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November 15, 2005 - Vancouver Sun (CN BC)

Logic Says Legalize Drugs; Reality Says It Won't Happen

By Don Cayo

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

In Vancouver, we've all heard the arguments for legalizing street drugs.

For one thing, nobody can even pretend any more that prohibition works.

Just look at the streets and alleys of the Downtown Eastside, within spitting distance of the police station, to see how badly the policy has failed when it comes to hard drugs. Or sniff the air at any outdoor public event to get a whiff of failure on the softer side.

Nor can we ignore what happens when criminals direct one of our biggest industries. Grow rips -- ripoffs of marijuana growing operations -- volatile crystal meth labs, gang violence and intimidation, even murders.

The drug trade is a nasty business that, legalization proponents maintain, would fade away if producing, possessing or selling the products were no longer against the law.

But the logical extension of these realities -- the case for legalization -- has not often been heard half a world away in Afghanistan, where the supply side of the drug trade dominates the economy.

So the Senlis Council, a Paris-based think-tank, is creating an international buzz with its recent proposal to legalize the growing of opium there.

The logic is simple.

Afghani peasants, most with few, if any, economic alternatives, grow enough opium poppies to supply 87 per cent of the world's illegal heroin; and a massive and expensive campaign, led by the U.S. and Britain, to eradicate the poppy crop isn't working very well.

It has only put a dint in the overall supply, yet in a few areas where the results have been better it has caused horrendous hardship for the former growers.

Press reports say that many small sharecroppers who've lost their crops have been forced to sell their daughters to pay off the drug lords who bankrolled them.

Meanwhile, there's a shortage, especially in developing countries, of morphine and other medical opiates that could bring relief to patients in intense pain.

Voila! says Senlis. Why not license the growers, as has been done in countries like India and Turkey, and divert the poppies from the destructive heroin trade to benign medical uses?

The Afghan poppy trade is said to be worth about $2.7 billion US a year -- a little more than low-end estimates of the value of B.C.'s marijuana industry, and a little less than half the high range of estimates.

But the money matters much more in a poor country that has as many people as Canada, yet has an income of 1/40th of ours and only two-thirds as much land as B.C.

So, will the Afghan government jump at the chance to legitimize an industry that employs as many as 2.3 million Afghanis and that brings in 12 to 13 per cent of the country's wealth?

Not likely. And in large part it will do nothing for the same reason that Canada is unlikely to legalize any narcotic, even marijuana, any time soon -- it will defer to the vociferous objections of the United States.

The Afghan minister of counter-narcotics, Habibulla Qaderi, notes quite sensibly that it would be difficult to implement the Senlis recommendation until the government gets a better handle on security in the country, which is for the most part still a wild and lawless place.

But the executive director of Senlis, Emmanuel Reinhart, has noted that the Afghan foot-dragging is also prompted by fear that it could lose massive amounts of aid, not only from the U.S., but also from Britain.

That reaction is not unlike Canada's reluctance to seriously pursue what looks like a better policy option for us for fear that the U.S. will lock down its borders and gum up our all-important trade relationship.

So the illicit drug trade -- and the destructive, ineffective war on drugs -- will be with us, and with Afghanistan, for a long time.

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