Alternatives to the War on Drugs
A retired judge and a former MI5 officer discuss Eurpean models that present a more effective approach to drugs other than locking people up
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And we’re continuing our discussion with members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. These are police officers and other people that come from law enforcement that think the war on drugs is a failure and drugs should be legalized.
Now joining us, first of all, from Brazil is Maria LÃºcia Karam. She’s a retired judge. She worked in the criminal courts for eight years, where she routinely cleared defendants of drug possession charges on the grounds that laws criminalizing behavior that does not affect the rights and freedoms of others is unconstitutional. Thanks for joining us.
MARIA LÃšCIA KARAM, CRIMINAL COURT JUDGE (RET.): Thanks for inviting me.
JAY: Also joining us is Annie Machon. Annie worked as an intelligence officer in the U.K. domestic security service MI-5 for six years in the 1990s. During part of that time, she was responsible for investigating terrorist logistics and worked closely with the investigations division of U.K. Customs. Thanks for joining us.
ANNIE MACHON, FMR. MI-5 INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: Pleasure.
JAY: So, Annie, start us off. Again, a little bit of your personal story. You join MI-5. You’re there to defend the realm. When does the coin drop for you, thisâ€”it ain’t all looking the way you thought it was?
MACHON: Well, MI-5 certainly didn’t look the way I thought it was. I sort of fell into it by accident. But they assured me that they were obeying the law and had to get certain government permissions to do illegal acts and that sort of thing. In fact, they lied to me. But it was during my second posting at MI-5 working against terrorist logistics that the penny dropped for me about the whole prohibition issue. This was because I was working or looking at the logistics, the movement of people and weaponry into and out of the U.K. and [incompr.] terrorist attacks. And because I was working on that subject, I had to work very closely with the customs in the U.K. Of course, there’s a lot of overlap between the import of drugs and the import of weaponry. And one that customs kept saying, look, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack; we just do not make a dent against the free flow of drugs into this country. And also it became very obvious as well that a lot of terrorist groups gain a lot of funding from the drug trade as well. So when our politicians say, no, no, we’ve got to keep prohibition, you know, it’s protecting our communities, it protects our countries, in fact what they’re doing is protecting organized crime and terrorism. So, I mean, from that moment, really, working with customs, it became very clear that something very wrong was going on.
JAY: And did you say so?
MACHON: I did talk about it at the time, yes. Certain other aspects of the work then overtook me. I ended up resigning in the late 1990s to blow the whistle on a series of other crimes. But since then, I started working more as a lecturer and a public speaker, a writer, on a whole range of interconnected issues. And then, of course, I came across the idea of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. I was on a speaking tour across Canada in 2009 and was approached by them. So I became a speaker. And then I had the dubious pleasure of going to the UN drug convention in Vienna with some of my colleagues this March, and it became very obvious from that point that the U.S. is very much controlling of the whole UN process, the conventions that impose prohibition across the world. And that’s a real problem. So I offered to help try and build up LEAP across Europe, because, of course, there are many more-humane approaches to the drug problem.
JAY: And we’ll get into that in a moment.
Maria, you obviously wanted to be a judge. You applied to be a judge. You did the testing to be a judge. And you knew the drug laws. So why did you want to be a judge?
KARAM: Because I always thought and I think that all laws must be in accordance with constitutional principles, and also principles that are written in the international declarations of human rights. And drug laws are in opposition to these constitutional principles. It comes from the French Revolution. You cannotâ€”in a democratic society, in a democratic state, you cannot punish anyone that’s not affecting rights of the people.
JAY: But the argument would be drug dealers are. Drug dealers sell something that’s poisonous to people and causes [incompr.]
KARAM: But the drug dealers are selling something that other people want to buy, so they have the consent of the other. They are not affecting anything either. And there’s another unconstitutionality in the drug laws that comes from the beginning. You wereâ€”drug laws, these drug laws, violate the principle of equality, because if you produce or you sell alcohol, which is a drug, youâ€”everybody agrees that alcohol is a drugâ€”you can do this legally, and the other person that produces or sells cocaine or marijuana that are as drugs, as alcohol, they are criminals. So you are treating the same activity, the same contact, in a different way. One is legal, the other’s criminal.
JAY: Now, when you let people go, as a judge, you did, I assume, accept the oath to enforce the laws as they were. You know. Did you not suffer some repercussions from this?
KARAM: No. I assumed to guarantee the constitutional principles above all. A judge must only apply a law that is in accordance with these constitutional principles.
JAY: And did the state prosecutor appeal your decisions?
JAY: And what happened?
KARAM: Normally they would change it.
JAY: Normally you’re overturned?
KARAM: Yeah. And I was sent to a family court. And then, later, I passed another examination, because in Brazil we have the courts organizeâ€”there’s no election for judges, and it’s not the government that appoints a judge. The court organizes an examination for lawyers, and then those who pass this examination become judge. And then, when I was sent to a family court, I passed another examination for the federal military court, where I could be a criminal judge again.
JAY: So how do youâ€”.
KARAM: And there, in the military court, you have one judge and four military officers that are not judge, they’re military. It is a military court. And we also released the soldier who had cocaine inside the military unit using this argument that it was unconstitutional, you cannot punish anyone that is doing harm only to himself.
JAY: So, Annie, talk a little bit about what’s going on in Europe. Are there some positive examples? We’ve heard, you know, in the previous interview that Portugal’s doing something. Maybe you can tell us a bit more about that. And are there other models in Europe that kind of prove your point, that something that gets closer to or is actually legalization is effective and doesn’t just wind up in, you know, wider drug use and still have some of the harm?
MACHON: Well, of course, no country in Europe has gone as far as LEAP would propose they should, because there is no legalization yet, because, of course, under the terms of the UN conventions, no country’s allowed to do that. It’s imposed on them from on high. However, Portugal is a very interesting example, because they decided ten years ago to decriminalize all drugs. Now, of course, decriminalization means that the use, the personal use of it, will not criminalize the person using it, but it still allows the drug trade to remain in the hands of organized crime, with all the associated corruption and violence that can bring. So it’s only a real halfway house. It doesn’t answer the key problem of the organized criminals and the terrorists funding themselves from this.
JAY: Well, I mean, just on this one point, on the demand side, the demand go up, down, or not change?
MACHON: Well, there are all sorts of apocalyptic, you know, predictions about what might happen if they decriminalized. You know, there might be a surge in drug use, or there’ll be huge drug tourism from across Europe. None of that has appeared. It’s all failed to materialize. In fact, what they’ve seen is a decline in usage amongst youngsters between the ages of 15 and 24. There has been no drug tourism whatsoever. Drug use has actually become rather uncool, because it’s stigmatized now as a health problem rather than, you know, a bit of a sort of rebellion problem. And so it’s been positive all round. And, of course, by not investigating drug users, by not going after them legally, by not incarcerating them, there’s been a hugeâ€”we call it peace dividend by not fighting this war on drugs so robustly in Portugal. So it frees up money as well.
JAY: But wasn’t there a certain amount of drug tourism in Amsterdam, and didn’t Amsterdam recently even cut back a bit on these hashish cafes and such?
MACHON: Well, the Netherlands, of course, famously allowed the smoking of marijuana in coffee shops from 1976, I think it was. And the usage of cannabis by adults in the Netherlands is about half that of the usage by adults and children in the United States per capita. Yes, there has been some attempt to sort of pull it back a little bit by only allowing Dutch nationals to register and go and use their local coffee shops. So they’re trying to pull back from what they perceive to be a drug tourism problem. But in fact the drug tourism is going down anyway, because Germany, you can smoke marijuana for pleasure if you have a small amount. And, you know, that’s happening in a lot of European countries now. So that was really a policy introduced by what was the Christian Democrat government in the Netherlands. And I think it’s going to be pushed back, because the coffee shop owners and a large part of the Dutch population are concerned about pushing the drug trade back on the street and putting it back in the hands of the criminals again. So that’s been a problem. But I think the most interesting country to look at, in a way, is Switzerland, which in 1994 allowed people to goâ€”if they had a heroin addition, go to a clinic, get their fix. They had to take it at the clinic. And, again, it became an issue that was health rather than, you know, some sort of countercultural thing. And this, again, has produced wonderful results for health, for freeing up police money and things like that. And, in fact, it was just recently re-voted on. And the Swiss were so happy with what was going on with that that they have re-voted for it.
JAY: In a referendum?
MACHON: Yeah. And, in fact, that model is now being looked at and is being rolled out across other European countries. So Denmark’s going to adopt it. Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Norway, they’re all using this sort of legalized shooting gallery to protect those big health problems around the use of heroin, and it’s worked wonderfully.
JAY: So in Brazil or in Latin America, are there any examples, positive examples, of policy that’s working? Other than you.
KARAM: Coming back to this constitutional issue, we have two decisions of supreme courts in Latin Americaâ€”Argentina and Colombiaâ€”that also said that decriminalization of drugs for personal use are unconstitutional. We have now several chiefs of state speaking out against the war on drugsâ€”the presidents of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Colombia. Uruguay now wants to legalize marijuana.
JAY: At the recent OAS meetings, at the recent Organization of American States meetings, I think every leader from Latin America came out against the war on drugs.
KARAM: No. Unfortunately, the Brazilian president didn’t come. Brazil imitates the United States in the bad things that the United States have. The good things they don’t imitate. And so the Brazilian politics, policy on drugs is exactly like the United States. And we have now the fourth-largest prison population in the world. We have more than 500,000 people in prisons in Brazil, and at least 26Â percent are for drug offenses. And among women, 60Â percent of drug offenders.
JAY: And, Annie, you’ve mentioned a couple of times that at the level of the UN and internationally, the pressure against drug reform is coming from the United States. So what is that and how does it work?
MACHON: Well, it’s quite interesting watching the dynamic within the UN, because they will say that the Conventions were decided by the member states, so it came up from the member states, and therefore it’s democratic and they’re not going to change them. And yet the member states will say they can’t shift from the position of prohibition, because the UN conventions have locked them into place. So they’re blaming each other for the current impasse. I have to say, though, I mean, looking at the sort of economic situation globally and the economic woes that we’re all suffering from, it might actually get to a point in the near future where economically we’re just going to have to end the prohibition with the war on drugs, because we cannot sustain the expense. I mean, for example, a study was done in the U.K. whereby even if it was just marijuana that was legalized in the U.K., it would bring in an extra $1.6Â billion per year, so $1.2Â billion if that would be the tax income from a regulated market. But it would also be a large sum of money coming from the stopping of the policing of the drug trade from the whole prison system, and also from the judicial system. So that’s a huge amount of money to come into a country’s economy in one year. And the U.K. can’t afford not to.
JAY: Well, we talked earlier about this, but from the other side. While the public is spending a lot of money on this, a lot of people are making a lot of money on this.
MACHON: Yes, and it’s not just the organized criminals, and it’s not just the terrorists. But, of course, this isâ€”you know, the people who are chiefly benefiting from this war on drugs are the criminals and the terrorists. But there is a great deal of vested interests. I mean, the UN, of course, whole careers have been made working as diplomats there. But no, a lot of money is made and a lot of vested interests from the law enforcement infrastructure, not just the policing, but the whole intelligence and security complex as well.
JAY: Well, thanks for joining us. We’re going to continue this discussion with members of LEAP. So please join us for the next part of our discussion about the war on drugs with members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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