Drug Wars, Futile Fight

Drug Wars, Futile Fight

Michael Dwyer

My Milanese friends could never get the fact that I had no Irish identity card. What happened they would ask if a policeman stopped me? Why would a policeman stop me I would reply? To check your identity….and so forth.

You see in Italy by law you must carry an identity card or other proof of identity. The police have the right to stop any person to check that they are carrying their card. The card was made for the law and the law made for the card but all of it is just an excuse to give the police the power to stop anyone they want without a reason. We are fighting a drugs war on much the same basis

That is to say, why are drugs illegal?

It is only in the last century that we have thought to regulate the sale of narcotics. During the Great War it was possible to buy a gift box in Harrods for the boys at the front which contained amongst other things, syringes, cocaine solution and heroin. The first attempt to restrict marijuana in the United States at a federal level was through taxation. Many cultures used naturally occurring mind altering substances in their rituals.

As Prof Eileen Kane observed in all cultures at all times in human history only three things are constant; marriage, alcohol and hallucinogenic drugs. Yet today we ban the sale of a wide array of drugs natural and artificial. Opiates, cannabinoids, MDME, psychedelics fungal and mass produced are the most popular of our forbidden fruits.

Why do we make the sale of these substances illegal?

Why do we wage war?

Why has this subject become a touchstone of conservative values across the world?

It is one of the great shibboleths of modern political life; one can never be soft on drugs. I am stringing this out and repeating myself for a reason. I really want you to think, why do we ban drugs? Until we have cleared up the reasons for our behaviour we cannot advance the discussion. We must first understand what it is we wish to achieve by making the sale of some drugs illegal. Process is fine but only by measuring outcomes can we see if a policy is a success. So why do we ban heroin or hash? What is the desired outcome.

We control these substances because they are bad for us. Yet we do not ban cigarettes or beer. And we know for a certain fact that many many more die from fags than opium. We know that every year more people die from prescription medications than all the illicit substances put together. Heroin is bad for one, but not that bad. Cocaine is worse, and crack is worse again. But ironically crack came about as a market response to the higher cost of cocaine in the mid eighties, in Miami and New York, for sale in the poorer parts of the city. Ecstasy is not dangerous, nor is cannabis or peyote or magic mushrooms; at least not dangerous when compared to legal recreational drugs.

So it is clear that we do not control these drugs simply because they are bad for our health. Rather we ban them because they are not the drugs that we use and feel safe with, the drugs we understand. And then we are deeply suspicious of those who try to evangelise for liberalisation or legalisation.

Whether the advocate is Howard Marks, Ming Flanagan or some hippy musician we suspect the reason they seek change is personal not principled. They just want to be allowed to spark up a doobie without fear of arrest.

They have an agenda.

Then there is the aesthetic of addiction which surely informs the visceral rejection most have to the idea of liberalisation. Most of us have grown up far from intravenous drug use. My education about the subject started and ended with Starsky and Hutch, and Kojak. From these sources I learned that Junkies would get hooked from one hit of Horse and it would eventually kill them. Addiction to heroin was essentially a death sentence and kicking the drug was virtually impossible. Junkies would steal, prostitute themselves and kill in order to feed the need. Almost all of this was untrue. However the aesthetics of heroin addiction are horrible. When I used to regularly pass through Central Station in Milan in the 1990s it was a haven for heroin addicts. Those who had been using longest were frankly repulsive, their clothes rank their hair filthy, their bodies emaciated they would walk with the weaving uncertainty of a toddler. It was horrid. It was also heartbreaking. No sane person would want this to happen to their child, so we ban it.

Of course there is the nub of it. Addiction is a moral and physical disaster for the addict, their family and wider society. Addiction to anything is terribly destructive. Heroin, coke, crack or speedballs of course are the most visibly destructive and consequently we treat them most seriously. But all these drugs carry consequences that can be catastrophic in individual cases, be it long term hash use, amphetamines or ecstasy. Parents are terrified for the well being of their children and they demand that the state play its role in protection too.
It is not working.

In fact it is much more than not working. Prohibition is causing precisely those effects that make us want to ban drugs. And that folks is our problem. We need to untangle the consequences of drug use from the consequences of drug policy. Prohibition is killing our children. It is killing ten of thousands every year and it is making thousands of criminals enormously rich.

In our quiet little country we have seen a frightening growth in murderous violence over the last twenty years. In Dublin and Limerick gangs of coked up young men engage in pitched battles or carry out assassinations in Pubs and betting offices. The violence spirals ever upwards as different gangs try to get control of the drugs business across their town or city.
This business is worth hundreds of millions every year. For youngsters who may have poor prospects working as dealers, couriers or enforcers they can earn vastly more than any of their straight pals can dream. In Britain the value of the illegal drugs trade was estimated at £6.4 billion six years ago. Globally the international trade is guesstimated at over half a trillion dollars. Drugs are one of the most widely traded and valuable commodities on earth BEAUSE THEY ARE ILLEGAL.

It is a simple fact. Governments around the world in conjunction with bodies like the UN or WHO have made many many bad men very rich indeed.

And we always knew it would.

When the USA brought in Alcohol Prohibition it transformed the Mafia from a local import doing business in the Italian ghettoes to an international power. It gave the mob the resources to buy influence at local and national level. Without prohibition organised crime in America might never have got off the ground.
Drugs cause crime because the traffic in drugs is a crime.

All over the world in the less attractive streets and parks of our big cities you can see women sell their bodies to men. These women tend to fall into two camps. Those who have been kidnapped by criminals or in some way fallen into their power and are forced to sell themselves by these Mafiosi.

The others are the crack hos, famed of song and story. They prostitute themselves to pay for a drug habit which consumes them. They do this because the price of drugs is held at massively inflated rates by the dealers. The cost of illegal drugs bears no relation to their production costs and very often in cities local gangs will engage in price fixing cartels. And the competition authorities refuse to act! Making drugs illegal pushes women to prostitute themselves.

It is a direct consequence of policy.

Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Dundalk. Just a few of the places in the world where the activities of terrorists are funded by the government control of drugs. In Mexico the war on drugs has caused the tens of thousands of deaths. In Ciudad Juarez alone there were in one year three thousand drug murders.

Not only is the West’s conflicting desires of consumption and prohibition destroying the fabric of many producer nations it is pouring money into the hands of terrorists like the Shining path Maoists in Peru, or the Islamicist radicals across Asia. If it has not already happened, drugs money will soon topple a government and install its own friendly power.

There is an arc of crime which reaches across the globe. From the Golden triangle to Turkey, onto Sicily, North Africa and onto Colombia and Bolivia in South America. The huge profits made in the drugs trade are then used to fund a mass of other criminal activity and the chief perpatrators remain untouchable with protection bought from the proceeds of drugs.
We give them this money. Their market, their business could disappear overnight if we chose to act. We have the capability to transform the face of our inner cities and the population of our prisons.

Last year in the USA alone fifteen billion dollars were spent on the drugs war. Think in Ireland of the amount of time our police force spends dealing with drug crime and drug related crime. Think of all the people in prison today because of drug crime. Think of all the dead men, dead because the trade is so very lucrative. Think what we could do with all the resources we now plough into policing and treating drug problems.

Even the great bulk of illness related to heroin use is connected with the additives used to cut the drug not the heroin itself. The cankers, the ulcerations, the needle sharing, the over doses, all could be a thing of the past if the users were buying pure calibrated pharmaceutical heroin from their local chemist.
In 1969 Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. In the last forty two years virtually every country on the planet has followed suit. Yet in the face of such seemingly impossible odd, the drugs are winning. More to the point the drug dealers are winning big.

No one wants their child to become an addict. But prohibition is not limiting or controlling consumption. Rather it makes consumption much more hazardous than it need be. I could appeal to liberal principle and point out that the state has no right to tell me what I can or cannot put into my body. I could point out the inconsistency of celebrating Alcohol which does more damage than any other substance, while coming down heavy on a harmless spliff. I could say that legalisation would be a panacea for all our problems but that would be a lie.

No matter what laws we pass or repeal some people will get high. Some of those people will become dependent. Some people will die. If hard drugs were made legal tomorrow maybe there would be an explosion of opiate addiction. I don’t think so, but I can’t know. What I can ask is this. What would the outcome of legalisation have to be, for it to be worse that the outcome we already have from prohibition. That’s got to be some scary result!

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