OHM 2013 — Geeks and Drugs

ohm2013_logoAs 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of per­son­al use, and des­pite the fact that these laws are from a dif­fer­ent era and are wildly out of date — in the 1960s HIV and AIDS had yet to emerge, and rap­idly mutat­ing “leg­al highs” were unknown.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.

Finally I also did a talk at OHM as the European dir­ect­or of Law Enforce­ment Against Pro­hib­i­tion (LEAP).

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:

LEAP — End­ing the war on drugs and people (OHM 2013) from Annie Machon on Vimeo.