Sooner weed legalised, regulated, taxed, better for SA – Nadelmann
HE HAS been described as the “real drug tsar” and the “point man” for drug policy reform by Rolling Stone magazine.
That’s because Ethan Nadelmann, the energetic, Harvard- educated son of a rabbi, says the “backward and heartless” war on drugs has been a disastrous failure. Nadelmann would know. As an adviser to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New Yorkbased NPO, he has dedicated his life to rewriting drug policy around the globe.
He’s also been touted as the driving force for the legalisation of marijuana in the US.
This week, Nadelmann was the keynote speaker at the SA Drug Policy Week conference in Cape Town, where the world’s experts, researchers, government officials and civil society activists debated drug policies, perceptions, use and impact on society.
“Internationally, the drug policy landscape has changed dramatically, with the ‘ war on drugs’ increasingly being recognised as not only a failure, but one that has had significant and multiple consequences that can only be described as negative,” says the prelude to the conference.
Nadelmann concurs. If South Africa continues to invest most of its drug control resources in expensive, punitive, criminal justice policies, its drug problems will only grow worse.
“If South Africans choose instead to look hard at the evidence from around the world, they will find that those countries that define and treat drug problems primarily as matters of health rather than crime and policing have proven most successful in reducing their drug problems,” he tells Independent Media.
Similarities with South Africa can be found everywhere. “Politicians who speak boldly but with remarkable ignorance as to what works best in reducing drug problems; citizens who are fearful and also poorly informed are embracing drug policies because they sound tough, not because they work.
“Law enforcement agencies, some corrupt, some not, committed to enforcing drug laws without considering whether they may actually be doing more harm than good; and good souls working hard, often at the local level, and in the face of relentless opposition, to advance effective and humane drug policies that actually help both people struggling with drugs and the communities in which they live.”
New drug policies should be based on science, compassion, health and human rights. “Successful drug policy reform depends on reducing the role of criminalisation and the criminal justice system in drug control as far as possible while advancing public safety and health.”
The markets in cannabis, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine are global commodities markets “just like the global markets in alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea and sugar.
“Where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Knock out one source and another inevitably emerges. People tend to think of prohibition as the ultimate form of regulation when, in fact, it represents the abdication of regulation, with criminals filling the void.
“That’s why putting criminal laws and police front and centre to control a dynamic global commodities market is a recipe for disaster.”
For Nadelmann, the better alternative is to bring the underground drugs market above ground as much as possible and “regulate them as intelligently as we can to minimise both the harms of drugs and the harms of prohibitionist policies”.
He draws parallels with the fight against apartheid as a struggle for human rights and for both individual and racial justice.
“In my country, people who are black and brown and poor are no more likely to use or sell drugs than people who are white and affluent. But police focus overwhelmingly on the former and barely at all on the latter.
“In countries like South Africa, discriminations like these may have more to do with class than race – but the fact remains that drug laws are never enforced equally.”
The faster that dagga is legalised, regulated and taxed in South Africa, the better, he says. “Uruguay has now legalised cannabis. Canada will do so next year. In my own country, over half our 50 states legally regulate cannabis for medical purposes and eight states, including our largest, California, have decided to legally tax and regulate all adult use of cannabis.”
There, arrests and crime are dropping. “Tax revenues are growing. Cannabis use is increasing somewhat among older people but not among young people. And drug traffickers in Mexico and elsewhere are mourning the loss of their markets and profits.”
By contrast, he shows how the explosion of illegal heroin use in the US reflects the failure of current prohibitionist policies.
“The government spends too much money on interdiction, policing, prisons and other supply control strategies that are doomed to failure and far too little on the sorts of ‘ harm reduction’ strategies that can reduce the demand for illegal heroin.”
Therein lies a striking contrast with the Netherlands. “That country focuses on treating heroin use and addiction as a health issue. Sterile syringes are readily available to stop the spread of HIV and other infectious diseases.
“Methadone is easily available to people who want to reduce or stop their heroin use. Those for whom methadone doesn’t work can obtain pharmaceutical heroin in clinics.” What’s the result? “While illegal heroin use explodes in the US, the average age of Dutch heroin addicts is now approaching 40 and virtually no young people – black or
Julian Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke, known as ‘the Dagga Couple’, at their fund-raising initiative for a legal challenge against prohibition laws in South Africa. The event was held in Joburg last year.