The war on drugs has been lost

As pro­duc­tion moves to the de­vel­oped world, pol­i­cy­mak­ers are strug­gling to keep up

The Star (St. Lucia) - Business Week - - FRONT PAGE - BY MISHA GLENNY, FT CORRESPONDENT

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

the Nether­lands.

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

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