It is wrecking the government of Mexico. It is financing the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is throwing 11,000 Britons into jail. It is corrupting democracy throughout Latin America. It is devastating the ghettoes of America and propagating Aids in urban Europe. Its turnover is some £200bn a year, on which it pays not a penny of tax. Thousands round the world die of it and millions are impoverished. It is the biggest man-made blight on the face of the earth.
No, it is not drugs. They are as old as humanity. Drugs will always be a challenge to individual and communal discipline, alongside alcohol and nicotine. The curse is different: the declaration by states that some drugs are illegal and that those who supply and use them are criminals. This is the root of the evil.
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By outlawing products poppy and coca that are in massive global demand, governments merely hand huge untaxed profits to those outside the law and propagate anarchy. Repressive regimes, such as some Muslim ones, have managed to curb domestic alcohol consumption, but no one has been able to stop the global market in heroin and cocaine. It is too big and too lucrative, rivalling arms and oil on the international monetary exchanges. Forty years of "the war on drugs" have defeated all-comers, except political hypocrites.
Most western governments have turned a blind eye and decided to ride with the menace, since the chief price of their failure is paid by the poor. In Britain Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Gordon Brown felt tackling the drugs economy was not worth antagonising rightwing newspapers. Like most rich westerners they relied on regarding drugs as a menace among the poor but a youthful indiscretion among their own offspring.
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The full horror of drug criminality is now coming home to roost far from the streets of New York and London. In countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, drugs are so endemic that criminalising them merely fuels a colossal corruption. It is rendering futile Nato’s Afghan war effort, which requires the retraining of an army and police too addicted either to cure or to sack. Poppies are the chief source of cash for farmers whose hearts and minds Nato needs to win, yet whose poppy crop (ultimately for Nato nations) finances the Taliban. It is crazy.
The worst impact of criminalisation is on Latin America. Here the slow emergence of democratic governments from Bolivia through Peru and Columbia to Mexico is being jeopardised by America’s "counter-narcotics" diplomacy through the US Drug Enforcement Agency. Rather than try to stem its own voracious appetite for drugs, rich America shifts guilt on to poor supplier countries. Never was the law of economics demand always evokes supply so traduced as in Washington’s drugs policy. America spends $40bn a year on narcotics policy, imprisoning a staggering 1.5m of its citizens under it.
Cocaine supplies routed through Mexico have made that country the drugs equivalent of a Gulf oil state. An estimated 500,000 people are employed in the trade, all at risk of their lives, with 45,000 soldiers deployed against them. Border provinces are largely in the hands of drug barons and their private armies. In the past four years 28,000 Mexicans have died in drug wars, a slaughter that would outrage the world if caused by any other industry (such as oil). Mexico’s experience puts in the shade the gangsterism of America’s last failed experiment in prohibition, the prewar alcohol ban.
As a result, it is South American governments and not the sophisticated west that are now pleading for reform. A year ago an Argentinian court gave American and British politicians a lesson in libertarianism by declaring that "adults should be free to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state". Mexico declared drugs users "patients not criminals". Ecuador released 1,500 hapless women imprisoned as drug mules while the British government locks them for years in Holloway.
September 22, 2010