Our Right to Poison: Lessons from the Failed War on Drugs

By Jochen-Martin Gutsch and Juan Moreno

Part 4: Like a Never-Ending Arms Race

A silver Toyota Corolla is traveling along Fortheuvelstraat with a man in a brown Hawaiian shirt at the wheel. He seems to be thinking about something. "There were Audi logos on the cocaine packets?" the man asks. The ocean comes into view as we approach Baby Beach, one of Aruba's famous beaches.

General Pérez suspects that the 1.8 tons of cocaine his men seized were supposed to be smuggled to Aruba, an island 20 nautical miles off the coast of Venezuela, and from there to the Netherlands. It's a classic route.

Geoffrey, the man driving the Toyota, is a New Yorker in his late 40s who speaks five languages. He prefers not to comment on the cocaine with the Audi logo. "A lot of people in this business kick the bucket because they talk too much," he says.

Geoffrey is a dealer. He buys Colombian cocaine and brings it to Europe. The white beach, the drinks, the girls -- he has no complaints about any of it. But, more than anything, Geoffrey likes the fact that Aruba has a duty-free port and daily flights to Amsterdam. Aruba is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which makes the island a perfect transit point for drugs.

Geoffrey points to Baby Beach. "I pick up a lot of loads here," he says. Large shipments arrive by speedboat and are tossed into the sea in watertight containers at prearranged locations. Geoffrey gets smaller packets from the supply ships coming from Venezuela. The cocaine is hidden in fruit crates, life vests and fish. "Everyone has his preferences," he says.

He pays €4,500 for a kilo of coke, and then sells it for about €30,000 to a contact in Amsterdam. Geoffrey's suppliers are Colombians. "Good guys, as long as you don't jerk them around. They even help out when you're in jail. They send you and your kids money." And if you jerk them around? "Then they shoot you and your kids."

Geoffrey likes to keep the business simple. He won't take the risk of dealing with anything more than 10 kilos. There is "too much money involved," he says. It's too dangerous.

But the risk is worth taking for quantities of less then 10 kilos. "It's all been done," says Geoffrey. Drugs have been hidden in the soles of shoes, bibles, as implants inside the calf, in women's breasts, in dead bodies and even in the stomachs of dogs.

The best way to imagine the drug war is as a never-ending arms race. The customs agents are given psychological training. The drug cartels have schools for their smugglers. The coast guard is given speedboats that can travel at 50 knots. The dealers buy boats that can go 60 knots. The navy patrols in the Pacific. The dealers build submarines that can cover 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) without surfacing. The drug war expands with each new battle. If there were demand for drugs on the moon, the launch of the first cocaine rocket would probably be imminent.

Geoffrey has an appointment. He parks the Toyota and says goodbye. The car is in front of the entrance to the Aruba cargo port. Among the containers stacked on the grounds are some painted bright red, together with the words "Hamburg Süd."

Imagining an Alternative to a Drug-Free World

Legalization is a difficult word, says Ethan Nadelmann in New York.

In fact, sitting in Nadelmann's office in Manhattan, it really is difficult to imagine a world without the drug war. A future in which marijuana and cocaine are legal and can be purchased in pharmacies or specialty drug shops? A life in which everyone decides for him- or herself: Am I going to take this drug? How much am I going to take? How do I protect my children?

It isn't an easy thing to imagine. In fact, the very thought of it creates a gut-wrenching feeling, and it makes you ask yourself questions like: Legalizing drugs? Are you folks nuts?

The international prohibition on drugs has existed for 100 years. It began with the opium conferences in The Hague and led to the UN's 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The ban has shaped the world into what generations are familiar with. It is an intrinsic part of our morality and culture, and there is hardly a greater taboo than to legalize drugs. Nadelmann calls this feeling "the fear of the unknown."

"Obviously, every drug is dangerous," says Nadelmann, including marijuana. But it's also the case that the world will never be drug-free, no matter what we do. It hasn't been drug-free for thousands of years. And a drug-free world would presumably be unbearable sometimes. The goal of those who favor legalization is to find the most tolerable way to live with drugs. Nadelmann believes that the best route is not prohibition, but "regulated legalization."

As Nadelmann explains it, this stance envisions the following scenario: Drugs would not be completely unrestricted. There would be maximum doses and age restrictions. Young people would not to be given access to marijuana and cocaine, but every adult would be permitted to have a small amount of each drug for personal use. Every adult would also be able buy these drugs legally from a specific source, which could be called something like the National Drug Provider. And, of course, the government would regulate both the provider and its products.

And, if this were the case, this is how he imagines the consequences: Mafia-like cartels would no longer control drugs. Their business model, a gigantic profit margin made possible by prohibition, would be destroyed, and so would their power. Instead, the government would control drugs, taxing them the same way it taxes tobacco or alcohol. Instead of the mafia or warlords in Afghanistan, the tax office would be the one collecting the profits. And, instead of criminals, licensed providers would be selling the narcotics. In the future, all the billions that were being spent on the drug war -- for soldiers, prisons and criminal prosecution -- would go into health education. This would include drug prevention and addiction treatment, as well as the targeted fight against a black market for drugs that will form despite legalization.

"How does that sound?" Nadelmann asks.

Like a huge experiment, with an outcome that no one can predict.

Nadelmann is a realist. "When we talk about legalization today," he says, "we're only talking about marijuana. Nothing else."

An Argument for Continued Prohibition

Of course, there are plenty of opponents and counterarguments to legalization.

In a huge office with a view of Vienna, Yuri Fedotov says: "Legalization is the wrong approach." Fedotov, a Russian, has hands the size of frying pans and, for almost three years now, has been the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Fedotov rattles off a few figures: Alcohol, a legal drug, kills about 2.3 million people worldwide each year. Tobacco kills 5.1 million. With illegal drugs, on the other hand, the numbers are much lower, with 200,000 people a year falling victim to heroin, cocaine or crack. For the UN, this number illustrates the success of prohibition.

Fedotov says that it's an illusion to believe that the legalization of drugs could break the power of the cartels, because drugs are only part of their business -- perhaps half. Nowadays, the cartels are also involved in weapons smuggling, prostitution and Internet crime.

Most of all, however, Fedotov believes in a simple drug logic that could be described as the intellectual rationale for continued prohibition: If drugs are legal, the thinking goes, there is no deterrent effect. If drugs are legal, access becomes easier. And something that is legal is taken more often, says Fedotov, noting that rising consumption will produce more addicts. In the end, he concludes, the drug problem will have grown instead of being contained.

In principle, the drug debate boils down to a number of key questions: What happens if drugs are legalized? Is this drug logic correct? Will consumption spin out of control in the absence of prohibition?

No one has a definitive answer to these questions. But it seems as if, these days, more and more people would be willing to hazard an experiment.

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1. Prohibition redux
jnfranc 02/22/2013
It's quite extraordinary. Prohibition in the United States was a dismal failure at best, and yet people expect it to work now. It took 14 years then to demonstrate that it did nothing except to create a hugely powerful criminal organization, just as the war on drugs has done. The past 40 years have demonstrated exactly the same features - and we're still beating our heads against a wall.
2. venze
venze 02/25/2013
In Columbia, producing cocaine is illegal yet widespread. Many lives have perished from the continual battles between the law-enforcers and drug-dealers. A worse scenario is still occurring in Afghanistan where poppies are openly cultivated at practically every corner to make opium. The drug trade that goes global has been the major revenue of the nation, people and insurgence for years. Talking about drug control? (mtd1943, ttm1943)
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