THE war on drugs is a big operation that has been raging across the world for almost 40 years. It's big, it's mean and it's out there. Yet so are the drugs.
In Ireland it's really starting to hit home just how many illegal drugs are on our streets and the enormous numbers of people who take 'recreational' drugs (which means on a Friday or Saturday night), as well as the habitual users and chronic addicts.
Gerry Cameron, a former police chief in Florida who spent 17 years fighting 'the war on drugs', was in Dublin last week to speak at a public lecture as a guest of the Irish Penal Reform Trust.
Cameron, whose CV includes being chief of police in two Florida towns and a full-time faculty member of the Institute of Police Technology and Management at the University of North Florida, where he taught drug interdiction, is now a spokesperson for LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition).
In the lecture, Gerry Cameron spoke out about how the current war on drugs has not only been a total failure but has caused serious damage to society. He called for an end of the prohibition of drugs, so that we can stop wasting time, lives and money on a futile endeavour.
Currently, there is more crime, disease, death and addiction than ever before. He believes, and I share his view, that not one objective or goal of the 'war on drugs' has been met, and that the "re-legalisation of drugs" is "the only way to stop drugs falling into the hands of our children, to make room for violent offenders to serve their full terms in our prisons, and to return law enforcement to its legitimate function of protecting our citizens".
The facts and statistics speak for themselves. Look at how much police time and money have been put into enforcing drug laws and arresting people who sell or take drugs. Our prisons are full with people who are there on drug offences, which means that the rapists and the murderers serve less time as the system becomes increasingly overcrowded. In the US, the average time spent in jail for a marijuana offence is 10 years whereas the average time spent in jail for murder is six years. And the majority of these murders are gang-related.
"The biggest thing is the violence that is associated with black markets. When you buy a product from a person and it's defective, with a drug you can't take him to court and you have to solve it in another way and in the US we do that with guns," says Cameron.
Unfortunately in Ireland, this method of "squaring up" is sadly becoming more and more the norm.
The more than 5,000 police officers, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, DEA and FBI agents who make up LEAP say that based on their long years of experience, they've concluded that it's time to end prohibition. They've found that "despite best intentions, police have no way of monitoring a market run by mysterious, unidentified players".
The prohibition on drugs nowadays, like the prohibition on liquor in Al Capone's time, has given us a world black market that is a billion-dollar industry; an industry which is responsible for most crime, violence and gang warfare.
Even with the massive war on drugs, more drugs than ever are available on the street. When asked "do you seriously want to legalise heroin and cocaine so our kids can buy them in a shop?", Gerry Cameron answers, "Ask any high school kid, can you get drugs at your school? 'Yes'. Can you get alcohol? 'No, you have to be 21 to buy alcohol!'"
Cameron insists that ending prohibition is not the same as saying 'yes' to drugs either: "That's the last thing we are saying." But it will give the countries affected by the drugs war time and money to spend on health, education and helping people overcome addiction.
Other countries have tried this and have had positive results. In 1994, Switzerland began trials in which addicts were provided with heroin and the result was a drop in the level of crime.
If the profit motive is taken away from criminals, then the law can regain some control of the area. Gerry Cameron says: "We've created a symbiotic relationship between drug dealers and the government. The dealers need the ban on drugs and the government needs the spectre of the dealers to keep funding the bureaucracy."
With drug distribution left to the black market, the processing of drugs is unregulated. In the Sixties, cannabis was pretty innocuous stuff. Due to over-processing, the amount of THC, the primary chemical responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis, is far higher and much more dangerous today than it was in the Sixties.
Cocaine is made from the leaf of the coca plant. Workers in the fields in Columbia chew this leaf all day to help them stay awake and alert. Studies show that it has no harmful effects, even long-term, when taken this way, yet once purified and processed by the illegal drug cartels, it becomes very toxic. That toxic substance is then exported and cut again and again by dealers so that what finds its way to you in your local pub is very dangerous stuff.
The legal status of cocaine has no bearing on the decision of hundreds of thousands of Irish people to take it. Neither does its legal status have any bearing on the massive amounts of cocaine that are readily available here in Ireland. However, its legal status has had a huge effect on how and why there are so many illegal handguns in this county and it has been responsible for nearly every shooting and gun death on our streets in the past decade.
In the last 36 years, the USA alone has wasted a trillion dollars of taxpayers' money and every year it wastes another $69bn. Yet today drugs are more potent, cheaper and easier for children to get than in 1970 when the war on drugs began.
In the poorer countries, where poppies and coca plants grow naturally, farmers are forced to grow these crops either through economic desperation or through intimidation from the big drug cartels and warlords who virtually run their countries. Yet they get paid a pittance while the people whom they supply with their harvest make millions. Legalising and regulating the drug trade would make the cartels obsolete and the indigenous farmers could make some sort of a decent living from their crops.
It has been said that the federal agencies turn a blind eye to a certain amount of drugs that are imported into the US each year as it keeps all those angry African-American and Hispanic citizens in the poverty-ravaged ghettoes high on dope and fighting among themselves so they are no longer a problem for nice, white, middle-class America or the crumbling welfare system. If they weren't pacified with crack to cloud their minds, there would be anarchy, revolution and scenes reminiscent of the LA riots of 1992.
But whatever is going down today ain't workin'. By removing prohibition, maybe we can find an effective solution.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.