From the time I was conscious of what was happening in the world I was aware of a ‘war’ against illegal drugs. Let me clarify that there are several illegal drugs, but I speak specifically about opium, marijuana, coca and psychedelics which have been used for centuries for both spiritual and medicinal purposes.
The global drug trade, with spikes in USA, Europe, Russia, Asia and now Brazil and Argentina, is estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to be worth USD435 billion a year. This industry has been growing steadily at four to six per cent per annum since being tracked in 1971 when American president Nixon used it as a means of suppressing the growing Hippie community and black power movements that were vehemently opposed to his administration. Here in the Caribbean, the trade is said to generate USD3.5 billion annually.
I am in full agreement with policy expert on this subject Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, who in a 2014 interview with CNBC stated that the war on drugs was being lost as criminals become more agile than government agencies. It might be time for a different response to this problem. While governments have an unending revenue source through taxes and fiscal support from the United States via the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) to procure guns, armoured vehicles and boats, likewise international drug traffickers too have an unending supply of revenue to procure guns, armoured vehicles and boats. The reality is the only way to gain the upper hand is to provide viable alternatives for those in society who are looking for a way out of their impoverished situation and decriminalize the drugs, bringing them under government regulation. The consensus for years has been focused on punitive measures. The result has been a booming trade, bulging penal facilities and an increase in drug-related health problems.
An example of this failure is the Caribbean having adopted the US style penal system. That system, which has more than 25 per cent of all those convicted in US prisons for non-violent drug-related crimes, now itself has a major issue with overcrowded prison populations and the problem is pregnant with twins – a procedural one relative to judicial expedience and a problem that breeds more crime.
The Caribbean is not a large consumer of drugs but due to its geographical location caught in the crossfire between the world’s largest consumers and its largest suppliers, it has become a favourite transshipment point. Our ubiquitous and unpatrolled coastlines; limited law enforcement capacity and lagging socio-economic development, particularly with respect to our young people make us a soft target. Criminals will continue to exploit these shortcomings and where violent crime and corruption flourish, development is undermined. The US State Department estimates approximately 16 per cent of drugs imported into the US now come through the Caribbean up from four per cent in 2011. Our policy approach to drug enforcement also makes the trade more attractive. The fact that it is illegal creates an enabling environment for the vice associated with activity, as the reward matches the risk. Thus, criminal elements will always find this trade attractive.
To determine how effective this current action is we should go back almost one hundred years to the USA Volstead Act of 1919. I use the US as an example only because they have dominated policy in this region since the idea of Manifest Destiny was coined in 1845. The United States Congress passed the Volstead Act as the 18th amendment to the US constitution, also called the National Prohibition Act, to prohibit the manufacture, import or sale of intoxicating liquors.
The purpose was to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses and generally improve the health and hygiene of the nation. It did the opposite in spectacular fashion. Tens of thousands died due to prohibition related crime, many other thousands died consuming poor quality liquor and women and children were attracted to the lure of consuming illegal alcohol, sending figures of new converts to record levels.
It is widely agreed that prohibition also created organized crime in the United States. It provided members of small-time street gangs with their greatest opportunity. Organized racketeers dominated the bootlegging industry and bribed police, customs officials, bankers, jurists and politicians as a cost of doing business. Five years into the industry, the profits were so incredible that the industry had become a corporation employing thousands of specialists across the States in legal, accounting, manufacturing, warehousing and logistics professions. When the Act was repealed in 1933, it was deemed unenforceable.
The similarities between prohibition and the current war on drugs are stark and distressing. The war on drugs has become one of the greatest enablers for the creation of incredible wealth among the criminal community as prohibition was 99 years ago.
With this wealth, the public systems which are mostly financially stressed are playing a poor game of catch-up. America and the rest of the world have been ambivalent on this issue.
As early as 1972, a Commission that was appointed by President Nixon who placed marijuana as a Schedule One drug, the most restrictive drug category, recommended that marijuana be decriminalized. This report was ignored by Nixon and its recommendations rejected. A paramilitary approach to drug enforcement has been perpetuated from then until now, with the result being an incubation and fertilization of the most notorious drug lords the world has seen.
I believe the time has come for the Caribbean, and I daresay the world, to review its drug enforcement policy and seek to end the criminalization of drugs. This action only gives currency to criminal gangs, terrorists and now with a shift to Afghanistan, religious zealots like the Taliban have found a new product to trade. It creates an ecosystem that leads to enslavement for cheap labour, illegal arms for protection and enforcement of the criminal activity, bribery for access and support, and poor decisions being made by individuals due to the lure of immense profit.
The balloon effect occurs when one squeezes one area of a balloon and the other end bulges. This is an example of the impact of the ‘war on drugs’. When successful in Central America, it moves to the Caribbean, when successful in the Caribbean, it then moves elsewhere. The industry is now a highly sophisticated multi-national logistics system that is interlinked, with operators having their producers, traffickers and enforcement teams spread across the region with Haiti and Jamaica being the largest regional players. The problem can only get worse for us. The more mature and established the industry becomes the more resilient and formidable it becomes. It is also a truism of criminology that one of the most potent causes of delinquency is exposure to delinquent peers, and our current strategy of housing minor offenders with serious offenders is likely to continue an increase in crime.
It is time that like the 1933 realization that prohibition was unenforceable and was creating a worse problem than it sought to solve, this war on drugs must come to a swift and comprehensive end. Drugs like marijuana, coca and the like should be processed in laboratories under established regulations. Persons desirous of using these drugs should be registered with licenced agents of sale, should be of adult age and should be counselled before use. Money should be spent on education and personal health care insurance should also be a condition of sale.
Government and other support groups should spend more time educating the populace on the ill effects of the drugs rather the current sensationalizing of its use by its continued criminalization. Drugs should be heavily taxed and a portion of those tax dollars should go to the aforementioned activity. This will bring many of these illegal entities to a close as there will no longer be an illegal market to satisfy. The actors will have to come over to the light side of the moon.
As was said earlier, the consensus on the approach to illegal drugs has been a punitive one. The net result of that is higher prices for the drugs, greater wealth for the criminals, greater numbers of persons incarcerated, greater health-related issues for abuse. The United States has sought to impose its drug policy with investment in Caribbean Law enforcement through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) and we have seen no respite in the trade because of it. We now need to work on the cause and not just the symptoms. We need to work to create accountable governments that do not entertain drug lords and build confidence for foreign investment to create jobs. We need to spend more of that money on aid for the overwhelmed judicial system so that our detention facilities do not become the breeding ground for future criminals. We need to give opportunity to ex-convicts so they have some non-criminal options upon release. We need to decriminalize all drugs and have an effective and robust regulatory process in place to ensure compliance.
George Connolly is CEO of Business Technology Solutions Firm and a former candidate of the Democratic Labour Party.