Monday, 28 November 2011

Oh What A Lovely War

"Fortunate are those who give their lives in a just war", so wrote the French poet Charles Péguy before he died at the battle of the Marne in 1914. I wonder if a mayor of a Mexican town whose head is dumped at his office door  can be said to have died in a just war. Mexico may be an extreme case - and its problems are caused by many things beside drugs - but it seems to confirm the notion that first banning drugs and then fighting the criminals who swarm to pick up the money is a dead end in more ways than one.

It reminds me of another memorable statement from Europe's troubled past: "Long live death", Spanish Falangist general José Millan Astray called out at the University of Salamanca, on 12 October 1936. He followed it up with the wish "May intelligence die". He was addressing an academic assembly, and clearly had the very process of scientific analysis itself in mind.

Today we do things differently (we believe), yet people keep dying in "just wars" (Afghanistan, the War on Drugs, society's war against organised crime, etc). At a recent military funeral in Paris of the latest batch of French casualties from Afghanistan, President Sarkosy said pointedly "your sacrifice has not been in vain". Reasonable consolation from a Head of State, but chillingly unconvincing.

General Astray's wish for the death of intelligence was less crazy than it sounds. Politicians have always been more comfortable with what "feels" right  than what is right. The war on drugs, or even the global drug control system, is an essentially emotional reaction to the almost Freudian squeamishness of Western societies to accept habits that alter your state of mind. In Western tradition this has only ever been allowed on any scale when it was properly monitored by the church and served a higher purpose. It is no surprise then that christian missionaries played a major part in the 1909 Shanghai Conference (chaired by the American bishop to the Philippines), which is widely seen as the start of the global control system.

General Astray's Freudian simplicity about doing away with intelligence has long dominated drug policy world-wide. The European Commission doesn't seem to be immune either. Its latest "Communication" (Towards a stronger European response to drugs - promises to do things that society clearly needs, like fighting drugs crime and coming to grips with the growth of legal highs on the internet. But why does the response have to be "stronger"? And why does it have to take the form of repressive control when we are drowning in evidence (intelligence) that it hasn't worked for decades? Should it not concentrate on a "more effective" or even "more intelligent" response?

An example: anybody can buy the legal high "Energy 2" over the internet for a few Euros/Dollars. It will be delivered by the postman. It was recently analysed by a forensic lab in Belgium. They found that the batch they had ordered contained caffeine and nothing else, about the equivalent of five cups of coffee per tablet. The envelope it came in said three tablets in one go was a safe dose. That's 15 cups of coffee! Now that's definitely not good for you, so maybe someone should do something. But if the internet can host snuff movies, child pornography, and lessons in bomb making, drafting EU legislation on caffeine, which is just one of a thousand substances used in legal highs, is clearly not going to make a great difference , except possibly to coffee drinkers. Doing something about internet trading might be more effective.

The first thing to be done then is to save the intelligent approach on drugs that the EU has been following for the last 15 years, and to tone down the present calls for repression and control of what is a social habit indulged in by some 100 million Europeans, mostly without problems. (Most of the problems are caused by drug criminals and a small percentage of problem users). The second thing is to follow the evidence-based approach that the EU has done much to encourage in recent years, and to commission an independent study of the true  impact of prohibition and enforcement on consumption and on the illicit drugs trade in Europe. This has never been done in any meaningful sense because countries won't (and often can't) provide the figures of what it is all costing. Such a study would nevertheless clearly have to include an analysis of the cost of implementing current policies, and could be a follow-up to the Reuter-Trautmann report on the global control system made for the EU Commission in 2008.

In the mean time, the internal squabbling of the EU Commission should be dealt with (there are now two Commissioners dealing with drug policy) and the calls of the Commission's Public Health and external affairs people to maintain the balanced approach on drugs should be heeded. It is that approach that has kept "intelligence" on drugs alive in Europe. It is the only way forward out of a dilemma that has more to do with the voice of our darkest past than the voice of reason.

Organisations like LEAP (Law Enforcement Against prohibition) and the Global Commission on Drug Policy have understood this. Politicians should listen to them.

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