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Last Updated: Friday, 7 October 2005, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
Rethinking the war on drugs
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor

Twenty years before the war on terror, we had a war on drugs.

Colombian army operations in coca fields
In Colombia and Peru, troops still battle the drugs trade
The Reagan administration came up with the idea, the Thatcher government backed it. It was, for a time, one of the most important initiatives the US and UK were involved in.

By the 1990s, when I spent a lot of time in Colombia and Peru, the main centres for growing coca for cocaine, it was clear the war on drugs had been comprehensively lost.

At first, if you suggested that to officials in Washington or London, they would question your motives: you must be anti-American, or biased against the prime minister of the day.

Yet by the end of the 1990s, although no government officials on either side of the Atlantic wanted to be quoted as saying so, they would privately agree that, yes, they had failed to stop the exponential growth in cocaine and heroin.

Now, the very phrase "war on drugs" has fallen out of use. The drugs have been allowed to win.

Unfair trade

There are all sorts of reasons why this had happened, many of them connected with the nature of Western society.

If a famous model, earning millions a year, wants to snort coke, she will easily find someone to supply it to her, at a healthy price.

Coca market in rural Colombia
In many parts of Latin American drugs dominate the local economy
The drugs business offers one of the best returns on investment of any commodity on earth. It operates according to the pure, undistorted laws of the market.

And its greatest, though unconscious, supporters have been the governments of the European Union and the United States.

A few years ago I went with a camera crew to a frightening little drugs town in north-eastern Peru, where the farmers mostly grew coca.

I assumed they would be violent and aggressive. Not at all: they were the ones who were scared.

Every week or so gangs of armed, drugged-out tracateros, or buyers, would erupt into the town, forcing the growers to sell their coca paste to them at rock-bottom prices.

"So," I asked, "Why don't you simply grow something that won't get you into trouble? Maize, or wheat, or something?"

As it happened, we were close to a little shop. The chief spokesmen of the coca growers took me by the arm and led me inside.

There were all sorts of foods and vegetables for sale, mostly imported from the United States or the EU.

He told me how much each item cost; it was clear that every one of them had been dumped on the market at a fraction of its real value.

"We're just poor peasants," he said.

"We can't compete. We can't afford to grow these things so cheaply."

The only commodity they could grow which wasn't fiercely undercut by the artificially cheap produce of Europe and America was coca.

Gap in the market?

Americans and Europeans have got themselves into the ludicrous position where they pay their farmers huge amounts to dump their surplus produce on the rest of the world.

They then spend even larger amounts trying to deal with the social problems which are created by drugs - the only thing the deprived farmers of the developing world can grow without competition from the north.

So what are we to do?

When a new idea comes along people quickly start to point out how far short of perfection it falls
Something about agricultural subsidies would be nice, but that certainly isn't going to happen, either in the US or Europe.

Yet there are other possibilities, and here is one of them.

This week, in Kabul, a French think-tank called the Senlis Council, which specialises in drug policy, is holding an international conference about the trade in opium and heroin.

Afghanistan now produces something like 85% of the world's opium poppies, and most Afghan heroin ends up in Europe and the US.

Since the overthrow of the Taleban the position has grown much worse.

The Senlis Council is making a proposal which is receiving guarded but positive responses from many different governments and organisations.

It springs from a bit of lateral thinking by the Council's boss, earlier this year.

Someone pointed out that there was a worldwide shortage of opiate-derived painkillers, chiefly morphine and codeine.

Suppose, it was suggested, the opiates which cause such trouble in the form of heroin were diverted to medical use instead?

New thinking

The Senlis Council carried out a feasibility study with the help of several universities, and the idea stood up.

Opium poppies in Afghanistan
Afghan farmers can get a higher price for opium than for other goods
The plan would be to buy the produce of the poppy-growers, instead of allowing it to go to the big drugs middle-men who operate in Pakistan and Afghanistan itself.

What tends to happen when an idea like this comes along is that people start to point out how far short of perfection it falls, instead of accepting that it might present, say, a 60% improvement on what exists already.

Because it isn't a 100% solution, it gets discarded.

The Senlis Council certainly doesn't expect that its big new idea will solve the problem of the heroin trade, but it might do some good.

And it will certainly redress the absurd position whereby the world has more heroin, proportionately, than it has morphine.

Not an awful lot of logic has been applied to the drugs trade over the years. It could do with some now.


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