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Sunday 8 August 2010

Forget failed war on drugs, we need to make our peace

If we had the courage to legalise all drugs, we could transform so many lives, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

'I SAW at close range the failure of the US War on Drugs," wrote Conrad Black in his first post-prison article, "with absurd sentences, (including 20 years for marijuana offences, although 42 per cent of Americans have used marijuana and it is the greatest cash crop in California). A trillion dollars have been spent, a million easily replaceable small fry are in prison, and the targeted substances are more available and of better quality than ever, while producing countries such as Colombia and Mexico are in a state of civil war."

He's right, you know. The war on drugs has failed everywhere, and the consequences are all about us in violence, corruption, bulging prisons and wasted lives. The Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, surveying the nightmare that is his country, has just called for a "fundamental debate" on drug legalisation. After four years in office, faced with 28,000 dead from drug-war murders during that period, he is prepared at last to open his mind.

Last year, Fernando Henriques Cardoso, ex-president of Brazil, called for a policy of harm-reduction through education, treatment and prevention rather than repression. In Latin America, he wrote, 'the "unintended" consequences [of the war on drugs] have been disastrous. Thousands of people have lost their lives in drug-associated violence. Drug lords have taken over entire communities. Misery has spread. Corruption is undermining fragile democracies . . . continuing the drugs war with more of the same is ludicrous."

Before I argue plaintively, yet again, for a grown-up debate on the issue, may I say that my experience of illegal drugs is confined to a few puffs of a few marijuana joints in the Seventies. I didn't like the smell, thought it made me and everyone else boring and haven't had any since, but I didn't care that it was illegal -- since I thought the law an ass -- and I'd acquire some tomorrow if I got one of those horrible medical conditions that it alleviates. Some of my younger friends use ecstasy --which I'd try if I went clubbing -- but I've no interest in cocaine or any other fashionable substances, since I find my legal drug -- alcohol -- provides quite enough enjoyment and stimulation.

My other legal drug of choice, tobacco, I gave up in the late Eighties because I didn't want to die of any of the nasty diseases it causes. I hardly ever take a prescription drug because I view them with deep suspicion and think many of them do us more harm than good.

Our drug classifications are based on old prejudices. It's time that the good guys began to think logically how societies can find a better way to deal with the drugs we have arbitrarily labelled as illegal other than through hysterical rhetoric, unenforceable laws and haemorrhaging money.

I could talk about Columbia, centre of global cocaine-trade, whose cartels in addition to funding Farc terrorism to the tune of hundreds of millions annually, are ravaging West Africa, its transit hub, by turning little countries into narco-states. Or there's Afghanistan, where the poor might be persuaded to grow food except that they get much better prices for opium because of the distortions of supply-and-demand. Illegal drugs aren't just big business. They're business so enormous they're a cancerous tumour on the world economy, making up close to 10 per cent of world trade, with profits all comfortably tax-free and available to finance terrorism, prostitution, people-smuggling and whatever other disgusting corrupt activities you're having yourself.

Last week, Sunday Independent journalists wrote eloquently about the addicts and criminals outside our Talbot Street office, mostly victims of the failed war on drugs. If we had the courage to legalise and regulate all drugs as we do alcohol and tobacco, we could transform the lives of our vulnerable young. With drugs legal and reasonably priced, there would be no drug dealers to get a kid hooked, criminalised and dealing or robbing to feed his habit, no drug gangs murdering each other in our streets, no addicts mouldering in our prisons, no users dying from dirty needles and adulterated drugs and no gardai wasting their time on an unwinnable war.

Quite apart from anything else, at a time of economic stringency, we would no longer be throwing money down a black hole but instead filling our coffers with new taxes which would give us much more scope to care for addicts and educate the public about the realities of all drugs.

Alone, we can only tinker with the problem, but would it not be refreshing if some of our politicians (many of whom will have taken the odd illegal substance themselves) showed some courage, consulted a public which is better-informed than they think, and started a major debate within the EU. Powerful people shouldn't have to go to jail to discover how millions of people are being destroyed by a failed strategy mindlessly applied by those who lack the wisdom to face the truth.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards