Sober suggestions for summit war on drugs

By Raffique Shah
Sunday, April 12th 2009

Fifth Summit of the AmericasONE agenda item that no doubt crops up at every Summit of the Americas is the illegal drug trade. The two main mind-altering drugs produced, traded and used in the Western Hemisphere are marijuana and cocaine. Note-I have not mentioned alcohol, which is also mind-altering but which has been legalised globally. At the Fifth Summit, many leaders will slosh down the finest liquors taxpayers’ money can buy. Some of them will get embarrassingly drunk-as happened at recent top-level international conferences.

But we’ll never hear about these incidents since they are considered as par for the political course. Many famous, revered political leaders were little more than common drunks. Winston Churchill, for example, said he “never drank before breakfast”. Some presidents and prime ministers of this country were registered drunks-you call names, I’ll whistle.

But alcoholism won’t make the Summit agenda, for all the distress it causes, the huge sums of money spent on treating hundreds of millions of alcoholics who are stricken with death-dealing conditions. In Trinidad, I am told, many young people have reverted to puncheon rum (the strongest local brew) which they “chase” with another alcoholic beverage. And since the price of alcohol was increased last year, more ordinary alcoholics have turned to “bay rum”, which is now being sold chilled at popular bars.

The Summit will, however, turn a blind eye to the world’s deadliest addiction and instead focus on a war that they will never win, the battle against marijuana, cocaine and heroin. In the case of heroin, a derivative of opium, the world has forgotten that it was the British colonisers who grew poppy in India and exported opium to China. When the Chinese resisted, Britain invaded and defeated China, just so they could continue making money off opium-zombies. Put simply, the British Government was once the most powerful opium cartel in the world!

Let’s fast-forward to today’s reality. Two weeks ago, Transform, a drug reform charity in the UK, released details of a study “examining all aspects of prohibition from the costs of policing and investigating drugs users and dealers to processing them through the courts and their eventual incarceration”. It came up with some alarming numbers: by legalising and regulating drugs, Britain will save more than US$30 billion a year! More than that-by taxing these substances (much the way alcohol and tobacco are), the country could earn well-needed revenue.

“Despite the billions spent each year on proactive and reactive drug law enforcement, the punitive prohibitionist approach has consistently delivered the opposite of its stated goals,” the report added. The UN International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) estimates that the illicit drugs trade currently stands at US$400 billion a year, eight per cent of all global trade. In the Americas where the war against cocaine (produced in the main in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia) has been ongoing for 30-odd years, both production and consumption have increased.

Worse, the deadly violence associated with the drug trade has reached epidemic proportions. The local police and government have admitted that most of the record-murders here are gang and drug-related. In Mexico, the cartels close to the lucrative US market are murdering anyone who stands in their way. More recently, the resourceful drug lords have been using innovative submersibles to transport their valuable cargoes to meet Americans’ insatiable appetite for mind-altering substances.

We shall never know the true cost of this war against cocaine and marijuana. In the case of the US-Colombia axis, it must be running into trillions-with little results to show for such expenditure. A big haul here (20 tonnes of cocaine off Aruba last week), a small bust there, but no real dent in the illicit trade that makes billionaires out of the real controllers, and paupers of the victims. Many countries have recognised this exercise in futility and moved towards decriminalising drug use. This has eased strain on the police and prisons, allowing their officers to focus on serious crimes and criminals.

If tomorrow the prisons in Trinidad were to release all one-joint marijuana convicts and cocaine “crack-heads”, the nation’s jails would become more manageable. In all of the Americas punitive measures have failed. Recently, President Evo Morales attended a “coca exhibition” in Bolivia, where many products from the coca plant-cookies, bread, medicines-were on display. Evo’s cry was: Yes to coca, no to cocaine.

I know what the reaction to this article will be. Drunks in bars whose livers are about to expire will say: Shah talking sh*t! Leaders at the Summit, even as they slosh down drink after drink, will call on the police to “lock him up”.

My response? Why not impose a “junk-food ban” on the obese, since obesity costs? Declare alcohol and tobacco illegal. Withdraw driving permits from all deviant motorists. Empirical data would show that the above cause more pain, harm and deaths in the Americas than the use or abuse of now-illicit drugs. When people want to drink or smoke themselves into stupour or death, no law and no war will stop them. Spend our increasingly scarce resources on those who lead healthy lifestyles, who add value, bring glory to their respective countries.