“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Albert Einstein
The war on drugs has failed. It isn’t DJ Chaos on Pirate Radio stating it but the Global Commission on Drug Policy. A think tank made up of former presidents of nation states including Switzerland, Brazil and Mexico and Mr Kofi Annan former General Secretary of the UN, amongst others.
The truth, in lay terms is very simple. The profits in the drugs industry are so high that if there is a demand, there will surely be a supply. It is also abundantly clear that fear of getting caught isn’t affecting the demand for drugs.
It is not only academic studies that prove this, but also a little common sense. Why is it that in a country such Malta, where there is no classification between soft and hard drugs, only a very small fraction of cannabis users, use heroin too? Not only are both drugs equally illegal and carry the same penalties but for those whose bodies have not yet developed a tolerance for heroin, (thus needs larger quantities for the same effect) the latter actually cheaper than cannabis. Yet, most choose not to opt for heroin. It’s clear that it’s neither the legal deterrent nor the price that’s keeping these people away from it.
In spite of all this, governments in many European countries (or both government and opposition in countries like Malta) refuse to bulge an inch when they hear the word decriminalization.
Rest assured that the more the argument for decriminalizing drugs surface, the more will the scaremongers get hysterical that Malta will be infested with drugs. I’m sure that before decriminalizing all drugs in Portugal in 2001, there were scaremongers making the same claim. Truth is the exact opposite happened.
That said, it needs to be clear though that there is no quick fix solution for the complex problems caused by drug abuse. Portugal is not drug free. But the drug problem has diminished since decriminalization.
What’s going on in Portugal?
A simple overview shows that since 2001:
Use of cannabis has increased
Use of cocaine didn’t change significantly
Use of heroin has decreased
Total use of drugs has decreased
This is even more positive than it looks at face value. During the past 10 years, drug abuse in most EU countries has increased significantly. The increase in use of cannabis, was in fact in proportion of the increase in use in the EU average. In other words there is no evidence to show that this increase was brought about by decriminalization.
Cocaine is definitely the drug that is most on the increase in Europe, in some countries including Malta, at an alarming rate. Unlike most European countries, cocaine use in Portugal did not significantly increase since 2001 This is even more striking one considers that Portugal is the closest European country to the main cocaine exporter Colombia, and has a lot of historic ties with South American countries.
There are other benefits the Portuguese people have enjoyed since decriminalizing drugs such as a decrease in crime and certain contagious diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis B and C.
Decriminalizing drugs in Portugal, one of the most conservative countries in the EU block didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was part of a whole package of admitting that the war on drugs – the way it was being waged – had failed and honestly try to do something about it.
A Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction (CDT) was introduced in every region in the country. Anyone caught with the possession of drugs (calculated as roughly the amount for 10 days of use or less) was no longer arrested. No arrest, criminal record or lawyer fees. Just a mandatory visit to his regional CDT in 72 hours. The CDT has the power to impose sanctions such as fines and community work, but that’s not its main aim.
The main aim of the CDT is to assess whether the individual is just a casual drug user or an addict, and proceed accordingly. The CDT also has the power to refer a person identified as an addict to either residential or non-residential treatment. However, unlike in a Court of law treating the person as a criminal, the CDT considers the addict as a patient and tries to act in his best interest rather than punish him. In fact, though legal advisors also form part of the CDT, it is mainly formed from health care professionals.
This system’s major successes are the following
1) More people in treatment. Being confronted by health care professionals within 72 hours was seen much more likely to lead a person to decide to start facing his drug problem seriously than being in the hands of law enforcement officers whose main aim is to secure a conviction. Which is exactly what happened.
(This was coupled with pumping more financial resources by the Portuguese government into treatment centres)
2) Less people were convicted with drugs, yet those who did were prosecuted for a total of a larger amount of drugs. Since the burden of arresting and convicting people with the personal use of drugs had eased from the criminal justice system, more resources were allocated for drug trafficking.
Classification of Drugs
Most EU countries have a system where punishment for the trafficking (or possession in countries where the personal use is still a criminal offence) of drugs varies significantly between hard and soft drugs. Malta is one of the few exceptions. Importing a Kg of cocaine will carry the same penalty as importing a Kg of cannabis.
This is not only unfair, but also absurd. Hard drugs are, nearly always, more expensive. Even heroin, which a beginner it is usually cheaper than cannabis, becomes horrendously expensive when develops tolerance for it.
When harsh sentences, for soft drugs (such as that of David Holmes who got 10.5 years imprisonment and a 23,000 fine for cultivating cannabis) are compared with equally harsh sentences for trafficking soft drugs, the courts are actually giving a clear message to would be traffickers: Don’t traffic soft drugs. They are much less profitable and if caught you’ll get the same punishment.
This is not speculation but a reality. Though authorities are not admitting it, we have a serious cocaine problem in Malta. Most violent robberies we hear about are committed by people under the influence of cocaine and/or from people needing money to buy more cocaine. This dangerous drug is being presented as a party drug and is abused regularly in places such as weddings and village feasts. Many young people are under the illusion that “it’s not that harmful”. Unlike cannabis users, most of whom use the drug only occasionally and during leisure time, most cocaine users don’t stop there. Many realize that cocaine isn’t just a “recreational party drug” when it’s too late.
The influx of cocaine could not be attributed solely to the lack of classification in our drug laws. The biggest cause is the fact that the cocaine industry (mostly in South America) is booming. Supply has exceeded demand and new marketing strategies are being used. Aside from branding it as a party drug, today’s cocaine is also cheaper.
The lack of classification is just adding insult to injury. It is making the drug more available something which, amongst other things continues to reinforce the idea that it’s just a party drug.
Lets Talk Sense About Drugs
The drugs aren’t coming. They are here and on the increase. Drug addicts are not one-offs, nearly every extended family has one.
Relatives of drug addicts know that they are ill. They’ve seen them vow a million times they won’t use anymore. They saw them flourish in a clean period only to lose all they have gained in a weak moment. They’ve seen them sick, suffering from withdrawals. Above all, they’ve seen them change from energetic youths to withering flowers. Some were lucky. They also watched their loved ones kick off their habit. Enjoying life once again, building again what they had lost.
Others had the misfortune of watching them die, in a vegetative state, or in jail.
Re-thinking the war on drugs will not provide a miracle cure – there isn’t. But as the success story in Portugal has shown, more people will start seeing their loved ones in rehab, and clean. And less people will have to visit their loved ones in prison, where rehabilitation is only a buzzword.
Re-thinking the war on drugs means that we stop calculating our success on just the number of convictions but the impact on people’s lives, because amid increasing convictions drug use and the problems it causes are not getting better but worse, substantially worse.
All it takes is political will. The fact that Malta’s politicians aren’t even addressing the failed war on drugs is either the result of laziness to make some research or cowardice to work towards the much needed change.