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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Yanis Varoufakis: The left never recovered from the fall of the Soviet Union — yet there is hope

A radical internationalism is needed to democratise the EU and breathe new life into the left.

The left has been in disarray since 1991 – it never fully recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite widespread opposition to Stalinism and ­authoritarianism. In the past two decades, we have witnessed a major spasm of global capitalism that has triggered a long deflationary period across the United States and Europe. Just as the Great Depression did in the 1930s, this has created a breeding ground for xenophobia, racism and scapegoating.

The rise of centrism is also partly to blame. For a period in the late 1990s, it seemed that this had become the new doctrine of the left. In Britain, New Labour under Tony Blair was never part of the left. Margaret Thatcher was delighted by the manner in which his governments copied her policies and adopted her neoliberal mantra, though she did ask the question: if you want to vote for a Conservative, why not vote for a real one instead?

Parties such as New Labour, the Socialists in France and the Social Democrats in Germany might have called themselves the radical centre, but that was just labelling. What was happening under the surface was that the progressive parties of the left were being lured into financialisation. In the 1960s and 1970s the centre left was aware of its duty to act as a mediator between industrial capital and labour. Harold Wilson’s Labour Party, Willy Brandt’s Social Democrats in Germany and others understood that their duty was to strike a grand bargain whereby industrial capital ceded to workers’ demands for higher wages and better conditions, while they agreed to help fund the welfare state.

From the mid-1980s onwards, the left-wing leadership abandoned this duty. Industrial capital was in decline and it was much easier to look towards the super-profits of the City of London and the global banks. A Faustian pact was made with the financial sector – European governments turned a blind eye to what the bankers were doing and offered them further deregulation in exchange for a few crumbs from their table to fund welfare. This is what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did in Britain, Gerhard Schröder did in Germany and the Socialists did in France. Then the financial crisis struck. At that point, social democrats throughout Europe lacked the moral strength and analytical power to tell bankers that although they would salvage the banks, their reign was over.

The best hope for the left is to come together to defeat the worst enemy of European democracy: “Euro-tina”, the reactionary dogma that “there is no alternative” to the continent’s current policies. Hence the EU’s true democratisation is the only alternative. This is what my collaborators and I hope to achieve with our new Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25). We are compiling a new economic agenda for Europe, which will answer the question I am asked on the streets everywhere I go, from Sweden to the UK: what can we do better within the EU? If the answer is “nothing”, the Brexiteers have a point – we might as well blow the whole thing up and start afresh. The alternative to the “Year Zero” approach is to recalibrate European institutions in the context of a practical and comprehensive agenda comprised of policies that will stabilise Europe’s social economy.

The EU institutions are anti-Europeanist and contemptuous of democracy. People might wonder: if that is the case, why am I arguing to stay in, but against the Union? In response, I ask those who support the left-wing argument in favour of Brexit: since when has the British state been a friend of the working class? Never. And yet their argument is: do not dismantle it. The nation state was created to promote a fictitious notion of a national interest to co-opt labour and those on the fringes of society – the “lumpenproletariat”, as we once called them. The left understands that it is not our job to destroy institutions. Instead, we struggle to take them over and use them for good. I cut my political teeth protesting against the Greek state but I do not believe that it should be dismantled and the same argument applies to the EU.

Good people who are motivated to change society often fall out with each other. I am reminded of a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – when the Judaean People’s Front confronts the People’s Front of Judaea and the Popular Front of Judaea. DiEM25’s task is to try to convince our fellow left-wingers that the solution is a pan-European unity movement. A concrete example of the power that this can have is the election of Barcelona’s new mayor, Ada Colau. A DiEM25 supporter, she won the race against the odds,
having started her career running a protest movement that championed the rights of citizens threatened with eviction because they were unable to pay their mortgages.

The Syriza government, in which I served as finance minister from January to July 2015, failed to achieve change because we ended up disunited and the prime minister capitulated to the EU at the moment when he had a mandate from the Greek people to do the opposite. My hope was that if Syriza had carried on with the struggle, we would have been a catalyst for movements across Europe (such as the one that has fuelled the rise of Jeremy Corbyn) to join us.

The capitulation of Alexis Tsipras was a hefty blow to the concept of radical inter­nationalism, but I still believe that internationalism offers the solution to the problems facing Europe in this deflationary era. The number of good-quality jobs has decreased, investment is depressed and optimism about the future is being destroyed. It is the left’s duty to do all we can to end this. If we can explain to the masses what the sources of their discontent are, we have a chance to breathe new life into the left. There are no guarantees – just a chance.

This is the latest article in our “New Times” special series

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories