Belfast Telegraph

The war on drugs is always a losing battle

A problem that is now endemic in our society cannot be moralised out of existence. The case for legalisation is now unanswerable, says Liam Clarke

All the criticism of Professor Ian Gilmore for advocating an end to the war on drugs with a regime of legalisation and control begs one question: what would it take to win the war on drugs?

Imagine you could send all of the mightiest army in the world into the place where a lot of the drugs come from.

Imagine you could keep them at that choke-point for years, backed up by a friendly government and all the technical aids that money could buy. Would that do it?

Well, there are 104,000 of the best-equipped troops in the world stationed in Afghanistan - the country from whose opium poppies 90% of the world's illegal heroin is produced.

Next month, Afghans will plant the new season's poppies - and nobody expects them to be stopped.

Afghan warlords bring in at least £2bn from opium sales every year, though by the time addicts actually pay for it, the drug is worth hundreds of times more, and has been cut with everything from strychnine to chalk. Last year in Scotland, several junkies died of anthrax from infected supplies.

Every time an addict robs a pensioner in Ballymena, or every time a woman prostitutes herself in Belfast to feed a heroin habit, a proportion of the proceeds flows back to Afghanistan.

Once there, it helps fund the war against British and American troops and to spread corruption amongst government officials who often have a choice between being bought off or being killed.

The rest of the cash wrung from addicts sticks to the fingers of local paramilitary chiefs, like the dissident gangs who shake down dealers for protection money and the international mafias who organise the supply roots and the laboratories which refine the drugs.

Drugs wars for the profits of human misery will be fought out by gangs on the streets of Western cities.

There will be casualties at every stage, from the soldiers shipped home in boxes to the gangsters gunned down by rivals, to the addicts dying of infections from dirty needles.

The farmer who produces it will get a pittance, but it is his only means of livelihood, and there is not much risk.

Last March, when allied forces drove the Taliban out of Marja in Helmand Province, NATO commanders allowed the opium poppies to be harvested as normal.

"US forces no longer eradicate," a NATO official told the New York Times. "Marja is a special case right now," US army commander Jeffrey Eggers explained. "We don't trample the livelihood of those we're trying to win over."

The cost doesn't stop there. Fighting drugs-related crime costs the UK an estimated £10bn annually - five times the value of the opium sales in Afghanistan.

Drug offenders represent around half the prison population, and the cost to our NHS is incalculable.

But there is a better way of doing things.

If Afghan heroin was bought at source, and users were given their supplies through legal, approved and regulated channels, the cost would be eliminated and risks dramatically reduced.

Drug use is often only an episode in a person's life - most people give it up if they survive long enough to do so, just as many of us stop smoking, or cut out drink as we get older.

With legal supply, most users could hold down jobs and would eventually change their lifestyles with support from health agencies.

Drugs do pose health problems, however they are supplied, so prohibiting them would be a wonderful idea if it wasn't too late.

During the Troubles, a combination of the RUC, security at the ports and the paramilitary punishment gangs kept narcotics out of Northern Ireland for years after they were available in both Dublin and London.

With peace, many drugs became endemic and, however much we might wish it were different, there is no example of an established drugs market being legislated out of existence. Market forces dictate otherwise.

It was tried with alcohol - a harmful drug that has been with us since the dawn of history, and whose evils are well-documented.

Prohibition - in other words, making it an illegal drug - was tried in the US between 1920 and 1933, and failed disastrously. Alcohol consumption rose and organised crime flourished even during an economic depression.

Public officials were corrupted by the huge bribes bootleggers or smugglers could offer, and thousands of people were blinded by bathtub gin and other unregulated concoctions.

Drugs are now endemic in our society and cannot be moralised away. The case for legalising them, regulating the supply and purity, and restricting the point of sale, as we do with alcohol and tobacco, is now unanswerable.

The thought of Imperial Tobacco or Anheuser-Busch buying up the poppy crop, paying taxes which fund public services, and supplying heroin under government regulation seems repugnant.

But it would cost us a lot less blood and treasure than letting the Taliban do the job the way that suits them.

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