One hundred years ago today the International Opium Convention was signed at The Hague.
The original 11 signatory countries agreed to introduce national legislation banning a particular menu of drugs, more for reasons of prejudice and economic vested interests than for their inherent danger. As a result, many drugs remained legal, notably tobacco and alcohol. Since then 182 countries have signed up to the various prohibition conventions that eventually came under the auspice of the UN and the number of substances banned have ‘grown like Topsy’ and continue to do so as the world becomes awash with ‘legal highs’ that are quickly added to the list.
As the author of the soon-to-be published Fixing Drugs: the politics of prohibition I wonder is this birthday a matter for celebration and whether we should look forward to more of the same?
Certainly prohibition has resulted in many happy returns for international criminals who control drug trafficking and for terrorists and insurgents who benefit from the easy pickings of the black market. These profits are paid for by the peasant farmers in some of the poorest countries in the world (like Peru, Bolivia and Afghanistan). They are paid for in the health of drug users (predominantly the young) exposed to the risks of ingesting drugs of unknown strength and purity. They are paid for through the fear and insecurity in the daily lives of those living in areas where drugs are traded and trafficked, in which systemic violence is the norm for enforcing contracts and defending or extending turf. Mexico is unlucky enough to be on the drug war’s front line. These profits are paid for by tax payers across the globe, forced to foot the bill for the massive anti-drugs-industrial-complex: the exponential growth in the criminal justice bill, the overcrowded prisons, the producers of chemicals and hardware for enforcing crop eradication. It is measured in the opportunity cost of resources poured into a costly failed policy. It is paid for in the criminalization of usually law abiding young people, who are simply doing what young people do – taking risks and experimenting with drugs – legal and illegal.
So, should we sing Happy 100th Birthday International Prohibition or should we say: the party‘s over? As I argue in my forthcoming book, there are alternatives, such as decriminalisation and a serious attempt to deal with supply, that governments across the world now need to consider very seriously indeed.