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Legalize drugs - all of them!


Tipping point in North America? Cannabis legalization is on the ballots in three US states for the November election. While in Canada, this woman was one of many taking part in a public ‘smoke-off’ in Toronto earlier this year.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/Press Association Images

We were sitting in a café drinking cola. My two companions, drug enforcement soldiers, kept their guns resting across their knees. Fingers not quite on triggers but close enough for rapid response. They were smiling.

The woman running the café was not. Her face was closed, expressionless. Through the open window we could hear the almost constant sound of light aircraft taking off and landing somewhere in the thick greenery of Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley. When, earlier, I had innocently asked a local mayor whether such planes were carrying drugs, he had smiled and equally innocently replied: ‘They are air taxis. That’s how people get about here.’

Later I went out with soldiers on patrol. Running through the jungle, we spotted coca plants being grown between generous banana leaves. Finally we came upon a lab for making coca paste. It was a simple affair – two big piles of coca leaves, a trough made out of wood and plastic sheeting, and some cans of kerosene.

‘It’s been abandoned,’ remarked one of the soldiers. He didn’t seem surprised or disappointed. ‘Will they be back?’ I asked.

‘Probably not. They won’t use this one again if they know we have been here. They will make another lab somewhere else. It’s easy.’

This was 27 years ago, early days in the ‘war on drugs’. And already then it seemed hopeless.

Steps to showdown

‘They used to laugh at us,’ says Danny Kushlick of Transform, a British drug policy reform group.

Today he and his colleagues are regularly called upon to make the case for ending the prohibitionist policy that has dominated the world since the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was put in place in 1961.

They have been researching other possibilities, including an idea that until recently was pretty much taboo – making all drugs legal.

The list of high-profile figures supporting the cause for reform is growing by the minute, and ranges from Nobel laureate economists and police chiefs to stand-up comedians and drug activists.

Serving politicians have tended to be cautious, fearing voter backlash. Before coming to power, both Barack Obama and David Cameron indicated that they were in favour of reform, including some degree of legalization. Once in high office, they fell silent. Mexico’s former leader Vicente Fox, now a leading advocate of ‘legalization all the way’, waited until he was safely out of office.

But today, even incumbent leaders are sticking their heads above the parapet. ‘That’s something new,’ says Kushlick.

In the past few months, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, for example, has initiated a global taskforce for a total rethink of drug policy. Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla has said the consumption of drugs should be a matter of health, not law. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina is calling for legalization of the use and sale of drugs. While in Uruguay, President José Mujica has proposed a groundbreaking law that would enable the state to sell marijuana to its people and derive tax revenue from it. ‘Someone has to be first,’ he commented.

Uruguayan President José Mujica has proposed a law that would enable the state to sell marijuana and derive tax revenue from it. ‘Someone has to be first,’ he says

The US is not immune to the whiff of drug revolution. In November three states – Washington, Oregon and Colorado – will vote on legalization of marijuana for adult recreational use. This would directly contravene both federal law and the UN Convention. ‘We’re heading for a showdown,’ says Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. ‘It’s hard to talk about tipping points but I think we are close to one with regard to cannabis. This is a clear sign that people are looking for a different paradigm.’

War on drugs

From a country like Mexico, where ever-deepening drug-related violence claims 33 lives a day, the global ‘war on drugs’ declared by President Nixon 40 years ago can be seen for what it is – a colossal failure. Costing more than a trillion dollars, this ‘war’ has involved hundreds of thousands of military personnel, customs officers, enforcement agents, crop eradicators, police and prison staff. But still the illegal narcotics trade flourishes – worth about $320 billion a year – and drug use keeps growing.

Worse, the war on drugs has unleashed a deadly set of ‘unintended consequences’.

It’s ‘like trying to put out an electrical fire by dousing it with water,’ says Sanho Tree.

Crackdowns on drug cartels have increased the huge profits bestowed by illegality. Violence has surged as rival groups jockey to fill the vacuum left when a major cartel has been hammered by government forces.

The global war is militarizing societies and tearing up democratic rights. It also enables illegal drug money to flow into the coffers of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Colombian FARC, ELN, AUC and others.1,2 Meanwhile, punishing drug users and sellers has filled prisons and increased addiction.

Something needs to be done.

‘It is the biggest, most complex challenge facing us today,’ says Mauricio Rodríguez, Colombian ambassador in London and a close ally of President Santos, whose proposed taskforce of global experts is already at work under the auspices of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), expected to report within 12 months.

Mexican soldiers burn 7.6 tonnes of cannabis seized in Ciudad Juárez. Illegal exports of marijuana into the US account for 25% of cartel income. Stringer/Reuters

Colombians know better than most the cost of the war on drugs. They have been on the frontline of the US-designed Plan Colombia, a $7 billion anti-narcotics and military aid drive also used to tackle leftwing insurgency. In 2002 the conflict was claiming some 28,000 Colombian lives a year.3

Today, violence is down by about a third and coca production has declined by 58 per cent. ‘But any improvements in Colombia have meant serious deterioration in other parts of Latin America and the world,’ says Rodríguez. ‘Production has gone to Peru and Bolivia and traffic has gone mostly to Central America, West Africa, and islands of the Caribbean.’

This is the so-called balloon effect, where action taken in one place simply pushes the illegal drug problem into another.

Latin Americans, the ambassador says, are fed up with drug-related violence. ‘Why do we have to pay such a price for a problem that is essentially not ours? We are not big consumers; it’s unfair that tens of thousands of Mexicans or Colombians or Guatemalans have to lose their lives because of consumption in the US. Who is really responsible? The consumers are and so are those who have created this model of illegality. Either consuming nations need to reduce their consumption or they need to help us to change this model.’

The damage done?

Many people in those major consuming nations would agree. In recent months opinion polls have shown remarkable upswings in people supporting legalization of some drugs at least. A survey in Colorado showed 61 per cent of the population supported legalization of cannabis. Polls in Britain, Australia and Canada show similar seismic shifts in public attitude.

Drugs have little intrinsic value. It’s prohibition that gives an astronomical ‘price support’ to traffickers. The profits are extreme and so are the violence and corruption needed to protect them

The number of people who have never tried an illegal recreational drug is dwindling and with it the hysteria that surrounds narcotics. Psychoactive – mind-altering – substances have always been a part of human experience. And other animal experience too, if you count elephants bingeing on fermenting fruit and goats getting high on coffee beans.

The effects of different drugs and their wider impacts vary enormously. But for many people, current legal classification of drugs seems divorced from the reality they know, especially in relation to cannabis or ‘party drugs’ like ecstasy.

There is also a growing awareness that some legal drugs – alcohol and tobacco, for example – are much more harmful than many currently illegal ones. Some illicit substances have medically therapeutic benefits, such as cannabis (to alleviate the symptoms of multiple sclerosis) and ecstasy or magic mushrooms (for treating post-traumatic stress disorder), that cannot be properly researched or exploited by medical professionals and patients.

But what about the hard stuff?

Heroin and crack cocaine are high on the scientific list of harmful illegal drugs. The 27 million ‘problem drug users’ in the world tend to be addicted to these or related substances. The proliferation of drugs like krokodil (a cheaper heroin derivative that gets its name from the skin damage it causes and its flesh-devouring tendencies) in Russia compounds fear of drugs and what they can do.

Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt is a Harm Reduction activist and former heroin addict living in London. She sees addiction as a disease to be treated. She also thinks that legal regulation and control is the only way to go. ‘I don’t say it fearlessly though, because I think that, at least temporarily, there will be an increase in drug use. But I don’t think that will be sustained.’

In 2001, Portugal embarked on one of the most daring and progressive actions in recent times: it effectively decriminalized the personal use of all drugs, including the hard ones.

The results were interesting. Drug use carried on increasing but at a slower rate than in Spain or France. But, significantly, addiction to hard drugs fell by half, from an estimated 100,000 addicts before decriminalization to 40,000 in 2011. Opiate-related deaths and HIV infection were also down – the latter by 17 per cent.4,5 This is partly because Portugal coupled decriminalization with a well-funded public health programme to help people get off drugs.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, the evidence suggests that criminalization does not deter use – but decriminalization does.


It makes perfect sense to Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt. ‘I have now heard thousands of stories of people who have become dependent on heroin, cocaine and so on. Most of us were most interested because these drugs were forbidden.

‘Also we were a bit vulnerable, didn’t have much love for ourselves, and therefore we put ourselves in danger. We don’t care that it’s a crime and we could go to jail. We just want to use this drug that we have found is comforting or exciting or pleasurable.’

She explains: ‘People aren’t wilfully creating havoc: they are doing something that they find will assist them in their lives, even if it’s temporary and it gets them into all sorts of other problems. But for the majority of us, it is clear that the prohibitive punitive system has actually been the cause of most of our other problems – like poverty, homelessness, sex work, shoplifting, dealing.’

These problems in turn intensify the need for the drug and make it harder to stop.

‘What saddens me is that some of the people who are most punitive and intolerant are those who are directly affected. One of our arguments needs to be that just because you are legalizing the drug does not mean that you are promoting it. You can say: look, we are not changing the laws because we want everyone to take these substances, but because they’re currently bloody dangerous because of where you get them from.’

There are many good models for reducing harm, through a combination of de facto decriminalization and supportive treatment. ‘In Switzerland they found that people would come off heroin faster because there was nothing to fight against any more; they still had their addictions but once the other bits of their lives had been sorted to some degree, there wasn’t this huge monster that needed to be medicated every day.’

In Vancouver, Canada, the response to a high level of drug deaths was the creation of a ‘consumption room’ where users can safely inject legal or illegal drugs. They call it ‘the demilitarized zone’. Similar initiatives have been developed in Australia, Spain, Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands.

Decriminalize or legalize?

So why not go down the Portuguese route and decriminalize the use of all drugs?

It is, to varying degrees, already happening in practice in around 25 countries, mainly in Europe and Latin America, where people found in possession may simply have their drugs confiscated but will not be prosecuted.5

However, decriminalization does not deal with the supply side – and the deadly nexus of money and violence.

Drugs have little intrinsic value. It’s prohibition that gives an astronomical ‘price support’ to traffickers. The profits are extreme and so are the violence and corruption needed to protect them. Hence the grotesquely cruel methods used by the gangs, making simple decapitation a blessing.

Only legalization and regulation can break the hold of the criminals. Legal drugs could be taxed. The corrupt network of tax-evading banks and front companies that support the industry by laundering drug money would have to start paying their way. ‘The war on drugs I would like to see is the war on laundering drug money,’ says ambassador Rodríguez. And some of the criminals might even be caught. It’s worth remembering that only when the prohibition of alcohol ended in the US was Al Capone finally apprehended – on a charge of tax evasion in 1933.

Making drugs legal has many potential benefits. It could interrupt the flow of money to warlords, corrupt officials and the Taliban that is ensuring continuing instability in Afghanistan and other parts of the world. This is highlighted in a recent study by the former MI6 director of operations Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli, a research analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies.6

Fernando Moleres/Panos
Three years for smoking opium. This 16 year old is doing time in a Sudanese jail. Prison is known to increase addiction to hard drugs. Fernando Moleres/Panos

It could dramatically reduce prison populations. The billions the world spends on the global war on drugs could instead go towards health, addiction treatment and prevention, and other socially useful things. It would lower the risk of death by overdose because the strength and quality of drugs would be marked and controlled.

But one of the biggest impacts would be on HIV/AIDS. Contrary to global trends, infection through injecting drug use is on the rise and now accounts for a third of all new HIV infections outside sub-Saharan Africa. Punitive policies are fuelling the AIDS pandemic in the US, Thailand, China and especially the former soviet states. In Russia violent police attacks on drug users are commonplace, opiate substitutes are outlawed, and needle exchange programmes non-existent. ‘Refusing to reduce HIV infection and protect people who have a drug problem is criminal,’ said entrepreneur Richard Branson at the launch of a hard-hitting report by the Global Commission on Drugs, a collection of ex-drug tsars, former leaders and experts who are calling upon current world leaders to decriminalize drug use and to invest in harm reduction.7

In a world where drug taking was not a crime, addicts would be less likely to go underground, less likely to share needles and more likely to test for HIV. Millions of new HIV infections could be averted.

Other human rights abuses generated by prohibition could be reduced, such as capital punishment in Iran. This is mainly used against people found in possession of drugs and is effectively being funded by Britain, Ireland and others through a UN anti-drug smuggling programme.8

Finally, legalization would provide a decent living, without fear, for thousands of poppy and coca farmers in some of the world’s poorest countries.

What next?

What happens in the US, the world’s premier drugs consumer and also the most ardent guardian of the UN Convention, is critical. In the lead-up to November’s elections, President Obama is in ultra-cautious mode. He has said he is ‘critical’ of legalization but is prepared to consider whether Washington policies are ‘doing more harm than good in certain places’.

The US drug warriors in Congress and in the military are entrenched and still have international clout, as Bolivia saw when it tried to legalize production of coca for traditional use.

In theory, the US can act against countries that depart from the UN Convention by blocking loans from financial institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank. But when there is a regional uprising, with one country after another saying they want to legalize, be it Belize or Uruguay or Argentina, it may get harder to do.

In the US itself Sanho Tree reckons that: ‘Once we have a regulated model for cannabis, it will show voters that the sky didn’t fall, life did not grind to a halt. That will help. On the hard drugs, examples from Europe of successful harm reduction programmes will show people in the US that another way is possible.’

But he adds that the main political work will be in public education. This is because drugs policy is, by its nature, counter-intuitive; being tough is the opposite of being effective.

Prohibition is a simplistic solution to a complex problem that simply does not work. At no time or place in history has it ever worked. Sue Pryce, an academic and mother of a drug addict, observes: ‘There is an uncomfortable similarity between the drug addict and those who support drug prohibition. The addict comes to see a fix as the solution to life’s problems; the prohibitionists have come to see prohibition as the fix for the drug problems which are also part of life itself.’9

Even if the world, or even a part of it, comes to accept that legalization is the way forward, the devil will be in the detail. Pricing, for example, is a tricky issue – too cheap and use may rocket; too expensive and the rationale for a criminal market is re-ignited.

Antonio Maria Costa, former UN drug tsar and a leading prohibitionist, warns that multinational corporations will muscle in if drugs are legalized. Steve Rolles from Transform, however, presents a model that involves considerable state control and a ban on advertising.10

In an ideal world the UN would replace the prohibitionist conventions with a new progressive policy that all countries could sign up to together. Perhaps President Santos’ global taskforce process will produce a blueprint for such a policy. But it’s questionable how radical it will be if it has to have US and Canadian approval. UN-watcher Damon Barrett of Harm Reduction International thinks that real change is more likely to come ‘from below’. Social and harm reduction activists, public educators and just ordinary people opening their minds will be the key players in this revolution.

People have and always will take intoxicants that provide pleasure and harm. But there are ways in which we can make that activity safer, less damaging to individuals, to society, to the world.

Action and resources



  • Legalize by Max Rendall, 2011 (Stacey International)
  • After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regultaion by Steve Rolles/Transform, 2009 (download here)
  • Fixing Drugs by Sue Pryce, 2012 (Palgrave Macmillan)
  • Drugs - without the hot air by David Nutt, 2009 (Penguin)
  • Drug War in Mexico by Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda, 2012 (Zed)
  • Seeds of Terror by Gretchen Peters, 2009 (Oneworld)
  • Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States by Nigel Inkster and Virginia Cornolli, 2012 (IISS)


  • The Alternative World Drug Report, Transform, June 2012, nin.tl/Mbmuoa
  • The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS, Global Commission on Drugs, June 2012, nin.tl/M3ldEw
  • World Drug Report, UNODC, June 2012, nin.tl/Mbnqcd
  1. Gretchen Peters, Seeds of Terror: How heroin is bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Oneworld Publications, 2009.

  2. BBCnin.tl/OqjN6j

  3. Los Angeles Times nin.tl/MptbV8

  4. Forbes nin.tl/OqkDQx

  5. Transform, ‘The Alternative World Drugs Report’, 2012 nin.tl/Oqp0Lf

  6. Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States: the Problems of Prohibition, IISS, 2012.

  7. Global Commission on Drugs, ‘The War on Drugs and HIV/AIDS’, globalcommissionondrugs.org

  8. Harm Reduction International, ‘Partners in Crime’, nin.tl/MpuQtS

  9. Sue Pryce, Fixing Drugs: the Politics of Drug Prohibition, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

  10. Intelligence Squared, ‘It's time to end the war on drugs’, nin.tl/OqvtG5

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