‘If drugs were legal, what would happen?’, New Internationalist, September 2012

In June this year, a court in Virginia indicted Mauricio Santoyo, a retired Colombian police general, for conspiring to help drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitaries distribute cocaine in the United States. General Santoyo, who has vowed to fight the charges, is alleged to have passed on intelligence to the traffickers while serving as head of security for Álvaro Uribe, Colombia's former president.

For many observers, such scandals no longer come as any surprise. No drug smuggling enterprise can succeed without crooked officials who are willing to accept bribes. From Mexico to Colombia, Afghanistan to Iran, journalists brave enough to investigate such matters regularly find their country's police officers, judges and politicians to be in cahoots with the very drug cartels they claim to be fighting.

But the 'drug baron' and his cronies are only one vested interest among many making money from the global prohibition of drugs. So who else benefits from keeping drugs illegal?

First off, there's the military. In the years following the end of the Cold War, many American defence contractors faced the prospect of redundancy and were only saved from the scrapheap by US military interventions in Colombia and Afghanistan. 'Plan Colombia', signed into law by Bill Clinton in July 2000, is an aid package worth nearly a billion dollars a year. Over eighty percent of that - $1.5 million a day - has gone to the Colombian security forces for weapons, helicopters, planes, boats, combat equipment, training, advice, intelligence, and the spraying of herbicides over two million acres of Colombia. All the hardware is supplied by American companies; illegal drugs and the never-ending war on them have been a disaster for producer countries, but they have proved a godsend for the likes of Sikorsky and Blackwater.

Next, there's law enforcement. Without the 'war on drugs', many of the world's customs officials, police officers, lawyers, and prison officers would be out of a job. In developing world countries, the loser is the public, for in committing precious resources to intercepting the suppliers of western drug markets, hospitals and schools are left perennially underfunded. Of the 34 countries least likely to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, 22 are in the midst of conflicts that rely, to one degree or another, on the drugs trade for financing. The United Nations' acknowledged as much in its World Drug Report 2008, calling the impact on national budgets 'an unintended consequence' of prohibitionist drugs laws.

But one man's crisis is another man's opportunity. From Buenos Aires to Los Angeles, anyone with a disposable income spends much of it on private security, a market that has mushroomed in tandem with the growth of the illegal drugs market. The Mexican private security industry is worth $8 billion a year and employs 500,000 people, a workforce almost as large as that of Mexico's various police forces. And as long as the rich can afford private security, governments have little incentive to invest in public security. This is most apparent in Colombia: of the 180,000 robberies committed in Bogota between 2007 and 2010, only 26,000 cases have been solved and a defendant brought to court.

As for the traffickers, the astronomical profit margins enjoyed by the most ruthless among them ensure access to the best lawyers and accountants, 'narchitects' to design their mansions, wine merchants, tailors, drivers and a plethora of less than essential service providers. Local economies grow dependent on their traffickers. In 2007, news of the arrest of the Jamaican smuggler Robroy "Spy" Williams was said to have struck such a blow to the business community of Montego Bay that supermarket sales in the town dropped 20%.
Even when drug law enforcement works, it only serves to make the drugs business more powerful. Thanks to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Colombia's Medellin and Cali cartels are history. Today, the country's cocaine business is in the hands of its FARC guerrillas and their paramilitary enemies, the only groups with the firepower and territorial control needed to protect such a stigmatised, but lucrative business. They same pattern is evident in Afghanistan: prohibition drives the drugs business into the hands of illegal terrorist organisations. The loser is the civilian population, caught between opposing sides in increasingly militarised conflicts.

In the United States, prohibition has been a boon for the prisons sector. When Richard Nixon first declared his 'war on drugs' in 1970, there were 200,000 Americans behind bars. Today there are 1.8 million and another 5 million are either on probation or parole. The package of new drugs laws approved by Congress in 1994 included $8 billion for new prisons; in the years that followed, the number of prisons in the US more than doubled. As a convicted drug dealer from New York City once told me, "In Clinton Dannemora [in upstate New York], you have generations of prison guards, feeding their communities by filling the prisons with people from the inner cities. It has become their cash cow and politicians fight each other to build the next prison."

If the prisons sector in the US has flourished under prohibitionist drugs laws, so have the banks. 2011 saw a rare settlement between US federal authorities and the Wachovia bank, which admitted to transferring $110 million of drug money into the US, and failing to monitor a staggering $376 billion brought into the bank through small exchange houses in Mexico over a four-year period.

Once banks have separated drug money from its illegal origins, cash-strapped governments welcome it as they do any other. It has been said that in the wake of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Mexico only staved off collapse because its banks held so much drug money. Compared to the $500 billion thought to move illegally from developing economies to western banks every year, the $50 billion that the developed world spends on foreign aid pales into insignificance.

So who would benefit from a legal market in drugs? First and foremost: the public, for once drug dealers have recourse to the protection of the law, their disputes with rivals can be settled in court instead of on the street. Legalisation would make many of the world's assassins, arms suppliers, and money launderers jobless, as it would the military personnel and undercover agents fighting the global 'war on drugs' from the DEA's 600 overseas offices.

Residents of neighbourhoods currently blighted by drugs could also expect to see a sharp reduction in drug-related crime. In 2000, a UK Home Office study estimated the economic and social costs of class A drug use to be between £11.1 and £17.4 billion. Of this total, 88% refers to crimes committed by problematic users. Stop criminalising drug use and police departments no longer have to spend so much time playing cat and mouse with drug consumers and their dealers. More resources could be dedicated to fighting real crimes, and clear-up rates would rise.

The environment would also benefit from legalisation. As farmers of illegal coca fields are driven into ever more remote parts of the Andes, they clear virgin forests. Much of what escapes their machetes later dies as a result of the DEA's fumigation planes. The farmers fare little better, forced to live at the diktat of armed criminals and terrorists, in regions where clinics and schools are non-existent. If drugs were legalised, they would be able to work free from the threat of arrest or worse and would no longer run the risk of being poisoned by the crop-dusters. In time, coca cultivation might even return to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Taiwan and the other 30 countries where coca bushes were commercially grown until the 1930s.

The British heroin market is thought to be worth about £1.2 billion a year. Just 10% of that sum goes to suppliers in countries like Afghanistan. Many reformers worry that a legal market would be an open door for exploitation by Big Pharma. But if invested wisely, that £120 million could fund rural development programmes and Afghan poppy farmers might benefit from the Fair Trade movement for equitable working conditions in the developing world.

Legalisation would also open the way for the popularization of less intoxicating drugs, such as the coca tea and wine to be found in any Bolivian marketplace. Prohibition creates a strong incentive for smuggling the most concentrated, most lucrative forms of coca and opiates, which are more valuable and easier to conceal. That's why the ban on illegal drugs has proven so effective at keeping coca tea and opium gum out of European cities, while ensuring a steady supply of crack cocaine and heroin. Given the choice, Britons too might opt to drink coca tea or coca wine and learn to leave the hard stuff alone.

Defenders of the status quo often imagine that legalization means two-for-one deals on 'Happy Crack' at your local off-license. But that scenario misses the point: just as 'prohibition' has failed to prohibit drugs, 'legally available' needn't mean available to all. Whatever their legal status, cocaine and heroin are highly addictive drugs. Just as the drugs in your local off-license - tobacco and alcohol - are subject to strict rules governing who can buy them, a legal supply would be a good first step in monitoring and controlling the consumption of class A drugs.

The British market in illegal drugs is thought to be worth up to £5.6 billion a year. Even allowing for the drop in prices that would follow a repeal of prohibitionist laws, a legal market would give health departments access to a whole new source of taxation revenue. Assuming drugs were taxed at a similar rate to alcohol, the total take for the UK Treasury would be £1.1 billion - £3.8 billion a year. Much of this could be used to fund credible, responsible drug education and healthcare programmes for addicts who want to quit.
Legalisation is not a panacea, but a pragmatic response to a market that no law can simply 'prohibit' away. If it seems a risk too far, consider the status quo, in which powerful drugs, manufactured by criminals, are widely available, teenagers routinely ignore what passes for drug education in schools and treatment programmes for adult users are chronically under-funded. What could possibly be worse?


Tom Feiling is author of The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World (Penguin). His latest book, Short Walks from Bogota: Journeys in the New Colombia will be published by Allen Lane in August 2012.