Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Gangsters only ones to gain from unwinnable drugs war

Charge: Michaella McCollum Connolly (left) and co-accused Melissa Reid after their arrest in Peru
Charge: Michaella McCollum Connolly (left) and co-accused Melissa Reid after their arrest in Peru

Whatever the circumstances which led to their arrest at Lima airport and however the charges of drug-trafficking against them work out, Michaella McCollum Connolly and Melissa Reid are victims, rather than villains.

They are casualties of a "war on drugs" which has lost any rationale it might ever have had, which is sustained only by the deliberate ignorance and/or sheer dishonesty of governments, which is damaging to the health and happiness of individuals, communities and countries, which is totally unwinnable and which should forthwith be abandoned.

The beneficiaries of the "war on drugs" are gangsters, who make billions from the illegality of marijuana, cocaine and heroin and the political and security interests which use hysteria to win public acceptance of repressive strategies for keeping the lower orders down.

All over the world, policies of prohibition have turned streets into shooting galleries, while having no discernable effect on levels, or patterns, of usage.

Almost all of the gun crime in Dublin, for example, where young men are cut down by bullets on a regular basis, arises from drug gangs defending their turf.

Little of this can be blamed on drugs: the main factor is the illegality of drugs.

The only way to protect your black market share in an illegal trade is physically to defend your "franchise". If the other side has guns, you either get offside or get tooled-up.

Anybody who believes prohibition does more good than harm should consider the global and local consequences.

As many as 50,000 killed in Mexico in the last 15 years, many after unspeakable torture, some in batches of a score or more – greater suffering than is endured in many a conventional war.

And all because of the fabulous profits available from controlling the lines of supply from Colombia, Bolivia and Peru into the US.

The reason Michaella and Melissa will have been in Peru, on whatever basis, is that Peruvian cocaine is the cheapest in the world, thus providing particularly high profits.

A kilo of Peruvian cocaine will set you back $800 (£515). The price of Colombian is $1,200 (£772). Michaella and Melissa are said to have been carrying 11.2 kilos – cost price less than $10,000 (£6,440). Retail price on the streets, perhaps a million.

The stuff might pass through half-a-dozen hands en route to refinement and the market place. But there's enough for everybody – if nobody gets greedy (although somebody almost always does).

Legalising and regulating trade across boundaries wouldn't eliminate all the ills associated with drugs consumption.

But it would at a stroke remove the casus belli which has led to slaughter on an appalling scale and can bring young women to the dreadful circumstance in which Michaella and Melissa now find themselves.

What is needed is not an instant free-for-all, but a fact-based assessment of the best regulatory regime.

One of the facts to be considered is that there was no prohibition on drugs in the US, or Britain, prior to World War One.

And yet "drugs" are not recorded from that time as a threat to society and all therein. (In Britain, gin was widely seen as the drug of ruination).

Cocaine and heroin could be bought across the counter at the local pharmacy. For health reasons, Gladstone used opium, instead of sugar, in his coffee.

Many thousands lived contented lives, while regularly imbibing substances which give politicians and commentators extreme palpitations today.

Some politicians have, at last, begun to see sense.

Former Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth, in charge of UK drugs policy from 2001 to 2003, says now that drugs – and not just 'soft' drugs – should be legalised and regulated.

The "war on drugs", he told the Daily Telegraph, "has been nothing short of a disaster ... Leaving the drugs market in the hands of criminals causes huge and unnecessary harm to individuals, communities and entire countries, with the poor the hardest hit ... We must take the trade away from organised criminals and put it in the control of doctors and pharmacists".

The common sense of that position seems to me to be obvious. If drugs were legal, the world would be a better place. Certainly, Michaella and Melissa would be in a better place.

Nobody would have had a reason to send them to Peru to pick up a consignment of cocaine. They wouldn't be looking at their ruined lives. They would be free.

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