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Why The War On Drugs Is A Failure

In the early 20th century the US initiated a policy of prohibition. Just as with many illegal narcotics today, alcohol production, consumption and distribution (save for certain state approved reasons such as medicine) was strictly outlawed. After less than a decade and a half of attempting to maintain this new status quo with increasing futility, the policy was thrown out as an abject failure. During that time millions were exhausted in the interest of enforcement only to see alcohol consumption shoot up to levels even higher than those prior to the ban. Organized crime had a field day[1] and in time many law enforcement officials simply turned a blind eye to the thriving underground industry that sprang up, many of them being frequent consumers.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we see striking similarities to the modern world’s ‘War on Drugs’.  Billions are spent each year as budgets inflate[2] while the problem seemingly worsens with cartels, gangs and other forms of organized crime flourishing en masse. Are we saying to end this ‘war’ entirely and legalize every drug much the same as prohibition was abandoned? Obviously not. However emphasis must be placed on the fact that a heavy handed approach in addressing such a problem tends to yield extremely negligible or even counterproductive results. A very recent and somewhat extreme example can be seen in the form of the Philippines’ president Duterte[3] and his ‘war on drug dealers’ where numerous known and suspected drug dealers have and are being unceremoniously murdered. Yet despite this affair having been underway some months now, any empirically demonstrated impact it’s had on long term organized crime is at best spurious.

Even the West’s more tempered method has fallen on hard times as it tends to merely remove middle men and producers with the occasional bust of a ‘big fish’ as the rare prize catch. Yet, where one falls 10 more takes their place[4], filling whatever vacuum was left as is the case in any lucrative enterprise. Imprisonment, while technically a form of incapacitation and deterrence, is far from safe when it comes to the reach of organized crime as gangs (including their operations) don’t end at the penitentiary gates. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to those here in the Caribbean. In fact we’re quite familiar with it. Despite common busts of weapons and drugs with values ranging in the millions, the illicit trades are booming. For every sharp decline caused by law enforcement a subsequent boom in activity follows.

Here’s the fundamental flaw in this ‘war on drugs’. We’re targeting the supply while ignoring the demand. Unsurprisingly, once there’s a strong enough demand for a product no amount of vigilance can truly curb its trade. This is why prohibition failed and this is why the current war on drugs continues to yield diminishing returns. Let’s take a look at the US-Mexico relationship for example. In many parts of the border where both nations meet one would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a prison enclosure and a border fence.

Lined with barbed wire, tall fences, miles of sensors, cameras and 24 hour patrols, the border still remains as porous as ever with drugs and guns flowing steadily[5] between both nations. This occurs at the same time as growing drug use epidemics and the resultant social ills and consequences takes its toll on many US states. Despite this, many policy makers tend to treat them both as separate issues not as related phenomena. What results are ‘initiatives’ and ‘solutions’ lacking real cohesion and with objectives laid out from a limited perspective, the outcome almost always leaves much to be desired.

Shifting focus to the Caribbean, an even more complex atmosphere unfolds. Not only does the Caribbean have drug users and suppliers (mostly locally grown marijuana however) but it also serves as a key hub for the shipment and transportation of all manner of illicit goods ranging from drugs to guns and even human cargo. As a transshipment point the Caribbean region, particularly countries such as TT[6] and Jamaica, are faced with a more complex task of genuinely having to tackle the supply rather than more progressively attempt to deal with the issue of drug demand. The latter of which more or less falls into the laps of the developed nations like the US and its massive user base for drugs which fuels it all.

Furthermore, whereas the US tends to have an all-round problem with the harsh, most damaging drugs such as cocaine, meth and heroin, the Caribbean’s drug user problem is largely limited to its so called ‘National Herb’, that of marijuana. Unfortunately this has changed somewhat over the last few years as greater numbers of hard drug users have popped up. Regardless, with this in mind, the Caribbean may benefit greatly from dealing a blow to organized crime by pursuing a gradual process of decriminalizing marijuana. With a range of medical uses and research demonstrating far less negative side effects compared to legal substances such as tobacco and alcohol, the legal system and national coffers of various territories can greatly benefit if shrewd, well thought out policy is put in place.

These benefits range from ‘Ganja Tourism’ to the much needed relief in overburdened legal systems where prisons and long drawn out sentences for small acts of possession could be reduced as resources are shifted towards dealing with far more serious criminal acts, including the organized crime underpinning these industries. Indeed, while bringing in individuals for minor busts may outwardly appear conducive towards a cumulative benefit, it’s akin to plucking a few ants from a nest while the queen remains undisturbed. With this in mind in our next entry we’ll move on to some in depth approaches on how both demand and as a result, the supply, can be curbed in the War on Drugs.

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