The problem with not legalising drugs

To do or not to do: is keeping narcotics illicit helping the underworld?

 
By Max Martin
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- LIVEWIRE anti-drug lobbyists in the US have always suggested a simple solution to the menace of drug trafficking and peddling -- the electric chair. And a penitentiary for "junkies". Former president Ronald Reagan's more "practical" administration initiated a multi-million-dollar international crusade against drugs, which involved international intelligence activity, Sting-type gang-busting, and backlane crackdowns. Still, in the self-proclaimed God's own country, you get cocaine almost at will.

Even as the British press documented the horrors of methadone, an analgesic used for heroin deaddiction, an Economist cover story screamed: "Bring drugs within the law." Unfortunately, laws for arresting drugs have failed dismally. In India, where the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, with its stringent provisions, including non-bailable detention, has not diminished the demand, supply or spread of drugs. Only, the jails have filled up, mostly with smalltime peddlers and some hard-up dependants. A few months ago in Bombay, a Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) student and a few lawyers secured the release of an innocent woman who was imprisoned for 8 years under the NDPS. On September 11 this year, the government of Delhi set up 7 special courts to deal with 12,000-odd pending drug cases.

Pro-legalisation enthusiasts say that they have 4 justifications: current drug control measures have failed "because they are fundamentally flawed"; the measures are high-cost and counter-productive; repealing many drug laws would not lead to a dramatic rise in drug abuse, as many people fear; legalisation would remove the criminal and clandestine nature of drug circuits, which make them all the more dangerous.

Don't, however, expect cocaine and hashish vending machines at high schools and movie halls. What the pro-legalisation people call for is "controlled legalisation", with the treatment of dependants scaled down to a humane level, which would allow you to forgive those who sheepishly confess: "Er, in college I smoked pot; but I didn't inhale." Legalisation would definitely not put "soft drugs" like ganja on the same ground as cocaine.

They have a point. In the US, the Reagan-led crusade, with support from both the Republicans and the Democrats, raised lot of dust and filled many cells. But overall, it had little effect on the illicit drug market. In fact, Princeton University scholar Ethnan A Nadelmann's study, published in Drug Legalisation Debate (Sage Publications, California), shows a disturbing trend set off by the crusade: cocaine has sold for about US $100 a gram in retail since the early '80s. But the average purity of the substance increased from 12 per cent to 60 per cent by the end of the '80s. Moreover, a growing number of users are now turning to crack, a highly potent and cheaper cocaine derivative that can be smoked.

Similarly, the retail price of heroin has remained relatively constant while its average purity rose from 3.9 per cent in 1983 to 6.1 per cent in 1986, according to Nadelmann's study. A potent form of heroin called "black tar" became increasingly prevalent throughout the American Southwest. In cities, a synthetic opium derivative called Dilaudid began to compete with heroin.

This alarming trend continues despite the self-proclaimed globocop being the world's biggest anti-drug crusader, which pushes for and helps stringent laws and enforcement worldwide.

Failure could perhaps be handled. But when drug enforcement backfires, it is time to brainstorm again. There are numerous instances of a growing number of marijuana dealers switching to cocaine or heroine for a simple reason: less bulk, greater profits. Studies of the leading deaddiction organisation, the Narcotic Addiction Research Centre (NARC) and TISS show that in Bombay, many marijuana peddlers have graduated to brown sugar (smack) peddling. "Brown sugar is becoming more common in Bombay slums now. It is seen as a Western drug," says NARC senior researcher Molly Charles, who has carried out extensive field studies.

In fact, in the Netherlands, where the drug laws have been substantially relaxed, the extent of the overall problem appears to be stabilising and even decreasing in some cities, according to the Dutch government. There are just 21,000 addicts in a population of 15 million.

It has been noted that stiff bans on drugs often give the underworld a boost, in the same manner that prohibition helped the bootleggers. The increased profit margin is often the "value-added tax" created by criminalisation. Through their laws, enforcement authorities create and supplement this unofficial tax; it is the drug traffickers who rake it in. A report of the Warren Econometrics for the US President's Commission of Organised Crime identified the sale of illicit drugs as the source of more than half of all organised crime revenues in 1986. Of this, marijuana and heroin each provided more than US $7 billion and cocaine more than US $13 billion.

A troubling factor that deters international enforcement is the "push-down/pop-up syndrome". If the government of one country comes down heavily on its marijuana or opium cultivators, the growers in a neighbouring country hike up production to meet the market demands. Colombian marijuana growers hiked production following the successful crackdown by the Mexican government during the mid-'70s. Later, when the Colombian government succeeded in eradication measures, Mexican growers were activated once again. The same rule applies to the international heroin market as well.

The cultivation of plants that contain narcotics is a way of earning livelihood in certain places, which makes it very difficult to control. A recently published CIA report details the modus operandi of drug trafficking in some Asian countries. It is a known fact that certain Islamic countries dutifully punish the user and decapitate the peddler, and benignly look the other way when drugs are smuggled out for consumption in the West.

The argument is that the most pragmatic way out is to allow the user to pursue his habit with the least harm to his health. The advocates of legalisation hold that without the fear of being caught in the act, drug users would learn to opt for less harmful drugs -- just like hard drinkers turning to wine and beer, smokers to low-tar, low-nicotine cigarettes, and coffee drinkers to decaffeinated coffee.

In fact, the NDPS itself allows addicts to procure the drug with doctors' prescriptions. But legal procurement is rarely practiced, except during certain deaddiction programmes. NCB officials have their doubts about this "liberal" method working out as they feel only an enlightened clientele can be discerning. An NCB deputy director warns: "Make it legal, and people will consume drugs like cigarettes."

Drug enforcers, however, prefer to forget that cigarettes kill more people than drugs. According to the World Health Organization's Tobacco Alert: "In the world as a whole, over 3 million deaths a year (6 per cent of the world total) are caused by tobacco; this is more than the deaths that are caused by all psychoactive substances put together." On the other hand, a single dose of a drug can be more harmful than a cigarette. It is a grey area. We need debate.

As the first stirrings of a global debate on the viability of drug legalisation takes root, right now no country is willing to take the risk of making the leap. As H Vanoverbeke, a representative of United Nations International Drugs Control Programme in New Delhi, says, "There is an increasing feeling that specific laws have to be tailored, as existing laws are not often adopted to tackle the drug problem. In a recent UN general assembly meeting, narcotics control measures were discussed in detail but not a single country favoured the legalisation of drugs."

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