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.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.