Where are we going with the ‘War on Drugs’?

There is no other way than to shift the emphasis towards regulation rather than criminalisation

The consumption and peddling of drugs in the country continue unabated if not de plus belle, if we go by some spectacular arrests (Gros Derek et al) and seizures that have been made over the past year or so, with the involvement of Malagasy, French, South African nationals amongst others. It was in July 2012 that we observed that ‘A new, more effective drug control policy born out of political courage, imagination and realism is urgently needed.’ 

The realism was the fact of practically unstoppable consumption, and the then United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report, which we commented as follows: ‘Year in and year out, the UNODC reports that Mauritius is the leading illicit drug platform in the region: besides being an admission of its own failure to control the situation, which is given loud publicity through its local mouthpieces, what has UNODC done concretely to tackle the problem? Yes, it has organized jaunts for some of its favourites to Nairobi and Vienna, who then come back satisfied of their free trip – but benefit for the country: NYE!’

Should we go on with the UNODC’s illusory ‘war on drugs?’ One cannot have a war on drugs: instead, drug control should be based on an understanding of human nature. Specifically, that the human being will go to any length to seek pleasure – illicit pleasure being even more appealing and exciting. In modern society such pleasure is provided by a limited number of drugs (heroin, cannabis and derivatives/analogues of the latter two; pharmaceutical preparations that are abused for the purpose): this is the demand side of drugs. The problem is — you can’t legislate against human nature, as prohibition has proved in several different settings around the world. People will always seek an escape – and find a way to do so. The drug mafia comes in to fill a gap that governments have left as they based their attempt to exert drug control based on the 1971 Nixonian paradigm which was ‘prohibitive and punitive.’

Societies which pursued this line came to the conclusion that ‘the war on drugs can never be won’ and that as a society they have spent billions of pounds futilely waging it for decades. ‘Why will it never be won is simple: human beings will always seek pleasure and there will always be someone to supply that pleasure in whatever form that takes.’

On the supply side are the drug-dealer warlords and drug-traffickers who are after their own source of pleasure: money; they want a share of the international market for drugs worth, in 2012, about $320 billion a year. The users are the common people who pay not only big money, turning into thieves and criminals when their money runs out, but in the process damage their health, destroy their families and destabilize society, over which the warlords rule along with their accomplices in high places.

Straddling these three interlocking groups is the government which is expected to solve the social burden and meet the economic costs generated by the supply and consumption of drugs, and which attempts to do so through legislation essentially inspired by the prohibitionist and criminal approach alluded to above, a punitive policy still favoured by UNODC despite failings.

Drug prohibition and Crime

As the US is the biggest market for drugs, the situation has inevitably been compared to alcohol prohibition in the US from 1919 to 1933: ‘all profits went to enrich thugs and criminals. Young men died every day on inner-city streets while battling over turf. A fortune was wasted on enforcement that could have gone on education, etc.’ ‘Prohibition creates the drug black market. There is an irrefutable connection between drug prohibition and the crime, corruption, disease and death it causes. What is the point in facilitating this? Instead, one should realize that among all echelons of society, there are many people wanting to take drugs for recreational purposes: essentially an unstoppable and ongoing human behaviour which has been with us since the dawn of time. And because drug cartels will always have an endless supply of ready cash for wages, bribery and equipment, no amount of tax money, police powers, weaponry, wishful thinking or pseudo-science will make our streets safe.’

Don’t we have tobacco and alcohol, both legal and socially acceptable – although they both can, and do, kill? The point is some drugs have been deemed socially acceptable and some have not, the ones that are not acceptable are controlled by criminals, are unregulated and contaminated, and people will die. And since drugs are a global phenomenon, collective experience tells us that unless governments and opinions change we will continue to spend hundreds of millions on an unwinnable war, criminals will make billions, and people will continue to die.

The most sensible solution is to legalise, regulate and tax drugs: along with taking the criminals out of the supply chain it would also save the taxpayer millions by emptying our prisons of non-violent drug offenders, freeing up our courts and reducing policing costs. It would also liberate tax payers’ money which could then be used to clear up real crimes that actually affect people’s lives, such as violence and theft along with educating our children and paying for doctors and nurses to prescribe for, counsel, treat and follow up drug addicts, with the support of civil society organizations and statutory entities such as, locally, NaTRESA.

In fact, in drug-infested Latin America, Uruguay has shown the way by recently taking the bold step of legalising marijuana. Its Congress has passed a bill, on which the Senate is due to vote, which ‘will legalise the production, commerce and use of marijuana, through a complex system of pharmacy concessions, auto production and clubs.’ The balance of evidence is that marijuana is ‘no more pernicious a substance than tobacco or alcohol.’

It would seem that a broad range of distinguished Latin Americans, from former Presidents to prominent writers and Nobel laureates, as well as business magnates have voiced their support for such a move. In Mexico alone, the war on drugs has failed at an enormous price to the country: more than 70 000 people dead, over 50 billion USD spent and about 24 000 people disappeared.

Bold Alternative Measures

On several occasions Parliamentary Questions have been addressed to our successive prime ministers, and the replies have not varied very much in terms of what they could propose to address the problem innovatively, because the approach was inspired by the UNODC paradigm. But it is time for change – that is, if we truly want to alleviate the problem. If so, then there is no other way than to shift the emphasis towards regulation rather than criminalisation. However, this does not mean following blindly and without a full preparation what, say, Uruguay is about to do. It is axiomatic that, appreciating the specificity of the Mauritian situation and context, there will have to be broad and vigorous discussions involving all layers of society and all stakeholders, and then prepare and pass legislation that will contain the bold alternative and innovative measures that are necessary – and be prepared to face the flak, much as was done in leading to the Act relating to HIV-AIDS.

Either through a new legislation, or perhaps an amendment of the Dangerous Drugs Act the appropriate structures and systems can be put in place to give effect to the new strategy. Basically what is required is similar to other regulatory agencies, namely, licensing producers, registering authorized dealers at specified supply points, licensing growers for personal use, creating a database of authorized drug users, and making provision for penalties – because as with other areas of human activity, there will always be some defaulters, and the sanctions must be such as to act as a strong deterrent. With the legal and other luminaries we have in this country, surely this is not rocket science? And this must be, at the political level, a multi-partisan affair, because such a serious national matter must not be given a political twist, as one prime minister underlined.

In fact, we have been seeing over the years how certain defaulting pharmacies/pharmacists have been indulging in diverting legal drugs towards illicit use, and what more, have even tried to ‘diversify’ their core business of pharmacy by selling sex toys! This may reflect the fact that there are too many pharmacies opening and not enough business to break even or make a living. The new approach to drug control could thus ‘mop up’ pharmacists who are in excess of what the health market can sustain, and who are better trained to advise potential drug clients and dispense in a professional manner.

These and similar issues need to be carefully considered and meticulously studied in the process if we as a country are really serious about revisiting our approach to the drug problem. Since we have obviously miserably failed, like other countries many of which are very advanced, we cannot continue on the same path. Either we reign in drug use through regulation, knowing that it can never be eliminated, or we allow drug trafficking and abuse to keep on festering and destroying lives and society.

Which will it be?


* Published in print edition on 23 August 2013

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