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January 15, 2005 - The Financial Times (UK)

The Unwinnable War On Dangerous Drugs

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Thousands of acres have been taken out of coca production in Colombia, fewer US teenagers smoke cannabis and drugs seizures are not too far off record highs.

The British police are cracking down on drug dealers and Britain is leading the campaign against Afghanistan's opium industry.

Yet, despite signs of what the US drugs policy chief describes as "real progress" in some areas, the US is no nearer to achieving victory in its war on drugs.

On US and European streets, cocaine and heroin are as pure, cheap and plentiful as ever, while consumption of amphetamines is rising. The gangs that operate the drugs trade continue to corrupt institutions in poorer countries such as Colombia and Afghanistan.

If the spread of dangerous drugs is to be curbed, a new approach is needed.

The first step is to recognise that strategies based on eradication of the raw materials can at best be only partly successful and are easily reversed. In Afghanistan, for example, the area cultivated with opium poppy - the raw material for heroin - has risen more than tenfold since the toppling of the Taliban regime which had reduced it to just 8,000 hectares during 2001.

Spraying crops with herbicides has eliminated more than a third of coca plantations in Colombia in the last five years. But this could inflame political tensions in countries such as Afghanistan where legitimate crops are cultivated alongside opium poppies. Eradication also requires far more resources for promoting alternative development if the impact is not to be short-lived.

In any case, the decline in coca cultivation in some parts of Colombia has led to increases in other parts and in neighbouring countries such as Bolivia. Meanwhile, growers have improved yields by developing taller plants that are more resistant to herbicide and whose leaves produce up to four times more cocaine alkaloid.

Even if coca and opium poppy cultivation were to fall sharply, drugs traffickers now offer a wide variety of synthetic products.

In the US a powerful painkiller legally available on prescription is becoming popular among heroin addicts, for example. The UN reckons that about 30m people already consume amphetamines, more than the combined total of heroin and cocaine users.

Legalising narcotics would break the grip of organised crime on the drugs trade. It would also help separate casual users who take drugs for recreation from the hard core of addicts who account for well over half the drugs consumed and who need special help.

But the risks to public health could be hard to sell in increasingly risk-averse developed societies. A limited tolerance of softer, less harmful drugs such as cannabis, however - already being tried in the UK and the Netherlands - is sensible, and releases resources for tackling harder drugs.

The governments of wealthier countries must also look imaginatively at strategies for reducing demand - for example, by helping addicts reduce dependence gradually and safely.

For the US and other governments that advocate zero tolerance policies, these "harm reduction" approaches are anathema. But combined with greater efforts to bring growers in countries such as Colombia and Afghanistan into better-funded alternative development programmes - - as well as vigorous suppression of criminal drug gangs - they offer a better way forward.

The war on drugs has simply shown that drugs and the drugs markets cannot be wiped out. It is time to look at more realistic and less ambitious alternatives.

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