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

By Jochen-Martin Gutsch and Juan Moreno

Part 5: Growing Global Support for Legalization

On Nov. 6, 2012, the day of the US presidential election, Nadelmann was at an election party in San Francisco, and his phone seemed to be on fire. He was constantly taking calls from American media organizations. Everyone wanted a quote from him.

Obama had won. But much more astonishing was the fact that, on that same day, the citizens of the states of Colorado and Washington had voted in favor of bills to legalize marijuana.

In the future, every adult in Colorado and Washington will be allowed to legally possess roughly 30 grams of marijuana as well as purchase it legally at licensed outlets.

For Nadelmann, November 6 was the most important Election Day he had ever experienced. Elsewhere in the world, people were rubbing their eyes in astonishment. Legalization? In the United States? The biggest of all combatants in the drug war?

Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron has calculated that the legalization of marijuana could generate $8.7 billion in annual tax revenues in the United States. And money is an argument that can even sway conservative voters.

The second major argument is the prison population. Some 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana offences in the United States in 2011, most of them merely for possession -- of a substance potentially less addictive than alcohol.

Perhaps there will a day when Nov. 6, 2012 will be considered the beginning of the end of the marijuana prohibition. At any rate, what happened on that day has opened up the first holes in the system.

Although marijuana will be legal in Colorado, it remains illegal under US federal law. It's as if smoking a joint were permitted in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania but illegal the minute you crossed into the neighboring state of Brandenburg. And how are the Americans going to explain to Mexicans that they are supposed to continue waging a drug war, one that claims many lives, so that Mexican marijuana doesn't cross the border into the United States, if grass is legal across that border? It's a conundrum.

A Lose-Lose Situation in Germany

The red containers marked "Hamburg Süd" at the port in Aruba will eventually be loaded onto a container ship that will carry them across the Atlantic. While the ship plows through the ocean, Harald Chybiak at the State Office of Criminal Investigation, in Berlin, will be trying to explain the cocaine market in the German capital.

Chybiak, 52, runs the narcotics division. He is Berlin's top drug hunter and the last man with the ability to stop the cocaine.

Berlin consumes 3.6 tons of cocaine a year, says Chybiak, more than any other German city. Of that, Chybiak intercepts between 100 and 150 kilos. "There is no question that by far the greatest part makes it through."

The red containers coming from Aruba are a case in point. Cocaine is loaded into the containers in Aruba. The "rip-off method" is especially popular, says Chybiak. This means that the drugs are shipped together with other, legal goods. The cocaine is hidden between banana crates or in machine parts.

More than 10,000 ships arrive at the Port of Hamburg each year. Nine million containers are processed there, including half a million from South America. Law-enforcement and customs officials examine the shipping manifests, looking for implausible information, and have suspicious containers searched. But only a fraction of the drugs are discovered and seized. Once the product has been picked up, it is distributed via dealer networks. The drugs gradually seep into the country, eventually making their way to Berlin.

"So what am I doing here? asks Chybiak. "Sometimes I pick a crumb out of the cake so that the crumb -- in other words, a dealer -- doesn't get too big. That's my job. But, of course, the cake -- or the business -- is still there."

Chybiak has never been to Colombia. He has heard about the legalization efforts in Latin America and the elections in the United States. But all of that seems very remote to him.

Martin Lindner, the FDP politician who smoked a joint on television, has advocated the legalization of pot for years. When his party meets for its annual convention in May, he will petition to have legalization included in the Free Democrats' party platform. If he succeeds, it would be a coup.

Former Interior Minister Baum, now 80, says: "I am in favor of having an open debate on the pros and cons of legalizing cannabis." But, today, Baum is one of the very few public figures in Germany to support legalization.

Another one is Hubert Wimber, the chief of police in the northwestern city of Münster. He also chairs the "Working Group of German Chiefs of Police," which makes something akin to a national chief of police. Repression isn't going to solve the drug problem, says Wimber. "You won't find a reputable study that claims the opposite is true." Wimber is calling for the legalization of cannabis. He can even imagine that cannabis "is only the first step," if we "finally want to effectively fight the giant market for illegal drugs."

But unlike Latin America and the United States, Germany lacks the political pressure to change. There were 986 drug-related deaths in Germany in 2011, the smallest number since 1988. Drug use is declining in all age groups. So why change anything?

The drug deaths we see on German television today are usually deaths in the drugs war in Mexico and Colombia. We can feel appalled for a moment, but then we change the channel.

Unfortunately, drugs are a global business. Western Europe consumes a large share of global drug production. Our demand keeps the business going. Simply put, one of the reasons people die in the drug war is that we can't leave the stuff alone.

Will we change? As consumers, we have hardly changed over the 40-year course of the drug war. But at least we could think about a new, more effective drug policy.

Sitting in Chybiak's office in Berlin, it's hard not to think about General Pérez, the drug cop back in Colombia. Chybiak and Pérez have the same job: fighting drugs. But Pérez is at war, while Chybiak is picking crumbs out of a cake.

Still, Chybiak doesn't look unhappy. What should he do? "If we increase the police pressure, we'll increase the price of drugs," he says. "That, in turn, increases the incentive to get into the business." For the police, that's a lose-lose situation.

The Hidden Costs of Pleasure

At the very end of its long journey, from the coca fields of Putumayo to the Caribbean island of Aruba, across the ocean to Hamburg and then to Berlin, the cocaine has only a few centimeters left to travel. The drug shoots through the mucous membranes of the nose into the bloodstream, is pumped into the brain and enters the limbic system, where emotions and urges are controlled. Breathing accelerates, blood pressure and body temperature rise, and euphoria sets in. It takes only two or three minutes to get high on cocaine. Cocaine is like a tiny god. "You are the most beautiful child of all, and I embrace you like my own blood," the German metal band Rammstein sings in a song about cocaine.

The high lasts about 45 minutes. It is offset by 60,000 deaths in Mexico, shattered countries, billions of dollars in war expenses and killers like Popeye. Almost everyone knows this. But does it make anyone forego drugs? Voluntarily?

Intoxication, whether it's caused by cocaine, marijuana or alcohol, is the opposite of reason. When intoxicated, we seek happiness, greatness, a loss of inhibition, comfort, escape and meaning.

In contrast, no one wins a war. At least not with the old weapons.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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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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