Time to declare truce in 'war on drugs'

opinion May 23, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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We need a new approach to stem the damage being done by the narcotics trade

At roughly the same time the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime released its annual report on the narcotics trade, the London School of Economics (LSE), backed by five Nobel Prize-winning economists, issued another, calling for a change in mindset on the way the trade is handled.
A global “war on drugs” was announced more than two decades ago, but to little apparent effect, with the trade even more lucrative and widespread now than it was back then. We are no closer to eradicating the problem, and that’s mainly because the global community is fighting the wrong enemy. Governments policies have left the market in illicit drugs unregulated and users unprotected. 
The LSE’s 82-page report suggests that resources be redirected from “law enforcement and repressive policies toward proven public health policies of harm reduction and treatment”.
The report, “Ending the Drug Wars”, reveals the economics of current policy and shows why it hasn’t worked. It looks at various factors that add to the cost, such as treatment of HIV/Aids cases that stem from drug use.
But for most governments, including Thailand’s, tough talk and zero tolerance of narcotics continue to dominate the mindset of policymakers. This is mainly because they refuse to explore more sensible approaches out of fear that voters will view them as weak. Nevertheless, the LSE report’s findings demonstrate the impracticality of prohibitionist policies. 
Just about every government that comes into the office declares a “war on drugs”. A decade ago that of Thaksin Shinawatra kicked off a controversial crackdown on dealers that saw nearly 3,000 people killed in the space of just three months. 
Not only did it fail to achieve its objective, the short-lived and controversial policy greatly undermined the country’s justice system.
Thaksin, however, had the audacity to call the “war” a victory against the narcotics trade.
Thailand’s “war” enjoyed widespread support, illustrating the weakness of society. Opting for a quick and violent method to addressing any social problem is not a sign of strength. If anything, it reflected poorly on our society and culture. 
Most of the illegal drugs flowing into Thailand are methamphetamines and heroin, produced in the Myanmar section of the Golden Triangle, where narcotics warlords are brutal and determined. 
Myanmar’s government has made it clear that other countries’ drug habits are not its problem, and thus refuses to crack down on the warlords’ narco-armies. 
The situation is complicated by the fact that several of Myanmar’s armed separatist groups trade in illicit drugs to finance their operations. In other words, narcotics and insurgency are inseparable in Myanmar. Trying to crack down on one while ignoring the other will achieve nothing. 
The LSE report should spark serious debate. Civic groups should take the lead in this, but government officials and policymakers shouldn’t wait for public endorsement before acting on the issue. 
They need to be reminded that their cowardice has a price, and that price is not only the lives of the drug users but the innocent bystanders around them. The longer the world waits before ending its “war on drugs”, the more people will suffer.