My column in the Guardian:
It takes a brave politician to advocate for the legalisation of all drugs in the current political climate. In Australia, Greens leader Richard Di Natale is pushing for the decriminalisation of illicit substances, arguing that drug-taking is a health issue rather than a criminal offence. Selling and distributing drugs would still be a crime under this idea, leaving a curious loophole in the proposal which, by the way, has been working working well in Portugal for over a decade.
Australia remains largely disconnected to more enlightened drug policies or proposals internationally. In Ireland police officers want the full decriminalisation of all illicit drugs. Canada’s new government is pledging to legalise marijuana. Uruguay has completely legalised marijuana. Growing numbers of US states are regulating and taxing marijuana (with authorities taking in nearly US$1bn in tax). The Economist magazine recently supported legalising marijuana while still noting the long-term health effects of extensive drug use.
The paucity of sensible public debate over drugs in Australia is clear. Neither the Labor nor Liberal party leaderships, fearing a tabloid press backlash, dare acknowledge the failures of prohibition. They’ll have to be dragged towards drug reform, though moves to support legal access to medical marijuana is to be welcomed. Huge numbers of Australians are taking drugs every week, and this is unlikely to stop; it seems redundant to say the “war on drugs” isn’t working.
“We must show some balls in war on drugs”, screamed Rupert Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph in 2015, and the message is followed by an obedient police force in New South Wales, arresting and charging countless young Australians possessing small amounts of illegal drugs. Despite strange, expensive and mocked anti-marijuana ads and excessive use of sniffer dogs, party drugs such as ecstasy and ketamine are widely consumed. Recently ABC TV’s 4 Corners showed the failureof current laws to deter drug use. Even Australia’s former top policeman, Mick Palmer, says that mass arresting personal drug users is futile.
But prohibitionists want even tougher police actions to arrest, charge and imprison users and dealers, conveniently ignoring decades of this failed approach. Let’s not forget that when the US officially launched its “war on drugs” in the 1970s, under President Nixon, it was framed as a battle against hedonists, left-wingers and the counter-culture. The result, more than 40 years later, has been an unmitigated disaster for African-Americans, locked up in unprecedented numbers. However, it’s been a major success for the private prison companies running the facilities.
No major country, however, dares argue for the complete legalisation of all drugs. German politician Hans-Christian Stroebele, Green Party founder, key Edward Snowden advocate and long-time supporter of drug legalisation, recently told me in Berlin that, “if young politicians push for legalising cocaine it would be dangerous for their careers.” He sees German law-makers as slavish followers of America so “when the US moves towards legalising [marijuana], so will Germany.”
I’ve spent this year in Germany investigating the reality of its “war on drugs” and why, as Europe’s most powerful nation, its drug policies are so reactionary. Different parts of the country view drugs with varying degrees of severity. Journalist and author Daniel Kulla told me that, “most of Germany is anti-drugs; there’s a police state in Bavaria. Central Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg, with more liberal drug laws, are not like the rest of the country. Areas of repression are intense around the nation.” All the evidence shows that German authorities are losing their battle against drug dealing, usage and addiction.
Germany is remarkably similar to Australia in terms of resisting positive drug reform. Berlin’s Gorlitzer Park, a beautiful space in Kreuzberg, is a key drug hub for dealing. When I visited I saw men from Guinea-Bissau and Gambia loitering near the entrances waiting for customers. Countless African men, usually waiting for asylum and legally unable to work, are prosecuted for possession but this has no effect on general drug use. Police work seems punitive and pointless.
Criminal lawyer Hannes Honecker explained to me that racism played a huge role in applying the law. “Many [German] police think, and they say and think publicly and privately, that black people in Gorlitzer Park all just deal drugs”, he said. There’s a clear correlation with the disproportionately high number of Indigenous Australians in jail for drug-related crimes, an institutional belief that men of dark skin should be punished for relatively minor infractions.
One of the key arguments for legalising drugs is the perceived reduction in criminality and violent gangs. There’s preliminary evidence from the US that this is happening in Denver, Colorado, due to legalising marijuana. But a word of caution that must be considered when drafting new policies. Ioan Grillo examines in his new book, Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America, that, “drug cartels have morphed into weird hybrid of criminal CEO, rock star and paramilitary general … Over the last two decades, these crime families and their friends in politics and business have taken over much of the world’s trade in narcotics, guns, even people, as well as delved into oil, gold, cars and kidnapping. Their networks stretch throughout the United States into Europe, Asia and Australia. Their chain of goods and services arrives at all our doorsteps.”
Although legalising all drugs wouldn’t completely remove criminality in the world it should make a significant difference, argues Annie Machon, former British intelligence officer and European director of Leap, a global group of former and current police and government officials who oppose the “war on drugs”. “Decriminalisation is a good start”, she told me from Brussels, “but it wouldn’t remove criminal gangs. Leap supports legalising, regulating and taxing all drugs.”
After decades of surging drug-related violence globally, especially in Mexico and South America, another path is essential. Australia, Germany and other western nations, key markets for illicit substances that fuel the drug wars, should be the most committed to finding more humane and sensible solutions to manage the problem.