The Guardian, 22 November 2011
With the astonishing admission of the Colombian president that the war on drugs is not working, the time is right for the international development community to add its voice.
This time last year, just back from Colombia and with the tragic consequences of the war on drugs fresh in my mind, I argued that international development NGOs needed to get serious about drugs as a development issue. Things have moved on since then.
Back then it was Mexican president Felipe Calderón who was tentatively suggesting a debate on global drug prohibition, as his country was ravaged by gang violence. Now it is Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos who, in an extraordinary interview with the Observer, has called for efforts to "take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking ... If that means legalising, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it. I'm not against it."
It is hard to overstate the significance of this statement, by the president of a country that seldom, if ever, challenges US policy, and which has invested billions of dollars and hundreds of lives in the war against the drug traffickers. Senior Colombian and Mexican politicians have for years been saying in private that the war on drugs is a disaster but have felt unable to say it in public. (While the war started as an attempt to protect society from the harm done by drugs, all it did was help create powerful drug conglomerates that became strong enough to challenge the power of whole nation states.) That appears to have changed. The balance of interests looks to be shifting.
Now is the time for international development and human rights organisations to add their considerable weight to the discussion. NGOs like Oxfam and Christian Aid might not feel competent to talk about the effects of current drugs policies at a domestic level (although comparing the reduction in smoking in the last few years with the continued high levels of drug consumption might give lawmakers pause for thought about the merits of state regulation and control), but they don't need to.
The point is to bring the effects of the war on drugs home to the consuming nations that insist on its continuance; to Count the Costs, the title of a campaign led by Transform, the drugs policy organisation, with a focus on data rather than ideology. The World Development Movement, a few years ahead of most UK development NGOs as usual, has already started engaging in the debate. Others should follow. The subject needs to move from the realms of taboo to part of normal discourse and policy analysis. That it hasn't been for the last few decades is something of a scandal.
While it may have been arguable up to now that the impact of the war on drugs only affected a handful of countries, ie Colombia, Mexico, Afghanistan and Pakistan (never a good argument as the power of organised crime, once established, has a global reach), the displacement of the trade to west Africa means everyone should wake up to the threat. What will Mali look like in 10 years time if organised crime takes over? Could the economic progress in Ghana be halted if it comes under the same kind of attack by criminal gangs that has so battered the Caribbean and Central America? Guinea-Bissau is already described by some as a narco-state.
On the other hand, action now would make it much harder for the drugs gangs to take over. This campaign to end prohibition is a race against time to save west Africa from a fate worse than Mexico.
Clearly an end to prohibition will not end the problems created by the war on drugs at a stroke, nor the problems created by drugs themselves. The gangs that are now so powerful in Colombia, Mexico and elsewhere engage in many types of crime including people trafficking and kidnapping. But one of their largest sources of income would be decimated, as prices fall in a regulated market.
Insiders are more hopeful than ever that an end to global prohibition is possible within a decade. Both Barack Obama and David Cameron, the leaders of two of the most important drug-consuming nations in the world, are on the record in their opposition to the war on drugs before they were elected. If they followed through on their promise of a rethink they could go down in history as the leaders that began one of the most important global policy shifts of our time.
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