Vancouver in British Columbia, Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico and Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan are unlikely cousins. But together these three places and their ilk have wrought a remarkable change in one of the world’s most important debates over the past two years.
For decades, the idea of legalizing narcotics was supported by only a small minority. But as global markets in illicit drugs have expanded exponentially since the early 1990s, policy makers and law enforcement agencies alike have been overwhelmed by the challenge posed by the prohibition of a long list of drugs. Markets have spread to places that for decades had no significant drug problem, like China and Indonesia, while the numbers of addicts in countries like Iran have grown hugely.
Two significant developments are contributing to the sudden surge in calls for reconsidering prohibition. The first is that drugs are now damaging long-term Western security interests, especially in Afghanistan and Mexico. The second is that production is migrating away from its traditional homes like Colombia and the Golden Triangle and moving into the heart of Western consumer areas like Canada, the Netherlands and Britain.
The problem is becoming so dramatic that elder statesmen, senior law enforcement officers, intellectuals and philanthropists the world over are speaking out loud and clear: The “War on Drugs” is a disastrous policy that achieves none of its aims and inflicts huge damage on global security and governance wherever it is prosecuted.
They argue that state regulation of the drug market would reduce the health and social risks posed by narcotics and generate huge tax revenues, which could be hypothecated to absorb any costs. At the moment, the vast profits from the illegal drug trade go into the pockets of organized crime syndicates and terrorist groups.
The most urgent appeals for a rethink have emanated from South America, where respected figures like the former president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have highlighted how the war on drugs has done nothing to stop the trade in illegal narcotics but has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the perpetuation of ruthless gang cultures in the most deprived areas of the continent.Diego Gambetta, an Oxford University criminologist and one of the world’s greatest authorities on the Sicilian Mafia, has spoken out forcefully for an end to the war on drugs. In the United States, the most effective group demanding change is Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, which is made up of current and former police officers, including erstwhile operatives of the Drug Enforcement Agency.