Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Drug reform: Alex Wodak responds to Miranda Devine

In response to an article published in The Daily Telegraph on Wednesday 18 April Australia21 Board member Dr Alex Wodak sent its author, Miranda Devine, an email, which read as follows:

Dear Ms Devine,

I note your recent comments:

Into the middle of this social disaster rides the drug legalisation crowd, to make everything much worse.

Pushed along by St Vincent's Hospital's irrepressible Dr Alex Wodak, along with such luminaries as our new Foreign Minister Bob Carr, a think tank called Australia 21 released a report this month urging politicians to decriminalise illegal drugs because the war on drugs has been a failure. The problem is not that the war on drugs has failed, it is that we have surrendered our first line of defence to the criminals. (Daily Telegraph, Sydney 18 April 2012).

I don't expect you to change your views on drug policy.

But you might consider extending some courtesy to those who have a view that is very different from your own.

I have attached the Australia21 report so that you can see that, contrary to your claim of 18 April, the report did not propose a specific policy remedy (such as decriminalisation or legalisation).

The report did support redefining drugs as primarily a health and social issue.

The view that the war on drugs has failed is now widespread.

Many others have said this before Australia21.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority said this in 1989 in their report Drugs, Crime and Society.

Over the past two decades in Australia we have devoted increased resources to drug law enforcement, we have increased the penalties for drug trafficking and we have accepted increasing inroads on our civil liberties as part of the battle to curb the drug trade. All the evidence shows, however, not only that our law enforcement agencies have not succeeded in preventing the supply of illegal drugs to Australian markets but that it is unrealistic to expect them to do so.

I thought you might be interested in some recent comments on the comprehensive failure of the War on Drugs.

Many of the following quotes are from conservative commentators - because conservatives have been more vocal about the need for drug law reform.

Mr Mick Palmer, former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police (during the 'Tough on Drugs' period) said at the launch of the Australia21 report (April 3), that 'the police are better resourced than ever, better trained than ever, more effective than ever and they still don't make any difference [to drug trafficking].

LEAP is an organisation of retired and serving drug law enforcement officials who believe that the War on Drugs has been lost.

Prime Minister Steve Harper of Canada said on 15 April (see here)

What I think everybody believes is that the current approach is not working. But it is not clear what we should do.

The article (below) from quotes President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala extensively. Earlier in his career, Otto Perez Molina was in charge of drug law enforcement for Guatemala.

The following quotes are from Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman:

Who would believe that a democratic government would pursue for eight decades a failed policy that produced tens of millions of victims and trillions of dollars of illicit profits for drug dealers; cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars; increased crime and destroyed inner cities; fostered wide-spread corruption and violations of human rights - and all with no success in achieving the
stated and unattainable objective of a drug-free America.

If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel.

Of course the problem is demand, but it is not only demand, it is demand that must operate through repressed and illegal channels. Illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords; illegality leads to the corruption of law enforcement officials; illegality monopolizes the efforts of honest law forces so that they are starved for resources to fight the simpler crimes of robbery, theft and assault.

Drugs are a tragedy for addicts. But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and nonusers alike. Our experience with the prohibition of drugs is a replay of our experience with the prohibition of alcoholic beverages.

Can any policy, however high minded, be moral if it leads to corruption, imprisons so many, has so racist effect that it destroys our inner cities, wreaks havoc on misguided and vulnerable individuals and brings death and destruction to foreign countries.

Many, especially the young, are not dissuaded by the bullets that fly so freely in disputes between competing drug dealers; bullets that fly only because dealing drugs is illegal. Al Capone epitomizes our earlier attempt at Prohibition; the Crips and Bloods epitomize this one.

The Commissioners of the GLOBAL COMMISSION ON DRUG POLICY include:

Asma Jahangir, human rights activist, former UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary, Extrajudicial and Summary Executions, Pakistan
Carlos Fuentes, writer and public intellectual, Mexico
Cesar Gaviria, former President of Colombia
Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico
Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil (chair)
George Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece
George P. Shultz, former Secretary of State, United States (honorary chair)
Javier Solana, former European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Spain
John Whitehead, banker and civil servant, chair of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, United States
Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, Ghana
Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, President of the International Crisis Group, Canada
Maria Cattaui, Petroplus Holdings Board member, former Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce, Switzerland
Mario Vargas Llosa, writer and public intellectual, Peru
Marion Caspers-Merk, former State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Health
Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, France
Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve and of the Economic Recovery Board
Richard Branson, entrepreneur, advocate for social causes, founder of the Virgin Group, co-founder of The Elders, United Kingdom
Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland and Minister of Home Affairs
Thorvald Stoltenberg, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Norway

These Commissioners said:

the global war on drugs has failed with devastating consequences for individuals and societies.

-  vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption.

-  its time to end the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others.

These Commissioners are reputable people of some accomplishment.

The Hon Dr Michael Wooldridge, Former Health Minister in the Howard Federal Government said:

The key message is that we have 40 years of experience of a law and order approach to drugs and it has failed.

A few days after the launch, Dr Michael Wooldridge appeared on Alan Jones radio programme - Alan Jones agreed with Dr Wooldridge.

David Cameron MP said while Conservative party leader, before becoming Prime Minister of the UK:

Politicians attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator by posturing with tough policies and calling for crackdown after crackdown. Drugs policy has been failing for decades.

The following World Bank report comes to the same conclusion - but over a few hundred pages:

In the 2011 US Gallup poll, the legalisation of marijuana was supported by 50% and opposed by 46%.

Best wishes,

Dr Alex Wodak AM

ARTICLE EXTRACTED from Foreign Policy

There's good news on the drug war: The world knows how to end it -- so why can't the United States figure it out?

America's longest running war -- the one against drugs -- came in for abuse this weekend at the Summit of the Americas. The abuse is deserved. Forty years of increasingly violent efforts to stamp out the drug trade haven't worked. And the blood and treasure lost is on a scale with America's more conventional wars. On the upside, we know that an approach based around treating drugs as a public health issue reaps benefits to both users and the rest of us.

President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala opened the rhetorical offensive against the drug war last week when he wrote that "decades of big arrests and the seizure of tons of drugs" have not stopped "booming" production and consumption. Molina argued that "global drug policy today is based on a false premise: that the global drug markets can be eradicated." Drug abuse, like alcoholism, should be treated as a public health problem, he suggested. We should consider a move towards drug regulation -- including taxation and prohibition of sales to minors. As this weekend's discussion made clear, Molina's statement represents region-wide concern with the business-as-usual strategy towards drugs. Indeed, most of Latin America has already moved towards decriminalization of drug possession in small amounts, and some are considering legalization.

But it isn't just in Latin America that the winds of change are blowing when it comes to drugs policy. Last June, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which included Kofi Annan, three former presidents from Latin America, a prime minister and former president from Europe, former Fed Chair Paul Volker and former Secretary of State George Shultz, concluded much the same thing as Molina. "The global war on drugs has failed," they reported. It is high time to move towards experimentation with "models of legal regulation."

As a domestic policy, a harsh enforcement approach has done little to control drug use, but has done a lot to lock up a growing portion of the U.S. population. Cocaine and opiate prices are about half their 1990 levels in in America today. And 16 percent of American adults have tried cocaine -- that's about four times higher than any other surveyed country in a list that includes Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, France, and Germany. And while criminalization has a limited impact on price and use, it has a significant impact on crime rates. Forty percent of drug arrests in the United States are for the simple possession of marijuana. Nearly half a million people are behind bars in the United States for a drug offense -- that's more than ten times the figure in 1980.

As a result, the United States is spending about $40 billion per year $40 billion per year on the war on drugs -- with three quarters of that expenditure on apprehending and punishing dealers and users. All of those police out there slapping cuffs on folks found with a baggie of Purple Kush aren't watching for drunk drivers or burglars. And drug enforcement is more closely linked with violent crime than drug use. Meanwhile, the cost of lost productivity from jailed citizens is around $39 billion per year. Such sums are considerably higher than the costs of ill-health associated with drug use, suggesting in strict economic terms at least that it isn't drugs -- but drug control policy -- that is the problem. Add in the social effects of mass incarceration (from rape to split families to unemployment to poverty) and the uncertain benefits of the war on drugs become dwarfed by the known costs.

Harsh enforcement hasn't failed as a policy only in the United States, of course. Across countries, analysis by World Bank economists Philip Keefer, Norman Loayaza, and Rodrigo Soares suggests that drug prosecution rates or the number of police in a country has no effect on drug prices.

Conversely, the Global Commission on Drug Policy report compiled evidence suggesting that approaches based on treatment rather than punishment were far more effective in reducing consumption, HIV prevalence, and crime rates among users. For example, Britain and Germany, both of which long ago adopted harm reduction strategies for people injecting drugs -- programs that include needle exchange programs and medication -- see HIV prevalence among people who inject drugs below 5 percent. The United States and Portugal, by contrast, where such strategies were introduced later or only partially, see HIV prevalence among a similar community at above 15 percent.

Again, the global evidence that legalization would increase use is sparse. Use is far more connected with social, environmental, and economic contexts than legal status. Portugal decriminalized drug possession and use ten years ago, and has seen drug use fluctuate at similar rates to countries where possession remains illegal according to the Commission report. Similarly, U.S. states that have decriminalized cannabis possession have not seen greater increases in use than those states where it remained illegal.

But if the war on drugs is a failed domestic policy in the United States, it is also -- particularly as the U.S. population is the world's largest consumer of illicit drugs -- a failed global strategy. And a larger price for that failure is paid abroad. Drug crop eradication programs simply don't work to dry up global supply. They can drive up the local price of a crop -- but that alone is likely only to force a move in production rather than overall reduction. Aggregate coca cultivation in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru was higher in 2007 than in the late 1990s, for example -- despite stepped up eradication programs in all three countries. In turn, this might help explain why multiple, expensive eradication efforts from Colombia to Afghanistan have done little to increase drug prices in Western markets, which reached historic lows in the mid 2000s.

Connected to all this is the fact that farmers are not the ones making big money from the drug trade. The price of one kilo of cocaine at the point of production in Colombia in 2000 was about $650. By the time it reached Miami, that price had risen to $23,000, with a final retail price of closer to $120,000 -- suggesting the point of production price is a little more than half a percentage point of the final price.

Given the low wholesale price, it's not surprising that experience from around the world suggests that given other crop options -- flowers in Thailand, onions in Pakistan, potatoes in Laos -- and the ability to get those crops to a functioning market, farmers will often abandon coca and poppy production for these more profitable sources of revenue. The war on drugs, by creating instability and weakening the operation of those markets, may have the perverse effect of increasing the attractiveness of drug crop production for farmers.

And while eradication doesn't work to reduce supply in rich countries, alongside interdiction efforts it can have catastrophic spillover effects in poor countries. Mexico is spending $9 billion a year to fight drug trafficking, for example, and yet the drug war killed 34,000 people between 2006 and 2010, according to the government. Some 27,000 Colombians died each year during the 1990s as a result of violence fueled by drug cartels. Analysis by Jennifer Holmes and colleagues at the University of Texas suggests that coca cultivation was not related to violence in Colombia between 1999 and 2001 -- but eradication efforts were. Again, economists Oeindrila Dube and Suresh Naidu found that U.S. military aid to Colombia was associated with greater paramilitary violence: A 10 percent increase in U.S. military aid was associated with a 15 percent rise in paramilitary attacks in regions where there was a Colombian army base, compared to other regions.

In fact, thanks to the profitable, violent, criminal oligopolies that are the spinoff of the global war on drugs, developing countries that produce drugs or are on drug trade routes face a risk of descending into narco-kleptocracy. In 2010, the commander of Venezuela's armed forces, the president of Nicaragua, the prime minister of Kosovo, the son of the president of Guinea, and a host of politicians allied with the Burmese junta were all deeply involved in the drug trade according to Moises Naim of the Carnegie Endowment.

Meanwhile, popular attitudes towards drug policy in the United States are finally shifting. For the first time since Gallup started asking the question, the majority of Americans think marijuana use should be legal. And the country already has what might be called a more nuanced approach to other addictive drugs. The U.S. government is happy to conclude trade agreements that actually encourage smoking around the world, for example. And the United States is willing to bear the domestic health costs of tobacco and alcohol use that kill 30 times as many people a year as do illegal drugs. Yes, policies towards cocaine or heroin should be far more constraining than those towards cigarettes or beer, but the rationale for such a completely different approach to one set of substances than the other is threadbare.

Nobody should underestimate the appalling toll of drug addiction -- it ends many lives and ruins many more. Of the 250 million drug users worldwide, the United Nations estimates around 25 million are dependent. The question is, does the current approach towards drug policy work to reduce that toll? And what are the spillover effects of America and Europe's hard line on drugs to other countries? The evidence suggests the policy has failed and that the spillover effects are considerable.

The good news is that a different strategy could turn around the violence and lower the economic, social, and health costs of narcotics. America and Europe should commit to a drug policy based around public health and regulation -- making drug use safer, legal, and rare -- rather than criminalization and paramilitary enforcement. That switch will save money and families at home alongside lives and livelihoods abroad. It is time the world ended its addiction to war as a tool of social control.

Charles Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, and author, most recently, of Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More . The Optimist, his column for, runs weekly.

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