Almost 40 years ago, on 28 January 1972, United States President Richard Nixon signed his war on drugs into law. Drugs are “public enemy number one”, said Nixon, and drug addiction had “assumed the dimensions of a national emergency”.
In the 40 intervening years, the US government has spent some £2.5 trillion attempting to destroy the illegal drugs trade at a horrendous human cost – both at home and abroad.
In Mexico 34,612 people have been killed since December 2006 when President Philip Calderon initiated the country’s war against the drug cartels. According to the BBC, the US/Mexico cross-border drugs trade is worth an estimated $13bn (£9bn) a year. A US state department report estimated that as much as 90% of all cocaine consumed in the US comes via Mexico.
Around the world a “clampdown” on drugs continues unabated - from Russia to the US to Columbia to Afghanistan. The same failed policies are being repeated time and again, flying in the face of all the evidence and leaving behind a trail of devastation and a pile of bodies.
In Britain, Professor David Nutt was sacked in 2009 as chief drugs advisor by Home Secretary Alan Johnson for scientifically challenging the hysterical culture of current drugs debate. In the US, the discourse around prohibition is equally mired in falsehood, with attitudes unlikely to change unless there is a spread of the violence that plagues Mexico across the border and into the US.
In June of this year, a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy argued that the “global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”. Previously a 2006 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted that, “the total number of drug users in the world is now estimated at some 200 million people, equivalent to about 5 per cent of the global population age 15-64.” The report went on to say that “In…North America [and] Western Europe, abuse levels remained constant for opiates…In Europe…cocaine use continues to expand.”
Globally, the illegal drug trade supports a worldwide crime empire second only in value to oil. Yet while Latin America functions as a violent narcotics sweatshop for the nouveau riche of London and New York, more visible consequences of prohibition in Britain can be seen on the pallid faces trying to catch the eyes of shoppers on many of London’s most famous streets. Brushing them aside as they ask for spare change is easy enough of course, but you won’t get rid of them that easily. Nick Davies, in his excellent book Flat Earth News cites a confidential Downing Street report which was leaked to the press in 2005 claiming that black market drug users were responsible for 85% of shoplifting, between 70 and 80% of burglaries and 54% of robberies.
Many of Britain’s 300,000 heroin users suffer health problems such as septicaemia, hepatitis, ruptured veins and, occasionally, overdose. What much of the public discourse around drug addiction ignores, however, is that almost all of the harmful effects of heroin are caused not by the drug itself, but by toxic contaminants which are added by unregulated and unscrupulous street sellers. In the respected Merck health journal they are clear about the effect prohibition has on drug content and quality:
"Long-term effects of the opioids themselves are minimal; even decades of methadone use appear to be well tolerated physiologically, although some long-term opioid users experience chronic constipation, excessive sweating, peripheral edema, drowsiness, and decreased libido. However, many long-term users who inject opioids have adverse effects from contaminants (eg, talc) and adulterants (eg, non-prescription stimulant drugs); cardiac, pulmonary, and hepatic damage from infections such as HIV infection and hepatitis B or C, which are spread by needle sharing and nonsterile injection techniques."
Opponents of legalisation will evoke the possibility of increased drug use as a consequence of the legal availability of hard drugs. The likelihood of this happening, however, must be set against a backdrop of worsening drug conflict in the developing world and increasingly dangerous substances being peddled on British streets; not to mention the fact that drug-fuelled crime shows little sign of abating any time soon.
Legalisation is not necessarily the solution, but may be the least bad option. The other option, if you can call it that, is to let the bodies continue to pile up for another 40 years.