Radhika Jani, last year’s BME Officer at Bristol SU, argues for the decriminalisation of narcotics and that the criminalisation of drugs initiates crime and targets the most vulnerable of society.
The world has come a long way since President Nixon declared that drugs are America’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, launching the world into a multi-billion-dollar war that can now only be described as unjust and counterproductive.
I am currently interning at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a Bristol-based think tank and NGO that works to end the war on drugs and establish effective, humane systems of drug regulation worldwide. Working here has consolidated my belief in the pressing necessity for drug policy reform.
‘Drugs alone do not threaten national security any more than tobacco does’
At least $100 billion a year is spent globally on enforcing prohibition but, according to the World Drug Report 2016, 247 million people used illegal drugs last year and UK drug-use has remained stable since 2010. Clearly drug laws do not minimise demand; they simply divert the supply and control of the lucrative market into the hands of violent organised crime.
Indeed, the illegality of drugs drives the value of producer plants up greatly, creating a huge profit motive for these groups to exploit. They control a market worth more than $320 billion, assigning them the power to threaten state authority, development and national law. The Manchurian army units, who used illegal revenues from opiates to fund terrorist operations against the wishes of the Tokyo government, are an example of this, along with Escobar in Columbia, Du Yuesheng in Shanghai and contemporary warlords in Afghanistan.
As proven, drugs alone do not threaten national security any more than tobacco does. It is the criminal frameworks that do – frameworks that would not exist if legalisation and government regulation were instated.
‘The war on drugs almost delivers the antithesis to the safety and protection of public health it promises’
Thus, rather than reducing crime, prohibition actively creates it: as ex-cop Neil Woods expresses, ‘it’s not criminals that cause crime, it’s opportunity’. Woods likewise admits that criminal drug organisations only become ‘nastier’ because of tighter policing, and policing has ‘no impact on the demand whatsoever’. Since 2006, over 100,000 deaths can be attributed to drug-war violence in Mexico alone. It has also been seen that a crackdown in one region simply means another increases production to meet demand.
People are dying because of the UK's anti-evidence approach to dealing with drugs. Time to decriminalise. https://t.co/RkiVXaVoCp
— Ross Greer (@Ross_Greer) August 15, 2017
Furthermore, the war on drugs almost delivers the antithesis to the safety and protection of public health it promises. To make the case most lucidly, in Russia, injecting drug users account for 93% of all HIV infections, and no one has ever contracted HIV, or overdosed for that matter, at a supervised injection site.
Anyone’s Child is an initiative launched by Transform, led by people who have lost a loved one to a drug-related death and campaign for policy reform. They do so because through legal regulation, governments can control the availability of drugs and ensure transparency with their strength and purity. There would be strict age controls and tiered regulatory intensity depending on the riskiness of each drug.
If the practicalities of regulation seem difficult to conceive, Transform have created a mock-up of 5 potential models that could be employed (see below), and remember we already regulate many potentially harmful substances, alcohol and tobacco included.
Many who fret at the prospect of legalisation often argue that an end to prohibition will increase drug use, but there is no evidence to back this. Over ten years on from Portugal decriminalising drug possession in 2001, levels of drug use remain below the European average, and drug-related deaths have decreased dramatically.
It is useful to take the tobacco situation as a parallel case study. Tobacco use is rapidly decreasing in many countries. This reduction was achieved without criminalising smokers, but with health education and stricter market regulation, which was only possible because tobacco is a legal product. The same could be done for drugs. Our focus should be policy that reduces harm, not necessarily use.
‘The war on drugs was waged specifically to vilify the White House’s ‘two enemies: the anti-war left and black people”
The concern that a legalised drug market will be exploited by free market ideology is, I believe, a legitimate one. As ‘big tobacco’ wreaked havoc, people fear ‘big meth’ would go further. But a solution exists. The graph below demonstrates how legal regulation forms the healthy middle between supporters of failed prohibition policy and libertarians who believe in drugs being made freely available:
Lastly, I’d make the point that the war on drugs is a war against human rights, and I feel it of most importance to note prohibition’s oppressive origins. In 1994, Nixon’s chief adviser John Ehrlichman told Harper’s Magazine that the war on drugs was waged specifically to vilify the White House’s ‘two enemies: the anti-war left and black people.’
He states: ‘we knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. […] Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.’
‘The war on drugs is a war against human rights’
You may be quick to dismiss this as hyperbole, but when we assess the racist ramifications of prohibition even now, Ehrlichman’s words become hauntingly relevant. Despite black people using fewer drugs than white people in the UK, a 2010 report found they get stopped and searched 6 times the amount. In 2009/10, the Metropolitan Police charged 78% of black people caught in possession of cocaine compared with 44% of whites. MP David Lammy’s recent report of September 2017 reports BME drug offenders are 240% more likely to be sent to prison than white people. The statistics go on.
The war on drugs is also a classist one, with academics noting addiction’s association with reduced economic productivity and therefore public disapproval.
Through prohibition, drugs have long been used to scapegoat and disproportionately persecute the poor and people of colour: historically powerless communities. On a wider note, drug users are so systematically dehumanised that public opinion tends not to sympathise with abuses upon their human rights, abuses such as excessive prison sentences and even death penalties.
‘Through prohibition, drugs have long been used to scapegoat and disproportionately persecute the poor and people of colour’
Rather than a relaxing of the law, legalisation restores governmental control, eliminates a large-scale destabilising criminal operation, saves lives and frees up resources to improve public services. Legalisation should cease to be considered ‘radical’: it is the more sensible option.
To find out more about Transform’s campaign and ways to get involved, visit www.tdpf.org.uk. For information on Bristol Takes Drugs Seriously – a week of action with events including activist training and a drug policy discussion chaired by Thangam Debbonaire MP – and how to get tickets, go to http://www.tdpf.org.uk/blog/bristol-takes-drugs-seriously .
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