Here’s a talk I did last week at the international Akzept Conference in Bielefeld about prohibition and the failed “war on drugs”:
Here’s my recent interview on London Real TV, discussing all things whistleblowing, tech, intelligence, and the war on drugs. Thanks Brian and Colin for a fun hour!
Made by Adam Scorgie, who directed the cult film, The Union, his new work promises to be the film on the subject of cannabis prohibition. Thanks to the team for a wide-ranging, lively and stimulating interview.
If you want to support their work, click here. And the film will be released next summer.
As I have mentioned before, the Dutch geekfest Observe, Hack, Make (OHM 2013) was not just a chance for geeks to play with cool tech toys, the whole event also had a very strong political track. While there was inevitably a lot of focus on whistleblowing in the wake of the Snowden disclosures, another speaker track attracted a lot of attention: global drug policy and the failure of prohibition.
This was a track I suggested and I was pleased that three speakers were given the chance to discuss this on the main stage. While coming to the subject from radically different perspectives and experiences, the underlying message of all three was that the “war on drugs” was an abject failure that caused massive and increasing harm to the global population.
John Gilmore was first up. John made his dosh during the tech boom, and has since spent significant sums trying to reform the failed drug policies within his home country, the good ol’ US of A. Of course, there, it was always going to be an uphill battle. The USA is the fountain head of prohibition, ramming the drug conventions of 1961, 1971, and 1988 through the United Nations by brute diplomatic force.
To this day, the US remains the key power ensuring that the UN upholds these conventions, despite the fact that the policy of prohibition has manifestly failed, despite the fact that many countries have experimented successfully with harm reduction and decriminalisation of personal use, and despite the fact that these laws are from a different era and are wildly out of date — in the 1960s HIV and AIDS had yet to emerge, and rapidly mutating “legal highs” were unknown.
And let’s not forget that the USA is the world’s biggest consumer country of drugs. It is America that drives this illegal market. And it is in America that 20 states have legalised the medicinal use of cannabis, and two states have fully legalised the use even, gasp, purely for pleasure. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
But change is afoot. Primarily, I believe, because the USA no longer needs the “war on drugs” as a pretext for invading/interfering with other countries, now it has the “war on terror”. But also because of the excellent work of research and educational civil society groups. The Beckley Foundation, set up by Amanda Feilding in 1998, is one such.
Amanda gave an excellent talk, focusing on the dual nature of Beckley’s work: policy and scientific research. Her view is that sound national and international policy cannot be developed unless it is based on evidence, research and facts. Yet the current “war on drugs” has become almost an article of faith that too many politicians are afraid to challenge.
Beckley aims to provide the research and the facts. It funds and establishes scientific research that enables leading scientists, such as Professor David Nutt in the UK, to research the potential therapeutic benefits of currently illegal drugs, and also to assess the different societal harms caused by all drugs, both licit and illicit. To date, the prohibition orthodoxy has inhibited free scientific research to the detriment of many people across the planet.
Amanda was pleased to be able to announce two new research projects just starting in the UK, into the potential therapeutic benefits of psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and LSD. Beckley has also recently commissioned a cost benefit analysis of the legalisation of (only) cannabis is the UK. The results will be formally announced in September, so for now I shall confine myself to saying that they are encouraging.
Using such research, Beckley is thus in a position to advise governments about developing fact-base policy. One of the key areas of the world investigating potentially beneficial alternatives to prohibition is Latin America, and Amanda has developed close working relationships with a number of governments across the region.
And understandably so — Latin America, as one of the key producer regions of the world, has been ravaged by the drug wars. Violent organised crime cartels have grown so wealthy and powerful that they can subvert whole countries, corrupt governments and law enforcement, and terrorise whole populations in their quest to dominate the illegal drugs trade.
In Mexico, since the war on drugs was ramped up 7 years ago, it is estimated that over 70,000 innocent people have been kidnapped, tortured and killed in drug-related violence. Many have simply been disappeared.
LEAP is a unique voice in the global drug policy debate. The organisation, only 11 years old, has over 100,000 supporters and a presence in 120 countries. We consist of police officers, judges, lawyers, prison governors, intelligence personnel, and even drug czars. What unites us is a shared professional knowledge, experienced across the spectrum of drug law enforcement, that prohibition has egregiously failed.
Over the last 50 years drug use has exponentially increased, the potency of illegal drugs has increased, they are ubiquitously available, and the price of street drugs has gone through the floor. Faced with this information, how can our governments claim they are winning the “war on drugs” to create a “drug free world”? Quite the opposite — prohibition has enabled a global and exponentially growing black market.
I became aware of the drug prohibition failure while I was working for MI5. One of my postings involved investigating terrorist logistics, which meant that I had to work closely with UK Customs across the UK. This experience made me very aware that the “war” had been lost. It also made me very aware, early on, that there was a massive overlap between the illegal drug market and terrorist funding.
The US DEA estimates that over half of the designated terrorist groups around the world gain the bulk of their funding from drugs money. So on the one hand prohibiting drugs and fighting the “war on drugs” sends the market underground and that black money provides a key revenue stream to the terrorists. On the other hand the West is also waging the “war on terror”. What they give with one hand they take away with another.
One stark example of this is the current melt-down in Libya — country that was “gratefully” liberated by NATO two years ago. The dictator was tortured and killed, MI6 and the CIA were helping the “spontaneous” rebels. the infrastructure was ruined, and the bulk of the country is now run by bandit militias which brutalise the inhabitants pr impose hard-line Islamism on them. Many predicted this would happen, including myself.
What was not predicted was the explosion in the drug trade. Over the last decade western Africa has become one of the main transit regions between the producer countries (Latin America) and the consumer countries in Europe. It now appears that this lucrative trade has not only resulted in destabilising countries, leading to violent narco-states such as Mali and Guinea-Bissau, the trade has also become a stream of income to Al Qaeda affiliated groups in Libya. Which is bad for western security, is bad for the stability of Libya, but is also bad for the people of Libya, where there has reportedly been an explosion of drug use and rocketing infections of HIV.
There have been many successful attempts to alleviate the penalisation of drug users in many European countries — Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland spring to mind. Because of more liberal decriminalisation laws, all these countries have seen a decrease in drug use and associated crime, plus good health outcomes and the freeing up of law enforcement resources across the spectrum to go for the drug traders.
However, we in LEAP would argue that only full regulation, control and taxation of the drug market will deal with the scourge of the international drug trade. Until that happens, this global trade, estimated by even the UN at being worth between $320 billion and $500 billion per year, will only profit organised crime cartels and terrorist organisations.
The “war on drugs” has failed. Albert Einstein said that the very definition of insanity was to continue to do the same, even if it repeatedly fails, in the hope that you will eventually get a different outcome. That is what we are seeing with prohibition.
And the geek community understand this too. Of course they do, they are scientists. I was heartened by their interest and by their response. Let’s all campaign to end this insanity.
Here is a video of my talk at OHM on the subject:
Today I am limbering up to attend the Dutch geek festival, Observe Hack Make (OHM 2013). A lot of talks from whistleblowers, scientists, geeks, futurists and bleeding edge tech people. The visionaries?
You decide — all talks will be live streamed and available afterwards. Enjoy!
Joining the event to discuss the need for a sensible and evidence-based rethink about drug policy will be many other speakers from groups such as Transform, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Beckley Foundation, Release, former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Tom Lloyd, and of course, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
The head of LEAP UK, former Met police detective and forensic money-laundering expert Rowan Bosworth-Davies, will be speaking on Sunday19th May.
I shall be speaking at the conference on the Saturday afternoon, and then enjoying the evening with Howard Marks et al. Come along if you can.
My recent interview on Iceland’s premier news discussion show, Silfur Egils, hosted by the excellent Egill Helgason.
The name refers to an old Norse saga about a hero, an earlier Egill, throwing handfuls of silver to the ground so he could make the Viking politicos of the day scrabble around in the dirt trying to pick up the coins.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Well, this will be an interesting week. On the invitation of Snarrotin, the Icelandic civil liberties organisation, I’m off to Iceland for a series of talks and interviews on behalf of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (www.leap.cc).
Iceland is an inspirational and interesting country. Following the 2008 credit crash, the Icelanders bucked international trends and actually held some of their ruling élite — the politicians and bankers who had brought about these financial problems — to account. The government fell, some bankers were fired and prosecuted, and the Icelandic people are having a serious rethink about the way their democracy could and should work.
And indeed why should the people pay the price for the decisions made in their name by an unaccountable élite? One could speciously argue that the people had a meaningful choice at the ballot box.… but back in the real, 21st century political world, Iceland was as stitched-up as all other notional Western democracies. The worst allegation that can be thrown at the people was that they were disengaged, uninvolved and sidelined from how their country was really run — as many of us across the West feel to this day.
But apparently no longer in Iceland: since the financial crisis the citizens of this small democracy have re-engaged in the political process, and the future is looking rosy.
New, accountable politicians have been elected to form a new government. Citizens have been involved in drawing up a new constitution, and heated debates are challenging the established shibboleths of the corporatist governing class: revolving around such issues as finance, internet freedoms, free media, terrorism, and how a modern country should be run in the interest of the many. And next week, I hope, a rethink of the country’s obligations to the international “war on drugs”.
While the issue is strenuously ignored by the Western governing élite, it is now widely recognised that the current prohibition strategy has failed outright: drug trafficking and use has increased, the street price of drugs has plummeted and they are endemically available, whole communities have been imprisoned, whole countries have become narco-states and descended into drug war violence, and the only people to profit are the organised crime cartels and terrorist organisations that reap vast profits. Oh, and of course the banks kept afloat with dirty drug money, the militarised drug enforcement agencies, and the politicians who now, hypocritically, want to look “tough on crime” despite allegations that they also dabbled in their youth.….
Well, the time has come for an adult discussion about this failed policy, using facts and not just empty rhetoric.
So, a week discussing all my favourite happy topics: the “war” on drugs, the “war” on terror, and the “war” on the internet. My type of mini-break!
As a Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), I was invited to Prague by the progressive Czech National Drug Co-ordinator, Jindrich Voboril, to speak at a drugs conference in the Czech Parliament.
I recently represented LEAP at a panel discussion in London about the failed war on drugs after a screening of the excellent film The House I Live In, along with Steve Rolles of Transform and Niamh Eastwood of Release:
I participated in the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) board meeting last October in Baltimore. While there, I arranged for board members to do a series of interviews about the failed global “war on drugs” with the excellent and independent Real News Network.
LEAP has representatives across the world with a wide range of professional expertise: police officers, drug czars, judges, prison governors, lawyers, drug enforcement officers, and even the occasional former spook.…
Our varied experiences and backgrounds have brought us to one conclusion: we all assess the “war on drugs” to have been an abject failure that causes more global societal harm than good, as well as funding organised crime, terrorism and white collar bank crime.
We urgently need to rethink the failed UN drug conventions.
Here is the RNN interview I participated in, along with Brazilian Judge Maria Lucia Karam:
Release, run by the indefatigable Niamh Eastwood, does excellent work providing legal advice about drug issues, and campaigning for fairer and more compassionate drug laws.
The interview appeared in the campaign’s newsletter, “TalkingDrugs”.
Here’s the link, and here’s the text:
Q1 What led you into thinking that current drug policies on illicit drugs were failing?
My journey began when I was working as an intelligence officer for MI5 in the 1990s. One of my roles was investigating terrorist logistics and working closely with UK Customs. I learned then that trying to stop the flow of illicit material into the UK (whether drugs, weapons, or people) is like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack. Plus there is a huge overlap between the funding of organised crime and terrorist groups.
Over the last decade I have become a writer, commentator and public speaker on a variety of inter-connected issues around intelligence, the war on terror, whistleblowers, policing, and civil liberties. To me, the war on drugs meshes very closely with all these topics. Three years ago I was approached by LEAP to become a speaker, and then in March this year I became a member of the international board and also the Director of LEAP Europe in order to consolidate the organisation’s work here.
Q2 Do you think that there are barriers to police officers being honest about the effectiveness of their actions to combat the trade in illicit drugs and is the greater disquiet amongst those involved in law enforcement about current policies than is popularly perceived ?
Yes, absolutely, and it’s not just amongst the police but also the wider law enforcement community.
LEAP supporters, approaching 100,000 in over 90 countries around the world, include judges, lawyers, prison governors, customs and intelligence officers, and former drug czars. Within all these professions there is a tacit understanding that you toe the conventional line. In my experience, most people go into this type of work hoping not only to have an interesting job, but also to do some good and make a difference. Many then see the social fall-out, or that friends, family or community are affected by the drug wars, and many serving officials do question what it is all about and what it is really achieving.
However, they are there to do a job, which is upholding and applying the law. The cultural pressure within such groups can make it extremely difficult on many levels for them to speak out.
Any change to the international and national drug laws will have to come from the politicians within the UN and nationally. LEAP increasingly contributes to the political debate and is building a groundswell of support internationally. Most people today will know someone who has at least tried a currently illegal drug. They also instinctively know this is mere social experimentation, relaxation or, at worst, a health problem. And penalisation, imprisonment and a criminal record exacerbates rather than helps the situation.
Q3 Does the policing of drug possession impact the effectiveness of policing generally and what benefits do you think could stem from ceasing to use law enforcement to attempt to discourage drug use?
There are multiple strands to this issue: the diversion of police resources, the additional crime caused by prohibition that is not dealt with successfully, the diversion of resources from harm reduction programmes, the criminalisation of what are essentially health issues, and the disrepute that results for law enforcement.
The policing of drug possession takes away vast resources from investigating other crimes such as burglary, rape and murder. Yet it is largely pointless – those with a drug dependency need health interventions, and there will always be replacements for any low-level dealers who are arrested and imprisoned. If you arrest and convict a rapist, he will not be on the streets committing more rapes; but if you catch a drug dealer, you just create a job vacancy for which many will compete in ever more violent ways for a slice of an incredibly lucrative market.
The UK anti-prohibition advocacy group, Transform, estimates that even if just cannabis were legalised in the UK, an additional $1.6 billion would flow into the British economy every year. While tax raised on a controlled and regulated cannabis trade is predicted to provide the bulk of this ($1.2 billion), $170 million would be saved from law enforcement, $155 million from the justice system, and $135 million from the prison system.
In the current economic situation, can the UK afford not to consider alternatives to the current drug war?
Also, as we have seen since the decriminalistion laws in Portugal since 2001 and Switzerland since 1994, the “peace dividend” by ending the war on drugs would not only see a drop in property crimes (about 50% of which are committed to fund drug dependencies), it could also be used to finance and extend harm reduction programmes. As we have seen in the case of tobacco across the West, we do not need to ban a substance to reduce its use; education and treatment are far more effective.
Finally, illegal drugs are available to anyone who wants to buy them on the streets of the UK. The increasing militarisation of the police to fight the war on drugs, the breakdown of civil liberties for the same reason (mirroring the war on terror), and the widespread flagrant flouting of the drug laws by large numbers of the population, thereby “making an ass of the law”, has led to a breakdown of trust and respect between the police and the policed. One of LEAP’s aims is to rebuild this trust, this social contract.
Q4 The impact on the safety of law enforcement personnel of the ‘war on drugs’ should be an issue for other membership organisations representing the sector, will you be reaching out to them to encourage campaigning on the issue?
Safety is certainly an issue, although we have been more fortunate in Europe than our colleagues in the USA, where the more prevalent gun culture leads to many more law enforcement deaths. That said, gang violence is on the rise across Europe where organised crime gangs fight increasingly violent turf battles.
Mexico has been one of the worst hit countries in the world. Since the ramping up of the war on drugs almost six years ago, over 62,000 men women and children have been tortured and murdered in that country, and many of them had no involvement whatsoever in the drugs trade. In fact, LEAP USA has just successfully participated in the Mexican Caravan for Peace, a group of activists and families highlighting the tragedy, that toured across the USA for a month to raise awareness and finished with a rally in Washington last week.
The increasing violence of the drugs trade and the militarisation of the response should be of concern to all law enforcers, membership organisations and allied groups working in the drugs sector. We need to think urgently about how to avoid a similar spiral of violence in Europe. LEAP is happy to reach out to such organisations to develop a more humane solution.
Q5 How would you like to see LEAP in Europe develop and will you be looking to lobby European policy makers in Brussels?
There are already LEAP speakers across most European countries. We in LEAP see the organisation’s primary goal as educational. We shall be working to build up speaking engagements for a wide variety of groups and audiences, including the political sector, as well as strengthening our media exposure. We recognise the valuable work Release and other NGOs and advocacy groups are already doing across Europe, and hope that you will see that we offer a unique voice and pool of expertise that can be used to strengthen your work.
It is wonderful that so many organisations and indeed governments around the world (particularly in Europe and Latin America) are now focusing on exploring alternatives such as decriminalistion and harm reduction programmes. Based on our professional experience, LEAP argues that we need, at very least, to consider the next logical step in the chain: controlled regulation of the drug market as we currently do with alcohol and tobacco.
Decriminalisation may help to reduce the harm for the drug users, but leaves the drug trade in the hands of increasingly violent global organised crime networks. Only by removing the profit motive from this illicit trade can we end the involvement of the criminal element and all the attendant violence, and work to make the world safer for all.