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  Taking Crime Out of Drugs
Posted by CN Staff on November 11, 2002 at 18:02:23 PT
By Courtenay Barnett 
Source: Jamaica Observer  

justice The global concern about drugs dates back to the Shanghai Conference of 1909, and the Hague International Convention on Opium of 1911. This was the first international treaty attempting the control of drugs.


The British had been opium exporters to the Chinese population. Smokeable opium grown by the British in India was exported to China for profit.

Britain profited greatly while inflicting tremendous harm on the Chinese population. This constitutes the modern start of international drug trafficking.

In America, from 1920 to 1933, the Volstead Act prohibited alcohol. Joseph Kennedy, father of President John Kennedy, made a fortune from participation in the sale of illicit alcohol. This provides a precedent of the profits, which derive from sales of substances in a prohibited market and the power that follows great profits.

The two aforementioned historical references are oft forgotten (not mentioned in polite discussions) about the international drug trade. However, the essential pattern remains consistent. Great damage is done to individual abusers of drugs and great profits continue to be made by the suppliers of the drugs classified as illicit.

Thinking of Policy

There is no particular magic in drug classification. Medical studies indicate some substances to be habituative (for example, marijuana), while others are chemically addictive like alcohol and cocaine. Social and religious attitudes govern the legislative prohibitions ascribed to certain drugs in societies in many instances, more than do precise medical and scientific evidence.

Alcohol is prohibited for religious reasons in many Muslim societies, while being legal in Judeo-Christian countries. Marijuana is totally proscribed in some countries (for example, South Africa), while legal tolerance exists in some countries, like Holland.

Protection of society as a whole underlies the policy of legislative proscriptions against drugs. A 1925 Geneva Treaty started the global criminalisation of drug use. In most societies, a utilitarian analysis as a precursor for legislative policy is virtually never applied.

There is not a rational approach of examination of the total impact of drugs prohibition (for example, aggregate court time and resources expended on drug cases coupled with cost of incarceration) versus the alternative cost/benefit analysis of considering increased expenditure on individual care as individual medical treatment and pre-use public education.

The prevailing global policy approaches harp back to the alcohol prohibition period in the United States. A logical extension of this approach is a "war on drugs" for that prohibition implies forced restriction, inclusive of military action against sources of supply.

In actuality, legislative prohibitions invariably impact more on price increases than reductions in supply. The market logic is that as the attack on supply continues and the market price increases, it is worth the risk to the suppliers of seeking the increased profits; ands so the cycle continues.

Of the alternative approaches, more liberalisation, or more prohibition, a central reference point is whether the individual addict merits incarceration or educational and medical attention. The former approach leads to the Dutch approach, while the latter leads along the American "war on drugs" path.

Dutch Experiment

Holland is a densely populated country, and the port of Rotterdam is the largest seaport in the world, making Holland a globally significant example of a trans-shipment port.

The Dutch drugs policy distinguishes between "hard' (like cocaine and heroine) and "soft" (for example, marijuana) drugs. Further, the protection of the health of individual users is a priority in Dutch policy and is co-related to societal protection as a whole. The Dutch policy has a dual approach of restrictions on both supply and demand, while permitting a liberal approach to individual use of "soft" drugs.

Albeit, prohibitive measures are in place, individual possession of small quantities of drugs is given a low priority, such that generally if anyone is found with less than 0.5 grams of "hard" drugs they are unlikely to be prosecuted. The "punishment" will be confiscation and referral to a medical agency for care.

Cannabis is sold legally in coffee shops, and as a deliberate policy the Dutch government seeks to separate the "hard" from "soft" markets for drugs. An added benefit is the tax revenues obtained from the licensing of the coffee shops.

Britain, quite recently, has downgraded the classification of marijuana, bringing official British thinking a little closer to the Dutch approach.

US Approach

The United States is a country, generally speaking, which legislatively is in the domain of strong drug prohibitions. The consequence, over decades, of harsher "zero tolerance" laws, has been an ethnically-skewed increase in the prison population for drug offences of possession.

A globally declared "war on drugs" is an extension of domestic US policy thinking to international relations on drugs. This policy ought to face the questions: Will increase in legal prohibitions and military combative measures effect reductions in the use and supply of drugs or, will the prohibitive measures increase profitability and expand underworld participation in an increasingly more lucrative drugs market?

Caribbean Transshipment

The Caribbean is a major transshipment area for the illicit drugs trade. Caribbean policy, dominated by US policy dictates, follows the legal prohibitive approach.

There is a significant degree of "crime" in the use of wide ranges of drugs, both "hard" and "soft", with substantial profits being attendant thereto. An added dimension is the substantial corrupting influence of drugs money in Caribbean political life and civil society.

A dominant assumption sustaining Caribbean drugs policy to date is that legalisation of drugs will cause drug use to increase exponentially.


The path of a "war on drugs", leading to actual military conflagrations, like Colombia, is a scenario being played out in the Americas.

Emphasising primary resource allocation for individual medical care and education, coupled with controlled legalisation, is currently not the policy pursued by Caribbean governments and policy makers.

Policies followed to date do not augur well for abating corrupting influences from the lucrative drug trade. Want of adequate public education programmmes and individual drug rehabilitation care in Caribbean countries confirm that legislative prohibitions take resource precedence over educative prevention and medical care needs.

Once policy thinking shifts to an acceptance that harmful choices will forever be made by some individuals, then legislatively prohibiting the harm as a primary policy, while ignoring primary resource allocation for education and treatment of the individual abuser will be seen for what it is - a flawed policy.

There are many good reasons for acknowledging drug policy failures to date, and for effecting sensible policy changes as will remove some "crime" from certain types of drug use.

Courtenay Barnett is an attorney-at-law.

Source: Jamaica Observer (Jamaica)
Author: Courtenay Barnett
Published: Monday, November 11, 2002
Copyright: 2002 The Jamaica Observer Ltd.

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Comment #1 posted by afterburner on November 12, 2002 at 08:44:49 PT:

Good Historical Analysis.
Treatment, not punishment, is preferred. Drug treaties are based on emotional, political considerations, not scientific, medical. Cost-benefit analysis needs to be done. "Zero tolerance" does not promote harm reduction. ego destruction or ego transcendence, that is the question. A Jamaican approach to soft drugs and international co-operation with education and medicine over prohibition would help reduce crime. "One love, one heart, let's get together an feel all right," Bob Marley.

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