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02/08/2007 00:00:00

UK: Drug prohibition / regulation debate in Parliamentary adjournment

The following is a speech given by Harry Cohen MP (Labour, Leyton and
Wanstead) during the parliamentary adjournment debate on July 26th. He
uses the speech to draw attention to and quote extensively from a new
book by Julia Buxton, called the Political Economy of Narcotics, before
calling for a debate of legal regulation of drugs and the failure of

Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I start by offering my humble apologies to you,
to the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons and to the Opposition
spokesman? I shall not be able to be here for the winding-up speeches,
as I have to go to a local health meeting at a hospital in my
constituency. However, I shall read the whole debate with interest.

It is customary to say that we should not adjourn until we have
discussed a particular subject. I do want the House to adjourn today,
but when we get back, I want us to have a full-scale, grown-up, informed
debate on drugs policy, the drugs industry and the drugs trade. I am not
talking about pharmaceuticals; I am talking about the illegal drugs
trade and its domestic and international ramifications.

I should like to draw to the attention of the House the best book on the
subject that I have seen for years. It was published last year, and it
is called "The Political Economy of Narcotics" by Julia Buxton, a senior
research fellow at the university of Bradford. She gives a history of
the subject, along with masses of information and a very good analysis.
I got the book from the House of Commons Library, and I can tell that it
is a good book because its source, the British Library, demanded it back
straight away. I read it through to the end, however, and it should
inform the debate. If there is more in-depth analysis of the subject,
however, we should bring it forward. Indeed, the Government should bring
forward their own in-depth analysis.

Ms Buxton refers to the United Nations and the international drug
institutions, and to "institutional crisis and decline". Yet I know,
from a parliamentary answer that I have received, that the UK is a major
donor to those institutions, and to this failing effort. She refers to
the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the UN international drug control
programme and the International Narcotics Control Board. She talks of

"the inability of the apparatus to revolutionize its working practices
or to refocus policy."

Because of the institutions' dependence on donor countries,

"the mechanisms for debate, policy evaluation and review within the UN
were limited and this further impeded the reform of UN and drug control

She goes on to say that,

"while there might be a lively debate on changing aspects of the
national drug laws in some countries, the reality is that national
governments have very limited room for manoeuvre in terms of developing
domestic drug strategies."

Importantly, she concludes:

"This situation is regrettable because the system of international drug
control does not work. All the statistical information shows that,
rather than decreasing, the number of people who are producing,
distributing and consuming harmful drugs is increasing. The expansion of
the trade in drugs has been particularly pronounced since the collapse
of Soviet communism in the early 1990s and it has accelerated in line
with the globalization process. On that basis alone, drug control
policies have failed. Not only have they failed, they are also
counter-productive...The current control model has not adapted to the
enormous changes that have occurred in production and consumption trends
during the 1990s and 2000s. As a result, drug control strategies are no
longer simply counter-productive; they are doing more harm than good."

Four types of drugs are dealt with in the book: poppy for opium and
heroin; coca for cocaine, crack and other derivatives; synthetic-type
drugs such as LSD and ecstasy; cannabis and marijuana.

The book also provides valuable information about the financial value of
the drugs sector—estimated by the UN as in the region of $300 billion to
$500 billion a year, which is more than the market value of steel, cars,
pharmaceuticals, meat, chocolate, wine, wheat, coffee and tea. In 2003,
the global retail cannabis market was worth an estimated $140 billion a
year; cocaine $70 billion; opiates $65 billion; and synthetics $44 billion.

In fact, the lucrative drugs market of north America accounted for 60
per cent. of amphetamine retail sales; 52 per cent. of ecstasy; and 62
per cent. of cocaine sales. That is interesting because America is the
country most insistent on the prohibition policy—yet it has the biggest
drugs market. What we have seen economically, because of the failure of
the control system, is supply up, prices on the street down, demand up.
Clearly, the current prohibition policy has failed.

What worries me most is the connection with crime. As with alcohol
prohibition, which led to Al Capone and the US mafia, drug prohibition
creates the most dangerous organised criminal gangs and threatens civil
society beyond just drugs. For example, in Columbia, three presidential
candidates were assassinated as a result of the drugs trade. The drugs
industry almost went to war with the state in that particular case.

The book notes that drugs prohibition has been advocated by the US
Christian evangelists, who also brought in alcohol prohibition: the US
likes bans and prohibition. I see that its policy on drugs is "Just say
no". That same phrase, by the way, applies to HIV/AIDS in Africa—but
again it is not realistic. The British and US Governments have fallen
out over that issue and we recommend supplying condoms. America says no
to global abortion rights, but abortion should be a right. I note that
our International Development Ministers are to address the Marie Stopes
conference—again that shows that we are adopting a different position
from that in the US. If the US will not change, we should be prepared to
adopt a different policy on drugs. The book also points out that US
foreign policy takes precedence over its counter-drugs policy. The US
will condone drug states or drug players if that is seen to be in its
best interests. That factor will be used against whoever the US regards
as its enemy.

The drugs industry and the prohibition strategy, which makes it so
profitable, lead to wars—Afghanistan is a clear example—and narco-states
such as Columbia. That was the status of that country in the past and
perhaps still now. The response is unreasonable militarisation and the
mass denial of civil liberties; and environmental damage when crops are
sprayed. There are also employment and livelihood issues. Bolivia is
cited as having almost half a million people—16 per cent. of the work
force at one point—employed in the drug industry. As we know from
Afghanistan, people often have no other feasible livelihood. While the
trade remains illegal, producers get a good price and the process is
highly organised. There would be a better chance for alternative
production to be pursued if the bottom were to fall out of the market.

Julia Buxton says that the prohibition conventions of international
organisations are out of date. They were brought in before the HIV/AIDS
epidemic, before the collapse of communism and before globalisation. She
argues that they spread harm while the real policy should be one of
reducing harm. She refers to HIV/AIDS and drugs in prisons. Clean needle
supply would help to combat the disease, and even safe supply could be
justified. That would be better than the current practice, which ends up
causing more HIV/AIDS as a result of dirty needles. The choice does not
have to be between total prohibition or total liberalisation; Julia
Buxton suggests that we could have a third way through regulation and an
element of control. That is attractive because it would remove the worst
of the criminality.

Let the House consider the equivalent industries that are also often
viewed as unsavoury. There is the sex industry, for example. There are
some bans, quite rightly in some respects, but that industry is not
totally banned; indeed, most of it is legal and highly profitable,
however unsavoury. The arms industry—most of us detest it—is not
illegal; it is regulated. Tobacco is another example; it is legal, but
we are quite rightly imposing ever more constraints on it. Alcohol is
licensed. There is a third way, a third option, that could be adopted
for drugs policy.

Whenever this matter is discussed, the debate is seldom thorough. It is
all about soundbites—a simple matter of whether we are tough or soft on
drugs. I admit that drugs have an impact on our streets and even in
people's homes when it affects their loved ones. It is, of course, a
political issue, but we need to have a proper debate about it. I believe
that we need to do what is best for public health and for society as a
whole. I urge the House to have that discussion.

Author: Transform via UKCIA

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