100 years of the War on Drugs

 Oliver Hotham

Image © World Economic Forum

100 years ago today, as the opium trade reached new levels of notoriety for its criminal activity, the USA and 12 other countries signed the 1912 International Opium Convention, which stated that:

The contracting Powers shall use their best endeavours to control, or to cause to be controlled, all persons manufacturing, importing, selling, distributing, and exporting morphine, cocaine, and their respective salts, as well as the buildings in which these persons carry such an industry or trade.

This was the first international agreement to limit the trafficking of narcotics, and while the intentions of the “War on Drugs” seemed noble and right, it has implicated the United States and its allies in innumerable crimes against humanity.

The War on Drugs would be, to a certain degree, acceptable, at least morally consistent, if it were not mired in hypocrisy. We support, for example, the corrupt government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, as part of the war against the Taliban, but the president’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, has been implicated in the Afghan heroin and opium trade, the products of which fuel heroin addiction around the world.

Another example is that of Colombia, a country which has suffered from invasive American policy for years. Since the 1960’s, a civil war has raged between forces loyal to the government, loyal to left-wing paramilitaries, and loyal to right-wing paramilitaries; the United States has consistently supported the government, giving millions of dollars in aid. But human rights groups and journalists have implicated the United States Government in involvement with, say, the AUC, a right-wing paramilitary group responsible for high levels of drug trafficking and gross abuses of human rights.

The United States supported the Contras in Nicaragua, a gang of cocaine dealing murderers of women, children and priests. When the monstrous activities of the Contras and the abject hypocrisy of the United States waging a “War on Drugs” (while simultaneously supporting with monetary aid a group directly involved in the supply of cocaine to the United States) was revealed by the press, Reagan and Bush circumvented congress and sold arms to Iran so they could continue funding the Contras.

The hypocrisy is astounding, and all too often political and strategic motives render moot the “good” intentions. During the Cold War the United States could support the most murderous and evil criminals, as long as they declared themselves “anti-communist.” Now the focus has switched, and those declaring themselves opponents of Islamic fundamentalism, such as Mr Karzai in Afghanistan, can be forgiven for their potential involvement with drug trafficking.

The solution? Maturity. The centenary of the 1912 International Opium Convention is a chance to really begin to re-examine the attitudes that governments should have to drug use. Legalisation of personal drug use is a good place to start, as it makes the fundamental assumption about the nature of human liberty – that the state has no right to infringe on your personal choices if there is no detriment to the liberty of others. This is Mill’s harm principle. Why shouldn’t an individual be permitted to partake in recreational drug use in the comfort of their own home? They’re harming no one but themselves, and while the role of society should be to educate about the dangers of drug use, it is the individual’s responsibility to approach drug use in a mature manner.

Last year, a panel of the Global Commission on Drug Policy called for an immediate overhaul of the War on Drugs. The panel, whose members included Richard Branson and Kofi Annan, urged governments to legalise drugs like marijuana and accept that “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”

The prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the 1920’s is often used as the historic example of why governments prohibiting personal use and the sale of an intoxicating substance fails: supply comes from criminal syndicates who enhance their own power and wealth, money is wasted in law enforcement and detention, and little significant change is seen. But to say this is to overlook the fact that the “War on Drugs” has already failed, as Richard Branson and Kofi Annan have already said, and its failure is self evident.


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