I am the President of the UK branch of LEAP UK, which stands for 'Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. This article reflects my personal views and is not intended to reflect the views of any other UK police officer, whether currently serving or retired.
On Wednesday, it was reported that the Uruguayan House of Representatives approved a bill to legally regulate marijuana. Passing with 50 out of 96 votes, the bill now goes to the Senate. If approved by the Senate, Uruguay will become the first country in the world to legally regulate the production, distribution and sale of marijuana.
Such a move is one of the first steps in what I hope will be a concerted campaign of change which will permit citizens in all countries to be able to engage in the lawful possession of cannabis for personal use.
The so-called 'War on Drugs' and the criminalisation of narcotics has proved to be an abject failure. The costs to society of policing the drug nexus run into the billions of pounds.
The annual cost to society of class A drug use in England and Wales has been estimated at over £15bn, mostly through drug related crime. 1.5m adults in the UK are affected by a relative’s drug use and the costs of the harm they experience as a result amounts to about £1.8 billion a year.
Drug use is linked to crime in two main ways. Firstly, there are the drug offences, or crimes against the drug laws: drug possession, supply, production and trafficking.
This is where organised crime is involved as drugs represent a hugely important source of income and a commodity for criminal gangs both in the UK and internationally, providing them with the strength to undermine communities as well as public and private institutions.
Then there is also the crime committed by drug users, either to obtain money or drugs to feed their addiction, mainly acquisitive crime such as burglary or shoplifting, but also crime committed while under the influence of drugs, such as disorder and vandalism.
The most recent published figures for drug offences in England & Wales cover the financial year 2011/12. They show a total of 229,103 drug offences: 6% of all crimes recorded in the period. The majority of these offences, 86% in 2011/12, relate to drug possession, mainly possession of small quantities of cannabis (70% of all drug offences).
Drug use is a major problem in the prison system:
70% of offenders report drug misuse prior to prison;
51% report drug dependency;
35% admit injecting behaviour;
36% report heavy drinking; and
Almost half of the prison population in the UK have an addiction to drugs. A majority of addicts in prison will be there because of crimes committed related to their addiction, whether it be acquisitive crime, violent crime, supplying or possessing drugs.
The ballooning size of the prison population has been increasingly prominent in the media and in political debate. The role of drug enforcement is, however, rarely acknowledged. A significant proportion of inmates are serving out sentences for drug offences (under the Misuse of Drugs Act and related drug legislation) and an even greater proportion for a range of secondary drug related offences (more accurately prohibition related offences).
Combined it is reasonable to postulate that drug law enforcement is directly responsible for over half of the prison population, although poor data and research means it is impossible to come to precise figure.
The Uruguyan marijuana legalization proposal was put forward by President José Mujica of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) last June as part of a 15-measure package aimed at fighting crime and public insecurity. The bill allows three forms of access to marijuana: domestic cultivation of 6 plants, membership clubs similar to those found in Spain, and licensed sale in pharmacies. It also prohibits sales to minors, driving under the influence, and all forms of advertising.
In the year since Mujica announced the proposal, support for the initiative has risen among diverse sectors of Uruguayan society. A national TV advertising campaign, featuring a mother, a doctor, and a lawyer explaining the measure's benefits on public safety and health – has reached hundreds of thousands of native Uruguayans.
Regulación Responsable (“Responsible Regulation”), the coalition of prominent Uruguayan organizations and individuals that support the initiative, has held events around the country, sparking debate at all levels. Women’s rights, health, student, environmental and human rights organizations have all united to support Regulación Responsable, alongside trade unions, doctors, musicians, lawyers, athletes, writers, actors and academics.
Mujica and a growing chorus of current and former Latin American political leaders are contending that legal regulation will separate marijuana users from the offer of more dangerous drugs on the black market, allow access to medical marijuana for patients in need, and enable Uruguay to reinvest the millions of dollars now flowing into the pockets of drug traffickers into education, treatment and prevention of problematic drug use. The bill represents an adjustment to fix a contradiction in Uruguayan law, where the use of marijuana and all other drugs is legal – but the production, distribution and sale are penalized. As a result, the country has a substantial black market for drugs and has suffered from an escalating prohibition-related violence.
“At the heart of the Uruguayan marijuana regulation bill is a focus on improving public health and public safety,” said Hannah Hetzer, who is based out of Montevideo, Uruguay, as the Policy Manager of the Americas for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Instead of closing their eyes to the problem of drug abuse and drug trafficking, Uruguay is taking an important step towards responsible regulation of an existing reality.”
So, where does this leave the campaign to legalise Cannabis and other drugs in the UK?
Our goals at LEAP are:
1) to educate the public, the media and policy makers about the failure of current policies, and;
2) to help to restore the public’s respect for police, which has been greatly diminished by law enforcement’s involvement in enforcing drug prohibition, (and particularly among the Afro-Caribbean community, so many of whose young people have been impacted by 'Stop and Search' policies, used when making random swoops, merely to catch drug abusers). In 2010 the Metropolitan Police carried out over a quarter of a million stop and searches for drugs in the Greater London area; over half of those stopped and searched were under the age of 24 and both those from the black and Asian communities were significantly overrepresented.
Professor Alex Stevens at Kent University has found that black men are 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched for a drugs offence. This is despite the fact that the British Crime Survey shows that drug use is higher amongst the white population.
Our Statement of Principles includes;
1. LEAP does not promote the use of drugs and is deeply concerned about the extent of drug abuse worldwide. LEAP is also deeply concerned with the destructive impact of violent drug gangs and cartels everywhere in the world. Neither problem is remedied by the current policy of drug prohibition. Indeed, drug abuse and gang violence flourish in a drug prohibition environment, just as they did during alcohol prohibition.
Our Government's present prohibitionist policies are literally pouring money into the pockets of organised crime, who use it to cement their social position and their ability to control other people's lives. The UN has estimated that the major organised criminal syndicates earn about £1 billion a year from drugs.
There is now significant evidence to demonstrate that organised gangs of drug dealers and other criminals are branching out into what might be considered in some quarters as quasi-legitimate business enterprises, by becoming money lenders (or more realistically, loan-sharks) of last resort. They make so-called 'pay-day' loans to poor and financially disenfranchised people, but at lending rates of up to 1,500% p.a. I leave it to your imagination to consider how these loans are enforced!
2. LEAP advocates the elimination of the policy of drug prohibition and the inauguration of a replacement policy of drug control and regulation, including regulations imposing appropriate age restrictions on drug sales and use.
3. LEAP believes that adult drug abuse is a health problem and not a law-enforcement matter, provided that the abuse does not harm other people or the property of others.
4. LEAP believes that adult drug use, however dangerous, is a matter of personal freedom as long as it does not impinge on the freedom or safety of others.
5. LEAP members come from a wide divergence of political thought and social conscience and recognize that in a post-prohibition world it will take time to strike a proper regulatory balance, blending private, public and medical models to best control and regulate “illicit drugs.” but without towing a LEAP “party line.”
6. LEAP recognizes that even in a post-prohibition world, still drugs can be dangerous and potentially addictive, requiring appropriate regulation and control. Even in a free-market economy, reasonable regulation for the purposes of public health is a long-standing, accepted principle. Such regulation must not allow casual, unfettered or indiscriminate drug sales.
7. LEAP believes that government has a public health obligation to accurately ascertain the risks associated with the use of each “illicit drug” and a duty to clearly communicate that information to the public by means of labelling and warnings similar to that which is done regarding food, tobacco, alcohol and medicine.
8. LEAP believes that an inordinate number of people have been misguidedly imprisoned for breaches of nonviolent, consensual “drug crimes.”
9. LEAP believes that persons suffering from drug abuse afflictions and addiction, who want help, should be provided with a variety of help, including drug treatment and drug maintenance.
LEAP believes that with an end to drug prohibition and regained control of criminal justice expenditures, a fraction of those savings would be more than sufficient to pay for expanded addiction services.
10. LEAP recognizes that different “illicit drugs” pose differing risks of harm. As such, in a post-prohibition world, LEAP recognizes that an appropriate set of regulations and control for one substance may not be a suitable or sufficient regulation and control for another substance. LEAP believes that the nation states of the world must be given the regulatory latitude to try new models that wisely balance the notions of freedom over one’s own body with the need for common sense regulation of drugs to reduce death, disease, addiction and harm.
This, if you like, is our mission statement, but it is not enough, we believe, simply to have high-minded beliefs, if they only operate at a theoretical level. These are issues which impact us all as citizens but which unfortunately make this such a difficult topic to discuss.
We believe that drug prohibition is the true cause of much of the social and personal damage that has historically been attributed to drug use. It is prohibition that makes these drugs so valuable because it is giving organised criminals a monopoly over their supply.
This is the second influence which has compelled me to take up this challenge. As a detective, I served at the Metropolitan and City Police Fraud Squad, where I witnessed the obscene levels of criminal profits generated by the drug trade and held in the hands of criminals. I witnessed the lengths that our banks would go to, and the temptations they would succumb to, to launder the proceeds of these crimes, and the ways in which the financial institutions became corrupted by the vast amount of money which was available for them to launder if they wanted it.
I witnessed first-hand how a whole new generation of young bankers became addicted, in some cases to the drugs themselves, but also to the profits and bonuses they could earn just by facilitating the laundering of the criminal money available from drug trafficking. The more criminal money they laundered, the more they were rewarded, and in many cases I came to the realisation that in so many cases British banks and some of their employees were truly drug-dependent!
Whatever your point of view, who would have thought, only a few years ago that a British Bank, HSBC, would admit operating a major money laundering operation on behalf of Mexican drug cartels, and be fined significant sums of money by regulators in the US and the UK. The bigger scandal in my opinion is that not one HSBC executive has been tried and sent to prison for the bank's part in this organised criminality.
History has shown that drug prohibition reduces neither use nor abuse.. After a drug dealer is arrested, neither the supply nor the demand for drugs is seriously changed. The arrest merely creates a job opening for an endless stream of drug entrepreneurs who will take huge risks for the sake of the enormous profits created by prohibition. That is why the Uruguayan proposal marks such an important leap forward in the international debate on drug interdiction.
In recent years, debate and political will for drug policy reform has gained unprecedented momentum in Latin America. In 2011, Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker and Richard Branson joined former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) and other distinguished members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in saying the time had come to “break the taboo” on exploring alternatives to the failed war on drugs – and to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs,” especially marijuana.
More recently, current presidents Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala, and José Mujica in Uruguay have joined these calls for reform. In May, the Organization of American States produced a report, commissioned by heads of state of the region, that included marijuana legalization as a likely policy alternative. The OAS report predicted a likely hemispheric move towards marijuana legalization in the coming years.
“Sometimes small countries do great things,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Uruguay’s bold move does more than follow in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington. It provides a model for legally regulating marijuana that other countries, and U.S. states, will want to consider – and a precedent that will embolden others to follow in their footsteps.”