The war on drugs has been lost
As production moves to the developed world, policymakers are struggling to keep up
Get ready for some high old times. Three phenomena are conspiring to upend the global market in illicit narcotics, which are set to become more available and be better quality than ever before
Get ready for some high old times. Three phenomena are conspiring to upend the global market in illicit narcotics, which are set to become more available and be better quality than ever before.
First there is the relationship between North America and marijuana. Nine US states and the District of Columbia have already legalised marijuana, while it is available for medical use in 30 states. Were New York to join California in legalising, as seems quite possible, then over a quarter of the US population will enjoy unfettered access to weed.
But the real game changer comes in October when smoke shops open across Canada. Official estimates put turnover in the country’s marijuana industry at over $8.2bn, but analysts agree the figure was arrived at assuming the low price of $7.15 a gramme. Pension funds, banks, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs are punching and kicking to secure a place in the starting grid of investment in the new industry.
The US attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, has repeatedly threatened to apply federal law, which still considers marijuana illegal, against states that have legalised, California in particular. Yet so far, President Donald Trump’s administration has shied away from making good on those threats, almost certainly because resistance on the West Coast would be fierce and the political risk to Mr Trump too high.
In Britain, the government has finally been shamed into allowing very limited access to medicinal marijuana to children with the most severe forms of epilepsy. One of the problems that a century of the so-called war on drugs has thrown up is that governments across the world have not allowed any serious research into the effects and medical impact of a drug like marijuana. This is despite the fact that all empirical research makes it clear that the damage wreaked by alcohol on the human body and society far outweighs that inflicted by marijuana. Yet because of an ideological obsession around the drug, its often miraculous medicinal properties have been ignored until very recently.
Death by marijuana intoxication is so rare as to figure in no government statistics around the world. But the second phenomenon turning the drugs market upside down is by no means so benign. In the US in 2016, 42,000 drug deaths involved opioids. This was not caused by the Mexican cartels or the Taliban in Afghanistan. The origins of America’s opioid tragedy lie in the strategies of big pharmaceutical companies, Purdue Pharma in particular, which, for almost 25 years, have been aggressively pushing painkillers containing synthetic opioids through the US private healthcare system. This has resulted in millions of Americans becoming hopelessly addicted.
Physicians still prescribe these drugs in large quantities every year, ensuring the addiction wave will continue. But when patients can no longer afford the drugs, or they cannot get them prescribed, they are turning to heroin or, more recently, fentanyl, a ferociously powerful opioid that North American dealers have been ordering in large quantities from Chinese manufacturers.
In order to deal with this, the US government will need to rein in Big
Pharma and introduce drug law reform. That is almost certainly too big an ask for the Trump administration. Indeed, Mr Sessions has indicated that his preferred approach to the problem is to police his way out of the crisis. The deaths, in that event, will continue.
A major part of the opioid challenge is actually the third phenomenon that is revolutionising the recreational drugs market. How do Americans buy their fentanyl? The answer is on the dark net, a part of the internet not accessible to search engines. Online drug sales have exploded. Dark net users say it is safer and more reliable than scoring off traditional dealers.
In the UK and most of Europe, the most popular drug sold over the internet is ecstasy (or MDMA). But unlike cocaine, which originates in the Andean region primarily, or heroin, which is sourced largely from Afghanistan, the centre of MDMA production is North Brabant in
Death by marijuana intoxication is so rare as to figure in no government statistics around the world. But the second phenomenon turning the drugs market upside down is by no means so benign
As synthetic drugs replicate the highs of organic narcotics with ever greater accuracy, or indeed surpass them, production is shifting to the laboratories of northern Europe, the Balkans, Israel, Canada and east Asia. This shift is placing huge strains on police forces that are already badly stretched because of austerity policies introduced in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. One of the unspoken reasons for the slow move towards the legalisation of cannabis is that police forces simply cannot cope, especially with a drug that does relatively little harm.
Until now, the deaths and chronic insecurity associated with drugs have been concentrated in zones of production and distribution. The war on drugs has enabled the Taliban to resist Nato for 17 years as it funds its weaponry and social base through the sale of opium. In Mexico, the state has ceded large parts of the country to the rule of the cartels, thanks to the money they make distributing cocaine and opioids around the US. While the deaths and violence have been largely restricted to those faraway places, the war on drugs, for all its consistent failures, has continued. But change is coming.
Death by marijuana intoxication is so rare as to figure in no government statistics around the world © AFP