The big neglected development issue

LCID member Martin Drewry blogs on the War on Drugs

Ask a typical activist what the main causes of global poverty are – and they’ll probably say things like trade, tax dodging, international debt, climate change, 0.7%… But I’m betting not many would mention one of the biggest factors of all – the so-called War on Drugs.

So why is it such a big deal for development?  

  1. Prohibition is the power base of global organised crime.  (Think prohibition era America writ large across the world.)  It means the street price of their product rockets – resulting in them having enough wealth and power to bring states to their knees.  Through combinations of bribery and (terrifying) intimidation, drug cartels render the machinery of states dysfunctional – and to the extent a state does survive it’s often locked in civil war with an illicit empire possessing military might to rival its own.  In this context, what hope is there for pro-poor social and economic development? For those forced into poverty to have a chance of having their rights recognised, they need two things – a state with the resources to deliver, and a state that is accountable. The War on Drugs takes away both.
  2. Prohibition means the drugs market – one of the world’s largest trading sectors – is completely untaxed.  (That’s a form of subsidy!!) A recent report by Health Poverty Action showed that taxing cannabis alone in the UK could raise between £1 billion and £3.5 billion a year for the NHS.  And that’s in a diverse developed economy.  In many poorer countries the drugs market is a far greater proportion of GDP.  Properly taxing it would be beyond transformative in terms of state revenue for essential services like health and education.
  3. Prohibition harms public health.  The one-size-fits-all law enforcement approach clearly doesn’t stopping people taking drugs.  On the contrary, it motivates powerful crime syndicates to increase consumption as much as possible.  Worse still, lack of regulation and harm reductions services means consumption is far more dangerous – consumers have no idea of the strength, and no certainty what is contained. Even the simplest food products are required to give us detailed information about composition on the packaging – but for something as dangerous as drugs there’s no regulation or testing whatsoever.
  4. The War on Drugs disproportionately criminalises minority ethnic communities worldwide.  That’s well known. Lesser known is the fact that it also disproportionately incarcerates women – who are often forced into the more risky and lower paid roles.
  5. Forced crop eradication routinely takes away the livelihoods of poor farmers in marginalised rural areas – with devastating effects for them and their families.
  6. Crop eradication also wreaks havoc with the environment – first through the indiscriminate use of chemicals, and then by new deforestation when the production relocates to a more remote area.  (10% of the rainforest loss in Peru has been caused by this.)
  7. The War on Drugs prevents access to essential medicines.  Excessive bureaucracy (through fear of being perceived as soft on drugs) restricts global supplies of opioid medications – meaning a large proportion of cancer and AIDS sufferers worldwide are denied these painkillers.
  8. It fuels violence and secondary crimes – 29,000 lost lives in 2017 in Mexico alone.
  9. It disenfranchises people involved in the drugs trade from the state and its services – for example making them afraid to seek help, such as health care and police protection, in case their drug involvement is discovered.
  10. Finally, to clinch it… if all the above isn’t enough… the amount spent on the War on Drugs each year is $100 billion.  And that’s just the initial spend – it doesn’t include the secondary costs of tackling the problems caused, so the full total is much more.   This compares with the global aid budget of $130 billion. Imagine all the War on Drugs money being used to eradicate poverty rather than create it.

Putting all this together, a case can be made that the War on Drugs isn’t just one of the biggest causes of global poverty, but possibly even the single most significant factor.  

So where is our involvement?  Why are we so silent on the issue?  

If it’s because development voices have been afraid of the controversy (and I think, in truth, that’s probably been part of it), then that’s outdated.  Drug policy reform today presents far more political opportunity than threat. And even if it didn’t, some things are too important to ignore. We’re at our best in Labour when we stand up and speak out for what’s right.

There’s no question that it’s easy to feel frustrated at how slow we’ve been to engage.  But actually, the most logical thing to feel here is incredible excitement!!

Significant change here is highly achievable.  And because there has been so little involvement by the development sector, none of the low hanging fruit have been picked.  

For a start, Labour should commit to moving drug policy responsibility out of the Home Office.  It’s ridiculous that it’s led from there. Instead, Labour should allocate it jointly to the Department of Health and DFID.  That simple change alone will make a vast difference.

Furthermore, Labour should champion the rights of all countries to explore alternative drug policies, as has happened so effectively for example in Bolivia’s coca control programme.  To do this we don’t need to believe that we should reform our drug policies in the UK (although we absolutely should review those too!).  We simply need to believe that countries should have the freedom to make their own choices.  Labour in opposition should provide moral and political support for those wishing to do this – so that countries in the Global South are able to stand up to pressure from the USA and others seeking to prevent them.  And Labour in government should provide them with financial assistance through DFID, along with support for international policy dialogue informed by an increasing global evidence base.

Finally, I’d like to offer an observation.  Having been a development campaigner for many years, I notice that most of our campaigns have tended to originate in the Global North.  It’s not that these haven’t (mostly) been on important issues, and global justice movements throughout the world have often been pleased to be part of them.  But the War on Drugs is one of the very few issues that I’ve been actively, and passionately, lobbied by leaders of the Global South to campaign on.

When we’re selecting our priorities, that last point should make a difference.  If we choose to listen to them and take action, the cause of development can be transformed.  

 

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