A woman smokes marijuana during the World Day for the Legalization of Marijuana in Colombia, 3 May 2014. Photo: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images
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Why the costly, pointless war on drugs must come to an end

A new report from the London School of Economics lays out the case against the counter-productive decades-long attack on recreational drugs.

Quantifying the enormous harms of the “war on drugs” is a near-impossible task. How to begin calculating the health epidemics, the violence associated with illicit markets and tragedy of mass incarceration internationally?

The London School of Economics has attempted to begin counting the costs of the war on drugs in a new report, Ending the Drug Wars: Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy. The report includes a call from some of the world’s leading economists, including five Nobel Prize winners, to end the “war on drugs” and experiment with alternative policies.

They write: “It is time to end the ‘war on drugs’ and massively redirect resources towards effective evidence-based policies underpinned by rigorous economic analysis. The pursuit of a militarised and enforcement-led global ‘war on drugs’ strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage.”

These damages include increases in homicides related to drug markets. For example, as drug markets swell, so too does violence. The report finds, “[the] increase in the size of illegal drug markets observed between 1994 and 2008 (about 200 percent) explains roughly 25 percent of the current homicide rate in Colombia. This translates into about 3,800 more homicides per year on average that are associated with illegal drug markets and the war on drugs.”

Traditionally, the goal has been to utilise law enforcement and even the military to suppress the illicit market, but such strategies have major drawbacks. In Colombia, successful counter-narcotics programs only displaced the market elsewhere, for example shifting criminal gangs - and their associated violence - to Mexico, where the homicide rate increased threefold within a period of just four years.  

Even interdiction and drug seizures can have major unintended consequences.  The report notes that in Colombia, more efficient interdiction strategies “may account for 21.2 percent and 46 percent of the increase in homicides and drug related homicides, respectively, experienced in the north of Mexico.

This is not to say that there is no place for law enforcement or prohibition in global drug policy. The problem is with the pursuit of a “war on drugs” strategy that fails to recognise the limits of prohibition and results in a severe misallocation of resources towards ineffective and often counterproductive policies. Often these come at the expense of far more effective public health policies.

The implications are clear. There must be a drastic reallaction of focus and resources towards proven public health policies based on access to treatment and harm reduction. Such approaches are not only humane but cost effective. Treatment cost an average $1,583 per person but benefited society at the level of $11,487, a 7:1 ratio. There are even greater returns on harm reduction initiatives like substitution therapies, supervised drug consumption facilities and needle and syringe exchange services. 

One study cited in the report found that every dollar invested in opioid dependence treatment programs returned between $4 and $7 in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs and theft. When savings related to health care are included, total savings can exceed costs by a ratio of 12:1.

The report concludes that governments must drastically reallocate resources away from damaging and counterproductive policies based on punitive and enforcement led policies. It also calls for a shift away from a supply-oriented focus in producer and transit countries towards an illicit market impact-reduction focus. This means that states and the international community focus on ensuring population security, economic development and protecting human rights instead of blindly focusing on the quantities of narcotics seized or numbers of people arrested.

Finally, it calls for policymakers to pursue rigorously monitored policy and regulatory experimentation, as is currently underway in Uruguay, and the US states of Washington and Colorado, with cannabis regulation.

The list of Nobel laureates who endorsed the report includes, Professor Kenneth Arrow, Professor Thomas Schelling, Professor Vernon Smith and Professor Oliver Williamson. Other signatories include renowned economists, political scientists and human rights experts such as Professor Paul Collier, Professor Conor Gearty, Professor Danny Rodrik, Professor Jeffrey Sachs.

Signatories also include the LSE’s most recent Nobel Laureate Professor Sir Christopher Pissarides, the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Nick Clegg, Former US Secretary of State George Shultz, Former President of Poland Aleksander Kwaśniewski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Guatemala Luis Fernando Carrera Castro, the Health and Social Protection Minister of Colombia Alejandro Gaviria Uribe and the Former EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Dr. Javier Solana.

The report will be launched at a live event on May 7 at the London School of Economics, with Guatemala’s Minister of Interior, Mauricio López Bonilla. Guatemala’s President, Otto Pérez Molina, will be taking the report to the United Nations to directly influence policy discussions. He has been a leading figure in calling for a UN review of the drug control system, which will take place at a special session in 2016.

John Collins is coordinator of the LSE IDEAS International Drug Policy Project.

Photo: Getty
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.