Outlook: The Quagmire on Drugs

Misha Glenny
Former BBC Reporter
Monday, August 20, 2007; 12:00 PM

The price of drugs is falling, the Afghan poppy crop is booming, and traffickers are turning as big a profit as ever. Former BBC reporter Misha Glenny was online Monday, Aug. 20 at noon ET to examine the failures of U.S. War on Drugs -- which many authorities point to as the biggest booster of the narcotics trade.

The Lost War: We've Spent 36 Years and Billions of Dollars Fighting It, but the Drug Trade Keeps Growing (Outlook, Aug. 19)

The transcript follows.

Glenny is a former BBC correspondent and the author of "McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Underworld," scheduled to be published in April of next year.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Anonymous: Between 1937 and 1967, the demand for inhaled cannabis (muggles, tea, Mary Jane, reefer, etc.) seems to have been relatively insignificant in comparison with today's, which generates 750,000 felony arrests/year and the confiscation of tons of illegal product at our borders and the destruction of hundreds of thousands (millions?) of plants all over the country. How do you account for the unique success of inhaled cannabis as a consumer product?

Misha Glenny: There was clearly a huge cultural and social shift in the 1960s in the U.S. and Western Europe that saw many more young people smoking cannabis. The demand bolstered production countries like Colombia before west coast horticulturalists discovered that the U.S. was also fertile country for growing the stuff. This is the one major traditional narcotic where you have seen a major shift in production from developing countries -- i.e. Colombia, Morocco, Pakistan -- into consumer countries, i.e. the U.S., Europe and Canada, using state of the art production techniques such as aeroponics. British Columbia is the best example of this.

Furthermore, a high percentage of those who started smoking in the 1960s and 1970s continue to do so, leading to a reduced social opprobrium among users (and across generations) than generally pertains to harder or more youth-culture drugs like heroin or methamphetamine.


Santa Fe, N.M.: Can the psychedelics (including marijuana) be classified separately from the narcotics with regard to their spiritual use? For example, The League for Spiritual Discovery, The Native American Church, the Rastafarians, Uniao do Vegetal, etc., have varying degrees of legality but in general the psychedelics are considered "narcotics" (a misnomer) by the government.

Misha Glenny: I think this points to a complex cultural issue, especially with regard to coca in Bolivia and Peru. The indigenous populations in the latter tend to perceive the War on Drugs as an assault on their traditional lifestyle. The Rastafarians are less bothered by issues like the War on Drugs because they rarely are prosecuted in Jamaica or south London. But clearly for many psychedelic substances, there are traditions that are as strong as the European tradition of alcohol, which is more closely a narcotic than the psychedelics. There is undoubtedly a problem when traditional narcotics, like the coca leaf, are removed from their natural cultural context and placed in a new one, i.e. the industrialized world, just as there was a problem when Westerners started handing out alcohol to indigenous populations during colonization as a form of social control.


Burke, Va.: I enjoyed your article on the War on Drugs and its ramifications to crime and terrorism worldwide. I understand that politically, a candidate does not want to be perceived as soft on drugs, but we should expect our leaders to convince skeptics that our current strategy is not working and has no chance of working. How can we influence our elected leaders to take a more rational view of this issue?

Misha Glenny: This question has profound implications. The impetus from the War on Drugs is driven from Washington but enjoys some support in Western Europe and Canada, although by no means total. The alternative strategy of harm reduction and decriminalization -- certainly of marijuana and even of harder drugs -- has, however, real purchase, notably in Holland, Switzerland and British Columbia. Until Stephen Harper ousted the Liberals in Canada, putting in place a minority conservative government, Washington and Ottawa were heading for a very serious clash regarding marijuana as the move toward decriminalizing or even legalizing it gathered pace north of the border.

I think the political approach to this issue in the U.S. is changing, although at a very slow speed. There is a growing and vocal movement of former law enforcement officials who are speaking out against prohibition and the War on Drugs, and there are now some elected mayors and district attorneys nationwide who are questioning the policy.

What I continue to find so incomprehensible is how the policy persists given that it is a demonstrable waste of vast sums of taxpayer money and does not achieve any of its stated goals in a 40-year period. If the War on Drugs were a private company, the CEO and board would have been sacked decades ago.


Silver Spring, Md.: The illogic of the following paragraph struck me: "Others argue that the only way to minimize the criminality and social distress that drugs cause is to legalize narcotics so that the state may exert proper control over the industry. It needs to be taxed and controlled, they insist..."

Does anyone imagine that those who are not afraid to commit murder will be afraid to fail to pay their taxes? The original point of the War of Drugs seems to have escaped you: drugs are bad for your health. The more freely drugs are available the worse it will be for public health.

Misha Glenny: Alcohol is taxed and revenue accrues to the state. Alcohol is a drug that is bad for your health, but the state permits it. The prohibition of alcohol was dispensed with because of the vast criminal empire that it generated.

Drugs are unquestionably bad for your health, but one might argue that in a free society one should be permitted to choose one's poison. Cigarettes have been banned in public places in many U.S. states and many European countries not primarily because they are bad for your health, but because they are bad for other people's health who have to inhale smoke unwillingly.

So I would say -- fine, you have a right to argue for prohibition of all manner of things, but you must be consistent and call for the prohibition of alcohol as well.


Portland, Maine: I always understood the War on Drugs in the U.S. as a thinly veiled attack on our poorest urban communities (read: people of color). The sentencing discrepancies between crack cocaine and the more expensive powdered cocaine is an often-used example of a War on Drugs targeting people of color. In your research, what relationship did you find between our War on Drugs and disproportionate incarceration rates among peoples of color?

Misha Glenny: I have spoken to senior government officials. I have gone to deprived communities and others where drugs are a particular problem. Statistically, there is no doubt about it -- minorities are disproportionately targeted by the War on Drugs on a massive scale. In terms of the U.S.'s prison population, in terms of the crack/coke usage, in terms of the ease for police to take a dragnet through the projects but to avoid middle class white areas, this is hugely damaging to the African American and Hispanic communities. I think that in the long term, unless that imbalance is reduced somehow, the U.S. could be storing up some serious social problems -- in urban areas in particular. I am happy to say that I also interviewed some immensely courageous men and women, who as elected officials were trying very hard to mitigate the impact of this.


Cairo, Egypt: Hello. Leaving aside the current politics of the issue, would you care to speculate on the social and economic ramifications of legalizing the sale and consumption of narcotic drugs in the U.S., perhaps under a regime similar to that of alcohol and gambling?

Misha Glenny: This is quite a tricky question. It would be a huge logistical operation, but not beyond the administrative capacity of a developed Western state. There almost certainly would be a short-term increase in narcotics consumption although long-term evidence from countries where liberal drug laws pertain demonstrate that the percentage of drug users settles after a while and remains constant. Given the exceptional high levels of drug usage, especially in relatively liberal economies like the U.S. and the U.K., the immediate social consequences would not be enormous. In terms of criminality, however, it would be very significant. In the U.K., the U.N. registered in 2002 that 70 percent of crimes were committed by drug users in pursuit of money to buy their illegal substances. The great bulk of this casual crime simply would disappear overnight with legalization. However, it would be absolutely critical to make everyone aware that anybody caught using narcotics in an anti-social fashion, i.e. driving under the influence or provoking violence, would be locked away for a long time. There certainly will be enough prison places, because most jails will be emptied if narcotics were legal.


Farmington, N.M.: In your opinion, is there any possibility that the U.S. would be able to step back from the prohibitionist "drug-war" mentality and take a different approach ... such as treating drug abuse as a health problem and not a criminal problem? Or is there too much money at stake for the different federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, and are they too "addicted" to the drug war? (Sorry about the bad pun.)

Misha Glenny: There is a degree of addiction as you state, but I do think that there is real fear at the federal level of supporting drug law reform, because this would trigger a backlash with considerable media support. Even those senators and congressmen who have in the past voiced their concern about the War on Drugs have tended to go very quiet about it once they achieve higher office. Campaigners claim that the various law enforcement agencies and other branches of the criminal justice system have a significant vested financial interest in the maintenance of the War on Drugs. Certainly, if narcotics were legalized, DEA agents would have to find another job. But the most frustration I heard was in African American communities with regard to the constant monitoring and raids on their communities -- where, they claim, there is a "dollars for collars" culture pertaining among law enforcement officers.

Having said that, outside of Washington there is a movement growing that is no longer marginal and exclusively beyond representative offices. There is also a steady groundswell of opinion in Canada and Europe that is questioning the whole efficacy of the War on Drugs. Afghanistan, as I pointed out in the article, is a complete disaster in terms of trying to halt the supply of opium, and in the U.K. there is a perceptible shift in public opinion as a consequence.


College Park, Md.: I was wondering if you were familiar with Michael Massing's book, "The Fix," where he asserts that the war on drugs is never going to be won by trying to dry up the supply, only by drying up the demand. He makes a good case for the generally abysmal state of drug treatment and the lack of quality treatment on demand in this country. It seems most of the money goes for big, pseudo-military "interdiction" operations when well-funded treatment facilities could have a far greater impact. I'd appreciate your comments. P.S. I do not work in the treatment field -- I just found the book fascinating...

Misha Glenny: I certainly think that there is pitiably little money put into the system of rehabilitation, and law enforcement has failed completely to interdict the supply. Since globalization, trade flows of all illicit goods -- not just narcotics -- have increased hugely around the world. The ability of states to police this has not kept up, but you continue to have enormously costly interdiction operations, as you point out -- like Plan Colombia, whereby 70 percent of the funds never leave the United States. The demand for narcotics and other illicit goods and services (like untaxed cigarettes, trafficked sex workers or blood diamonds) is so enormous that all we can hope to do is assert some form of control. You only can stop it by introducing massive protectionist trading systems (the anathema of globalization) combined with totalitarian policing systems.


Brookline, Mass.: My question concerns the role of mainstream journalism in the perpetuation of prohibition, a policy doomed by its premise that coercion can overcome capitalism and the central nervous system. While The Washington Post's editors deserve praise for choosing to publish your article, major American media and even your former employer the BBC continue to pander to fear with uncritical reports treating Plan Colombia, the proposed Plan Mexico and a surge in the Drug War to help win the Terror War as having some rational basis. Do you agree that the media's role in reporting such policies worsens global and domestic safety? If not, why not? And if so, is the media through its owners, editors or reporters capable of empowering reason over fear in analyzing these issues?

Misha Glenny: With respect to the BBC, I think there reporting is somewhat more nuanced than that, but I agree with your general point -- on the whole, the War on Drugs is represented in the mainstream media as a "good thing." Busting a big trafficking ring, for example, is exciting copy or pictures, and so are the human interest stories surrounding the social devastation that drugs use cause. It is sometimes nauseatingly hypocritical as well -- because cocaine usage, for example, in many news organizations is widespread. And there is sort of mystical aspect to the whole thing here, which is why I quoted that guy from the Foreign Office at the end, referring to the Emperor's New Clothes -- all those journalists I know who have gone out to areas of narcotics production very quickly become convinced of the case for decriminalization, or at least for finding an alternative to the War on Drugs. Nonetheless, I am surprised at the degree to which there is no real debate in the mainstream media about this issue -- of course, this is changing on the web.


Maryland: Why do you suggest that legalizing, taxing and regulating drug use would be tantamount to "telling people that their kids can do drugs"?

Misha Glenny: Well because their kids would be able to use drugs. And as an election campaign, "let's allow our kids to use drugs" opens the would-be representative to some pretty negative campaigning. The point that I would make is that kids are doing drugs anyhow, and the War on Drugs has done next to nothing to stop that. Explaining why the War on Drugs is ineffective is complex, and at election time complex arguments tend to be shunted aside in favor of easy sloganeering arguments such as "let's go hard on drug dealers and users."


Muddy River, Mass.: You wrote: "a high percentage of those who started smoking in the 1960s and 1970s continue to do so leading to a reduced social opprobrium among users (and across generations) than generally pertains to harder or more youth-culture drugs like heroin or methamphetamine." What is your basis for claiming "a high percentage" still smoke? Wouldn't prohibitionist scare tactics be a better explanation for "youth-culture" use of dangerous drugs like H and meth than older people's MJ use?

Misha Glenny: The U.N. Office on Drugs Control and Crime, in Vienna, provides comprehensive annual statistics on global narcotics flows, production patterns and consumption patterns. This includes survey work in many countries (especially pertaining to consumption) and the average age of marijuana users is consistently higher than those using methamphetamine, ecstasy, other synthetic drugs and heroin (cocaine tends to be used by people in their late 20s, 30s and 40s -- although that is coming down as the price comes down). This clearly indicates that the flower power generation has clung onto to marijuana usage but gradually rejected the use of other drugs (apart, of course, from alcohol).


Seattle: I remember reading that Afghanistan was prime real estate for growing several other valuable cash crops, like saffron. Has the U.S. tried to encourage farmers to grow crops like that, or have we simply gone about destroying poppy fields?

Misha Glenny: The U.K. has made one disastrous attempt at crop replacement by offering in 2003 to buy up the entire opium harvest for that year. Unfortunately thanks to government bureaucracy the cash didn't come through in time, and because every farmer was growing extra amounts that year because of the bumper payment offered by the Brits, they then just sold it onto the open market -- a catastrophe. Saffron is a delicate species that requires considerable care and attention -- it is also cash-intensive. Opium, unfortunately, adores the arid conditions of southern Afghanistan. Crop replacement could work if you put huge resources into it -- we had that chance in Afghanistan after 2001 but we decided to invade Iraq instead.


Misha Glenny: Sorry to those whose questions I didn't get to -- I'm afraid I'm a bit under the weather today as well, so please excuse any misspellings and grammatical errors. I'll be in the States next year to promote my book, and I hope I'll be able to something else at The Post. Cheerio.


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