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The war on drugs is ending, slowly and incrementally

Image by PublicDomanPictures
Image by PublicDomainPictures

‘Peace’ talks are breaking out everywhere (the Russians and the West over Syria; Iran and the US speaking after thirty-odd years), but not on the war on drugs. As the Tories unpack their ties and shirts and kitten heels, and presumably, policies, for their annual conference in Manchester this week, one young man has died and five more are hospitalized, after using what they thought was ecstasy at a Manchester nightclub. It’s just one more drug war casualty. Users know the score – well no actually they don’t, because drugs are illegal, they are of unknown purity and potency.

But this country’s illegal drug death toll pales into insignificance when compared to those in Mexico, Afghanistan and Colombia. There, on the drug war’s front line, the deaths are numbered in thousands and monetary costs are in the billions. It is a war that continues to spread. Pyrrhic victories in one place push drugs elsewhere. Coca crop control in Colombia is matched by an expansion in Peru. The intensification of control in Mexico prompts the cartels to migrate to Guatemala. Then when all else fails – or becomes too costly for the cartels, Africa offers attractive possibilities. There, many countries have just the kind of infrastructure the cartels need: poverty; underdevelopment; and police forces dedicated to upholding regimes rather than the international drug laws.

But the winds of change are not only blowing they are getting stronger. This Sunday, Mike Barton, Durham’s chief constable writing in the Observer added his voice to the cacophony of voices at home and abroad, demanding change.

In this country we have embraced harm reduction. We have needle exchanges, substitute prescribing (despite the current government’s much trumpeted policy of recovery) and FRANK promises to tell the truth about the real effects of drug use, positive and negative. If we accept what those unrepentant drug warriors Kathy Gyngell and Peter Hitchens have to say, we also now have decriminalization by stealth. But we still foot the bill for a prison population of approximately 84,000, many of whom are there for drug related offences. We still also foot the bill for inordinate amounts of drug war policing at home and abroad.

Internationally the drug war consensus is breaking down, an increasing number of countries are following Portugal’s example and decriminalizing possession of drugs for personal use, others like Peru, have challenged the 1961 UN Convention on Drugs, and some, like Uruguay , and indeed two states in the USA itself (Colorado and Washington State) have legalized recreational use of cannabis. (For an in depth account of this process see David Bewley-Taylor’s International Drug Control: Consensus Fractured).

Few guerrilla wars, – and it is a guerrilla war, waged between users and suppliers collaborating on one side against the authorities, perceived as kill joys to be outwitted, on the other – have been global, lasted so long, claimed so many lives and wrecked so many others. What will it take to end it?

I would argue that the war on drugs is ending. It is ending in the way it began, incrementally. The 1909 Shanghai Opium Conference marked the beginning of international drug prohibition that has expanded to include a growing list of substances and was escalated to a war on drugs by Richard Nixon in 1971. Democracy, pressure groups, media hysteria, and thereafter socialization, led to a climate of opinion conducive to drug prohibition. Similar forces are again demanding that something must be done. But this time they argue for a change in policy and in many cases an end to prohibition all together. And this is how the war will end: with creeping tolerance and incremental relaxation of the laws, not with the abrupt legalization of all drugs.  ‘This is the way the war will end with a whimper not with a bang’.

Sue Pryce is Professor of Politics at the University of Nottingham. Professor Price is the author of Fixing Drugs: The Politics of Drug Prohibition

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