legal does not help with the supply of drugs – and the related money and violence.

Drugs do not have much value alone. If you make them illegal, this gives a huge “price support” to drug sellers/traffickers. They make very big profits, and so they need extreme violence and corruption as protection. This is why the gangs are so cruel.

The only way to stop control by the criminals is to legalize and regulate. If drugs are legal, we can tax them. The corrupt banks and companies who do not pay tax and support the drug industry would have to start paying tax. “I want to see a war on drug money,” says ambassador Rodriguez. And we might catch some criminals. For example, Al Capone was only caught after alcohol was made legal in the US – he was caught for not paying taxes in 1933. If we make drugs legal, there could be many benefits. It could stop money going to Taliban warlords, which makes Afghanistan and other countries still unstable. This was reported in a study by former M16 director.

It could cut the number of people in prisons a lot. The world now spends billions on the war on drugs – this could go to health, addiction help and other social support. The drugs would be controlled better so not so many people would die from overdose.

boy%20with%20blackboard%20hr_opt.jpeg Three years for smoking opium. A 16 year old in a Sudanese jail.

But one of the biggest effects would be on HIV/AIDS. More and more people are getting HIV from injecting drugs, and this is the cause of a third of all new HIV infections outside sub-Saharan Africa. Because of punishment for drug use, AIDS is growing in the US, Thailand, China and the old soviet states. In Russia, police often attack drug users, no drug substitutes are allowed, and there are no programmes for exchanging needles. “It is a crime to refuse to cut HIV infection and protect people,” said Richard Branson. He was presenting a strong report by the Global Commission on Drugs. They say world leaders must make drug use legal and invest money to help stop people suffering. If drug use was not a crime, addicts would not hide, they would probably not share needles and might have tests for HIV more. We could stop HIV infections.

Other serious problems could be cut too, for example capital punishment in Iran. This is mainly used for people found with drugs. The money for this is coming from Britain, Ireland and others from a UN programme against drug smuggling. Finally, if drugs were legal, thousands of farmers who grow poppies and coca in some of the world’s poorest countries would be able to earn money with no fear.

What next?

The US is the world’s top consumer of drugs and the strongest protector of the UN Convention, so what happens here is very important. Before the November elections, President Obama is being careful. He has said that he is “critical” of making drugs legal, but he is ready to think about Washington policies. Maybe they are “doing more harm than good in some places”.

There are powerful people in Congress and the military who want drugs to stay illegal, and they have international power. Bolivia saw this when it tried to make coca production legal for traditional use. The US can stop countries that don’t follow the UN Convention, by stopping money from the IMF or World Bank. But when lots of countries all want to make drugs legal together, this may get more difficult for the US to do.

Sanho Tree in the US says: “When we have a regulated model for cannabis, voters will see that this is possible. They will see from examples in Europe with successful hard drugs programmes that this is possible too.”

But he says the main political work is educating the public. It is difficult for many to understand that being tough is the opposite of being effective. Prohibiting drugs is too simple an idea and does not work. It has never worked. Sue Pryce, an academic and mother of a drug addict says: “Drug addicts are very similar to people who agree with prohibiting drugs. Addicts see their drugs as the solution to the problems in life; prohibitionists see prohibition as the solution to the drug problems.

Even if the world, or some countries, accepts that legalization is the solution, it will be very difficult. One very difficult problem is the price: if drugs are too cheap, more people will use them; if they are too expensive, a criminal market will start again.

Antonio Maria Costa used to control drug policy at the UN and did not agree to making drugs legal. He says that multinational corporations will want to take control if drugs become legal. However, Steve Rolles from Transform has a plan for a lot of state control and no advertising. Ideally, the UN would get all countries together to agree. Maybe President Santos’s plan can be a model. But this might not be possible if he needs the UN and Canada to agree. Damon Barrett from Harm Reduction International thinks that change will probably come “from below”. All these people: activists, public educators and ordinary people, will be important when they discuss all these issues.

People have always taken drugs and they always will. The drugs give pleasure and harm people. We can, however, make the drugs safer. This will damage people, society and the world less.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: