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The world conference on racism

should decide to end the

"war on drugs"




August 29, 2001

LONDON - It should come as no surprise to the organizers of the World Conference Against Racism that many American activists want to hijack this conference that begins in Durban on Friday to force a debate about how it is that America's "war on drugs" has turned into an apartheid-like device that imprisons black men at thirteen times the rate of white men.

I wish them luck- any effort to lift the drugs debate out of the intellectual doldrums where policy makers insist on sleeping on the facts is to be welcomed. For a society that prides itself on its innovative technological life and its rigorous political debates its attitudes to drug use are nothing less that extraordinary. Solid facts are dismissed and old prejudices are fanned into flames. America is paying a terrible price for burying its head in the sand- and in the process, because of its tremendous influence as the world's largest drug consuming society, criminalizing and thence corrupting drug producing societies, besides making it difficult for other western drug consuming countries to reform their antiquated laws too, lest they merely import other countries' problems.

The first question to ask- long before one gets into the more supercharged debate on whether prohibition is counterproductive- is how racially discriminatory application of drug laws can be justified? Unless a society is publicly committed to an apartheid society- which America manifestly is not- how can it be that American penal justice delivers an outcome whereby blacks are only 13% of drug users but receive 74% of prison sentences for drug abuse? American prisons are now swollen with vast numbers of young non-violent black males, many of them teenagers who, if they had been white, would not have ended up there. Under a law passed during the 1986 hysteria about the spread of crack cocaine (an adulterated form of cocaine popular among poorer people), it takes only one hundredth the amount of crack to trigger the same mandatory sentence as powder cocaine, the drug of choice of white professionals.

Yet real drug abuse in America is not rising. The American heroin epidemic peaked as long ago as 1973 and the number of youngsters experimenting with cocaine or heroin has remained fairly steady, despite the dramatic fall in prices over the years, a consequence of an enforcement program that for all its harsh rhetoric is an abysmal failure where it counts- on the supply front.

Any disinterested and intellectually fair appraisal of the western drug scene would have to accept that tobacco kills proportionately more smokers than heroin kills its users and alcohol kills more drinkers than cocaine kills its takers. Of all the drugs tobacco is the most addictive and even a majority of heroin takers- the second most addictive drug-do not become addicted and can live normal lives (as long as they don't drive under the influence) if they limit it to the occasional recreational use.

There is a shibboleth that those who begin with marijuana are on a slippery slope to imbibing harder drugs. But the vast majority are not, anymore than wine drinkers end up on half a bottle of whisky a day. What is true is that as beer and wine drinkers get older they tend to gravitate to spirits, whereas the evidence shows that marijuana and cocaine users as they age tend to cut down on the habit. In fact most, by the time they start to raise a family, have more or less given it up.

Would-be reformers feel that they are beating their heads against a wall: political opinion across the spectrum seems united against them. Yet chinks of light regularly appear. In Britain, for example, which has been as conservative about the issue as its American cousin the doctors' journal, The Lancet, has voiced its opinion that marijuana smoking in reasonable amounts is not dangerous to health, various senior policemen have gone on the record against making smoking marijuana a criminal offence and, most recently, Michael Portillo, a serious candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party has called for a relaxation of the law. Even Britain's conservative dominated press has begun to allow a more open debate, led by the highbrow Economist magazine, which would like to see all drugs decriminalised. A swing in opinion could perhaps happen in America too. At the time of America's 1928 election no one hardly dared say a word against prohibition. Four years later the mood had totally changed.

What turned the American electorate then was the alarming rate of growth of gangland violence. Perhaps the same process of revulsion could be under way today. As America gets more drawn into the drug wars of Colombia, the world's largest producer of cocaine, it will realize it is beating a path to a dead- and deadly- end. Two decades ago it was the rise of the Colombian mafia that undermined and corrupted both governments and the agencies of law enforcement right across the Americas. Today it is the rise of the drug-fuelled armies that is turning Colombia into a battleground that step-by-step is drawing America into another unwinnable war.

Legalising will not be easy- too much water has gone under the bridge for the transition to be a smooth one. But it has to be done and rather quickly too. The drug mafia have to have the carpet pulled from under them; the young blacks have to be sprung from America's jails; and the vast budget spent mainly on the enforcement of fruitless anti-drug laws needs to be diverted to treatment centres and the education of society of the uselessness of all excess, whether it be tobacco, alcohol or drugs.



I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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