Almost 100 years after the League of Nations (LON) first law on narcotics (drugs), the International Opium Convention of 1912, a report released yesterday, June 2, 2011, says the global war on drugs is a failure and governments need to initiate other policies, including legalising marijuana and other currently controlled substances.
The report, War on drugs by the Global Commission on Drug Policy (GCDP), a think tank that includes former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, the current prime minister of Greece, the past presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, along with distinguished world leaders and statesmen, said ‚”the global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”.
Commissioner Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and co-founder of The Elders, United Kingdom, said: “The war on drugs has failed to cut drug usage, but has filled our jails, cost millions in tax payer dollars, fuelled organised crime and caused thousands of deaths. We need a new approach, one that takes the power out of the hands of organised crime and treats people with addiction problems like patients, not criminals”.
According to former Swiss president, Ruth Dreifuss‚”overwhelming evidence from Europe, Canada, and Australia now demonstrate the human and social benefits both of treating drug addiction as a health rather than criminal justice problem and of reducing reliance on prohibitionist policies”.
War on drugs recommends governments‚ “invest in activities that can both prevent young people from taking drugs in the first place and also prevent those who do use drugs from developing more serious problems”.
It recommends governments‚ “focus repressive actions on violent criminal organisations”, while “law enforcement efforts should focus not on reducing drug markets per se, but rather on reducing their harms to individuals, communities and national security”.
No war on drugs means no WHO & US gov’t money
In the USA the Obama administration and the Mexican government‚ who are in the midst of a 4 1/2 -year-old drug war against cartels that has seen more than 38,000 people killed in Mexico‚ immediately dismissed the report’s recommendations.
“Making drugs more available will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe, said White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) spokesman Rafael Lemaitre.
However, commissioner and former Colombian president, Cesar Gaviria, said: “When you have 40 years of a policy [the term‚ “war on drugs‚” was first used by US president Richard Nixon on June 17, 1971] that is not bringing results, you have to ask if it’s time to change it”.
Change won’t come easy in most parts of the world though as a requirement of World Health Organization (WHO) membership and access to large pools of aid money, as well as to official aid from the US government, requires recipients to criminalise cultivation, manufacture, extraction, preparation, possession, offering, offering for sale, distribution, purchase, sale, and/ or delivery of narcotics covered by the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 and/ or the US Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970.
Changes in 1986 to the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 require the President of the US to report to Congress the counter narcotic compliance of major narcotic-producing and transiting countries, with those that fail to comply liable to decertification and placing at risk US aid money and approval of multilateral loans.
Ideologically based drug laws flawed
First enacted in 1961 and tracing its origins back to the LON International Opium Convention of 1912, the United Nations (UN) Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs treaty forms the basis of many member states individual national drug policies, including the US CSA of 1970 and the United Kingdom’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Both were drafted to fulfil treaty obligations and contain parallel methods of drug scheduling.
However, the Commission says governments should‚ “replace drug policies and strategies driven by ideology and political convenience with fiscally responsible policies and strategies grounded in science, health, security and human rights”. It recommends they “review the scheduling of drugs that has resulted in obvious anomalies like the flawed categorisation of cannabis, coca leaf, and MDMA”, as a priority.
Cannabis was first regulated in 1928 by an amendment vigorously championed by the US Government to the International Opium Convention, with the same government largely responsible for cannabis being listed in the same category as opium, coca, and derivatives, such as morphine, heroin, and cocaine, in the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs bill in 1961.
One million Americans jailed annually
In 1994 the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reported that the “war on drugs” results in the incarceration of one million Americans annually, with marijuana accounting for almost half of all drug arrests.
US FBI statistics show marijuana offences account for about 800,000 of the 1.8 million drug arrests annually in the USA, at a cost of more than $7 billion, while between 1990 and 2002 it represented 82 per cent of all offences involving narcotics.
For many years academics and others have claimed the US government’s ‚”war on drugs‚” is nothing more than a smokescreen for military or paramilitary operations, with much of the money spent internationally provided to organisations who themselves are involved in large-scale narcotics trafficking.
It’s a matter of public record that the CIA, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), State Department, along with several other US government agencies have been implicated in a number of drug trafficking enterprises which were used to fund illegal covert activities in foreign countries.
A $76 bln boost to the US economy
This latest report is not the first to proclaim the war on drugs a failure. In 1993 Alberto Fujimori, president of Peru between 1990 and 2000 said that despite large amounts of money being spent by the US and Peruvian governments between 1980 and 1990, coco leaf production there grew 10-fold.
One of the war on drugs biggest critics was esteemed American journalist, Walter Cronkite. In 2006 in Telling the Truth About the War on Drugs in The Huffington Post, he said “the war on drugs is a failure”.
No stranger to controversy, Cronkite, the person once regarded as‚ “The Most Trusted Man in America”, was a living legend and a stalwart of journalism integrity.
When he reported in 1968 that the war with Vietnam was a failure, everyone from United States president Lyndon Johnson down, listened, and took notice.
In 2008 a study by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron estimated that legalizing drug use would inject $76.8 billion a year into the US economy, $44.1 billion from law enforcement savings, and at least $32.7 billion in tax revenue ($6.7 billion from marijuana, $22.5 billion from cocaine and heroin, and the balance from other drugs).
In its 2010 National Drug Threat Assessment the US Department of Justice (DOJ) said more than 43 million individuals, about 14.2 per cent of the American population, used illicit drugs or abused prescription drugs in 2008. Meanwhile 20 per cent of state prisoners and 53 per cent of federal prisoners were incarcerated for drug offences, it said.
The same report said that “overall, the availability of illicit drugs in the United States is increasing … the prevalence of four of the five major drugs, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, and MDMA (also known as ecstasy) was widespread”. It further said that in 2008 “more than 25 million individuals 12 years of age and older reported using an illicit drug or using a controlled prescription drug (CPD) non-medically”.
According to the DOJ, marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the USA, with 25.8 million individuals 12 years of age and older (10.3 per cent) using it in 2008, consistent with previous years.
In 2008 about 2.9 million people tried an illicit drug or used a prescription drug non-medically for the first time, almost 8,000 initiates per day.
Drug arrests in Thailand up 1,796%
A 2009 report by RAND Corporation, a US-based nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision making through research and analysis, methamphetamine use in the USA cost the country between $16.2 and $43.8 billion in 2005.
According to the DOJ indications are that the number of methamphetamine labs producing (as opposed to that being imported) in the USA is increasing.
If, as proclaimed in the book The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics by Richard Davenport-Hines, that less than 15 per cent of illicit heroin and 30 per cent of illicit cocaine is intercepted, increasing levels of detection and seizure are only the tip of an extremely large iceberg that is only increasing in size.
In February 2003 the government of Thailand prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a‚ “war on drugs”, in response to increasing quantities of methamphetamine (locally called ya-baa), flooding the Southeast Asian nation from neighbouring countries, predominantly Burma.
Wildly proclaimed by some with vested interests as being a bloody orgy of extra-judicial executions by the Royal Thai Police (RTP) in which 2,275 alleged drug offenders were killed in the first three months‚ the facts belay this.
In 2275 – where did this number come from, Bangkok Pundit writing in Asian Correspondent cuts through the myth to find that the official figure is 72 killed in 58 incidents involving police, with some 70,000 people arrested.
For those curious the 2,275 figure was first claimed by Agence France-Presse (AFP) and came from a police report in April 2003, two-and-a-half-months after the “war on drugs had began, stating that there had been a total of 2,275 homicides nationwide during the period.
This figure was grasped by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and used in subsequent media announcements, without any fact checking and amplified by media organisations globally.
In fact Thailand’s police chief, Police General Sant Sarutanond, said in December 2003 that based on an RTP inquiry, 72 people died as a result of extra-judicial killings.
Poignantly, government statistics show that the only time the number of drug offences decreased in Thailand between 1999 and 2009 was during this Thaksin war of drugs period.
In the five year period following the‚ Thaksin war on drugs‚ the number of drug cases has risen by 1,797 per cent, with Thailand’s Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) saying there was 223,294 drug offences detected in Thailand in 1999, but only 55,243 in 2004.
Methamphetamine Thailand’s favourite drug
For the 2009 year 155,013 drug offences involving 168,013 offenders were detected in Thailand, with the biggest growth seen in arrests involving ice (methamphetamine hydrochloride crystal), where the number of offences detected increased by a staggering 1,411 per cent over the five year period with 3,464 offenders apprehended in 2009.
While the number of drug cases in Thailand involving heroin, cocaine, ketamine, and ecstasy have all fallen since 2004, those involving less expensive drugs have grown.
Between 2004 and 2009 the number of cases involving Kratom leaves (a locally indigenous plant traditionally used for medicinal purposes with mildly addictive properties) increased by 342 per cent, marijuana by 72.5 per cent. Cases involving ya-baa (methamphetamine) increased by 256 per cent over the period with 131, 950 people and more than 120,000 offences recorded in 2009.
Thailand jails at 200% capacity
Thailand’s prison system is notorious for its harsh conditions and overcrowding but the extent of such was only highlighted recently by Human Rights Watch (HRW) group, the Union for Civil Liberties (UCL).
In a report last month the group said that the country’s 143 prisons are running at 200.53 per cent of capacity, with 212,058 inmates housed in jails designed for 105,748, making them the eighth most crowded in the world.
According to Danthong Breen, chairman of the UCL, 60 per cent of prisoners in the Thailand penal system are incarcerated on drug offences, many of them minor charges.
The UCL figures correspond with undated figures on the Thailand Department of Corrections (DOC) website, which claims a total prison population of 212,058 – 182,138 males and 30,020 females.
According to the DOC prisoners incarcerated in Thailand for narcotics offences account for 56.42 per cent of the total.
Female prisoners convicted on narcotics charges represent about 57.2 per cent of the entire female prison population, while the proportion of males is 39.23 per cent.
The figures are somewhat misleading however, as the DOC figures for prisoners classified by type of offence fail to take into account another 52,518 people detained, but not classified as prisoners.
Rehabilitation diversion programme
Since 1991 those apprehended in possession or personal use quantities of category 1, 2, or 5 drugs have been ordered to compulsory treatment and rehabilitation centers, provided they were charged with no other jailable offence at the time of their arrest
According to the ONCB, in 2009 there was 39,287 people undergoing compulsory drug rehabilitation, 7,338 under DoC management and a further 15,740 people who voluntarily sought treatment.
While the number of people undergoing treatment fell by almost 45 per cent over those in 2008, its figures show that about 80 per cent of those undergoing drug rehabilitation were doing so for methamphetamine addiction.
The GCDP report is just the latest report over the last few years to urge a change in the attitude and enforcement policies relating to the illicit drug industry.
Like those that preceded it, it is likely to end up on sitting on a shelf gathering dust.
Until the US government stops using its failed anti-drugs campaign to control the purse strings on millions of dollars in humanitarian and military aid — exercising its economic power behind the scenes to shape global treaties — countries such as Thailand and others that rely on this money will be forced to maintain tough anti-drugs policies, draining huge amounts of money from national coffers for a war that was lost before it even started (See: Leaked cable shows USA influencing Thai law & justice system for 60 years).
Download: Global Commission on Drug Policy, War on drugs
Feature video Aljazeera English
Feature photo John Le Fevre
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Footnote: AVAAz, a global web movement aimed at bringing people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere is running an online petition calling for the UN to end the war on drugs.
He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.
He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.
In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.
Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me
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I smoke medical marijuana, weed whatever you wanna call it. I grew up around the stuff, and I love the culture. When I think about weed I don’t think about the drug cartels and people getting shot. I think about kind people who have strong morals and who care about one another. I am tired of weed getting dragged into politics, weed isn’t something to die over, its meant to be rolled up in a joint or packed in a pipe and smoked for comfort. I am tired of this money corrupt country. I am tired of being labeled a criminal because of my choice to smoke marijuana. If the U.S.A wants to be a strong proud country we must stand up for one another and stop pointing fingers.
Seems more like war against people and plants.
Really appreciate this article, John. It’s time the US and Thailand come to terms with the fact that the War on Drugs has been a complete failure. And from the sounds of it, Yingluck’s new government is planning on introducing a similar anti-drug campaign to what Thaksin had (which was responsible for thousands of extrajudicial deaths). Sigh.
I also agree the US needs to back off and stop using its economic might to influence Thai laws (or any other country’s laws, for that matter). According to a really good article I just read on marijuana laws Thailand, this has been going on since the Vietnam War, and currently, the DEA is heavily involved in anti-drug sting operations in Pattaya. Wouldn’t this bother Thais, who are often quite nationalistic, that another country is involved in police operations within Thailand’s borders? Very strange.
This stuff must be non crimilnalized to stop the trafficking. I been saying this since 1944 when it was first offered to me by another in a Catholic High School. Yes, you will need druggie dens, the chinese had them for thousands of years. But only the druggies will be dying, no innocent folks or law officers will die from drugs. The “Drug War” is such an overwhelming dismal total failure and still it’s failure is still being ignored. Give the shit away and the dying will stop over these weeds. Lots of people will have to find a legal way to make a living, they won’t need their automatic weapons anymore. They can run the druggie dens and “take care” of these useless druggies. Yes, if you take one drug now in the so called casual use, YOU ARE PART OF THE FRIGGING PROBLEM.