Friday, June 03, 2011

The War on Drugs

It's taken a while but a high-level international report has finally been produced that tells us what we've all known about the 'war' on drugs - it doesn't work, hasn't worked and has probably caused more harm than if nothing had been done. Shame that just like all the previous patchwork national reports it'll probably be ignored.

Go and read it. It's such a breath of fresh air I can understand why the Daily Mash spoofed it with the headline "People reading drug report double check they are not on drugs" It's clear, concise and mercilessly sets out the evidence that the policies governments around the world have been following have failed miserably. It does have some small gaps though.

The main question unanswered is why did governments declare 'war' on drugs in the first place? Although historically others have taken steps against drug use it's the USA that's been the main pressure on everyone clamping down - why? The USA is famous for its supposedly libertarian ideal that what a person does in their own home is their own damn business so the concept that drug use is banned because of it's harm to a person is absurd; however banning something because it's harmful to society is another matter.

This was the very reasoning that led to the Opium Wars in which the Chinese aware of the export of currency and the growing number of addicts attempted to ban (or at least curtail) the import of opium from UK merchants; yup we were the drug pushers back then.

So ban drugs as being harmful to society. Doesn't really work though unless everyone does the same though. With the USA being the biggest economy it got to swing its weight around. However look at that report again (page 12). Cannabis, LSD and Ecstasy all illegal are rated as being less harmful to society than the legal alcohol and tobacco. It appears there's a discrepancy here.

Well we've seen what happens if you try and ban alcohol; the demand was still there, usage actually went up, the government lost control of the supply, and funds generated were channelled into other forms of crime too. So why were heroin and cocaine considered any different? Why did no-one seem to consider that what happened with the alcohol ban would happen to these?

I could be nasty and say they just closed their eyes, crossed their fingers and thought if they believed hard enough it would be different. I could suggest that people just don't learn from history or others and just think that 'things will be different this time' just because they're the ones doing it now. But there really was a difference at the time.

Alcohol was everywhere and easily produced; it was embedded within society as a normal everyday item. Take it away and ructions will occur. These drugs on the other hand weren't as well used; or as easily cultivated in secret. Stop the production and you'd affect only a small percentage of the population; most wouldn't even notice. Once established, generations would grow up considering them wrong and harmful and demand would disappear and the problem would solve itself. So what went wrong?

Well the people who wanted these drugs still wanted these drugs; there was little attempt to wean them from them they were just expected to go cold turkey - yeah that's going to happen. So they wanted the drugs and none were to be found; the basic laws of supply and demand kicked in - the price went up. As soon as the profit margin outweighed the risk it became worthwhile to start shipping it in; as it was illegal it was taken up by the criminals first. As these criminals already has smuggling routes it made sense just to add this lucrative commodity to their lines. It was light, compact, often easily hidden in other substances and had a high profit margin - a smuggler's dream.

So the addicts got their fix at a price, but again the laws of economics appeared - economies of scale. Sure you could just smuggle in enough to cover the small group of addicts, but if everyone tried it that would introduce huge competition into the market and the price would drop below the point it made it worthwhile to smuggle in. In this instance the choice was simple - the product is addictive; once someone's hooked on the stuff they want more. So let's make more addicts. Buying a smuggled item completely unrelated to drugs here's a hit for free. Pass it down the chain. More addicts, means more customers, means more profit. Sure some of them overdose, but plenty more where that came from.

Drugs became part of the standard business cycle. In those countries not enforcing the ban or doing so inefficiently it became the norm. Instead of growing corn or wheat and having to compete with the subsidised versions from the 'developed' countries they cultivated drugs. Just as with the smugglers the farmers found they were easier to transport and offered a greater profit margin than legal goods. Sure you might get your field torched by the DEA, but that's your fault for not investing in some decent camouflage netting; it's a cost of business expense.

It then gets worse. With the farmers growing drug crops they had only one outlet to sell to - the criminals and they were taking lessons from the supermarkets (or possibly the other way around). Any risk taken is carried by the farmer. 'I don't care that you had a dry patch I want my produce and it's up to you to get it to me'. Unlike supermarkets who'd just pull their contract the criminals would shoot them; heck they're criminals in for a penny...

So any farmer that started down this road was now locked into it. Their livelihood depended on growing drugs and that's that. What about start up farmers wanting to go legit? Yeah sure the criminals are going to leave an example of not working for them around - slash and burn time; this is drug growing country and don't you forget it.

As a result there's now an entire established industry that has become the norm for that region, just like alcohol, and we've a group trying to stop it; which just leads us back into the same cycle. Break it here and profit means it'll pop up elsewhere.

The report recognises this (even if they don't say so) and offers various solutions. They're hard, they're long-term and they're expensive; which means they're unlikely to ever happen.

I do hope to be surprised though.