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War On Drugs: Damascene Moment?

The post below first appeared on the Stephen Bentley – Author website.

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This article continues the series of posts about the “war on drugs.” Readers may have to stay patient with me and allow me to develop the arguments incrementally. This is not a book that I am writing, it is a series of articles giving my thoughts springing from the recent publication of my new book Undercover: Operation Julie – The Inside Story.

The first part focused on the Philippines where I now reside. This article will move on to regulation or if you like complete legalisation of drugs which at present are unlawful. I intend to wind up the series by dealing with issues raised in some of the reviews of my book.

After all regulation is derived from  the Latin rēgulātus (past participle of rēgulāre) and its meaning is synonymous with law. Yet, there appears to be a grey area between full blown legalisation and the meaning of regulation in this context. The trouble is that many of the proponents of lifting the current prohibition are not specific. That applies to Neil Woods and his LEAP organisation mentioned below.

Woods seems to believe that his book converted me to a different point of view. Not so, I was advocating full legalisation of drugs back in the 1960s without thinking through my views to their final results. It was a gut instinct to the burgeoning drugs problem. Yet, I confess his repetitive mantra of “bad war” irked me at first because it was a constant uninterrupted theme but with no follow through. Eventually I confess this repetition made me stop and think. But why he didn’t expand on his thoughts in the book is baffling, especially when he told me he is not an author and not interested in selling books. He was implying that the book was simply a platform, a tool to further his political aims.

I have been in email correspondence with Neil and asked him to guide me as to what he means by regulation. He pointed me to his LEAP-UK website and I read this mission statement:

We advocate reform and an evidence based policy with a public health focus including decriminalisation and nuanced regulatory models for all drugs.

I do take issue with the word “nuanced.” What on earth does it mean? It’s wishy-washy claptrap that means nothing and everything to whomever dreamed  up the phrase. That’s not good enough.  People want to know what you stand for and how regulation would work. I also asked him that.

Woods, in a fashion, brushed me aside and told me to look at the blog posts on his website. I did. The next part of this series will take a closer look at what some experts in the field advocate in the context of regulation. I will argue that it will never work in the real world.

You see, I lack the certainty of the Neil Woods of the world. He is on a mission and if he isn’t careful he will be blind to all other carefully considered points of view.

“I believe in intuitions and inspirations…I sometimes FEEL that I am right. I do not KNOW that I am.” ― Albert Einstein

What follows below is my article as originally drafted:

My views are in flux. I have never been a rigid thinker – about anything. Not quite in the same league as a Damascene moment, but almost for me as a former undercover veteran of Operation Julie, one of the world’s largest drug busts, my views are evolving on the “war on drugs.” I read ‘Good Cop Bad War’ by Neil Woods and J.S. Rafaeli, Ebury Press (2016) with interest. I must confess to becoming more open-minded about that author’s apparent crusade to decriminalise the possession of illegal drugs. Before, I was neither for nor against that argument. I always was, and still am open, to all views. Yet, I am now leaning heavily towards the sheer sense in the UK adopting the “Portugal example” of decriminalisation.

There are differences between my new-found stance and the repetitive mantra of “decriminalise” and “follow Portugal’s example” heavily hinted at in the position of Neil Woods, the former undercover cop author of ‘Good Cop Bad War.’  Woods and his Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) organisation are calling for an end to prohibition. That for me, is a step too far. I am unable to imagine how that concept would work in practice. Perhaps Boots the Chemists would commence growing their own ‘skunk’ and advertising it on television? Or Amazon selling an ounce of cocaine online delivered through Prime?

It is almost as if Woods expects people on hearing his message to assemble an Ikea kitchen without the instruction leaflet, difficult enough even with the instructions. There is no plan and as yet no substance to his call to end the “war on drugs,” a war that the BBC claimed was started by Operation Julie in the mid-1970’s.

In the latter case of using Portugal as an example, he may be accused of falling into the same trap many others have stumbled into. Dr. João Goulão, a medical doctor and previously the equivalent of a British GP, headed up the Portuguese drug addiction program. For the past 15 years has seen Portugal “transform from one with a heroin addict on every street corner, to one that can boast having successfully curbed high levels of drug abuse.”

Goulão is aware of the global hype about the Portuguese system of decriminalisation but says, “it’s critical people understand that his country’s successes came not from decriminalization, but from treating drug addiction as a disease rather than a crime.”

This is how decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal really works: firstly, it does not mean drugs are legal. A user caught in possession of drugs in a public place is taken by police to a police station where the drugs are confiscated. There they are weighed and a determination made whether the amount exceeds a certain threshold. If it does, it may indicate the person is a dealer. In that event, the case is ushered into the criminal justice system. If not, the person is instead sent to the Ministry of Health. The doctor added, “Drug use is still prohibited, but you won’t get penalized or sent to jail.”

It is ironic that many commentators conveniently forget that when President Nixon coined the phrase “war on drugs,” that much of his speech focused on rehabilitation of addicts. Great strides have also been made in the UK since those days in improvements to the system of treating drug addicts. It is the case now that many community health care professionals are involved in drug programs.

The criminal courts in Britain have also entered into the arena of rehab through the use of the Drug Testing and Treatment Order (DTTO). These are all welcome measures and indicative of the fact that not all British initiatives surrounding the drugs problem are punitive in nature.

Yet, what lies at the crux of Woods’ argument has failed to be addressed by anyone to date. That is partially the fault of the decriminalisation advocates such as Neil Woods and his Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) organisation. The real issue is this: exactly how would decriminalising drugs, say on the lines of the Portugal model, extinguish the drug cartels?

As Dr. Goulão states, there are still criminal procedures and penalties for drug dealers. There is good reason for that. Many United Nations treaties ensure that member states fall in line with an obligation to establish in domestic law a prohibition; thus explaining why Portugal chose to prohibit use of drugs yet no longer treat such violations as a criminal offence. Instead it concentrated on harm reduction.

There is overwhelming evidence from Portugal that decriminalisation is effective. Another reliable source backs up that evidence even further. Geoffrey Greenwald in a 2009 report amasses a mountain of evidence in support of the Portuguese “experiment” and elaborates on the reasoning behind the approach when he writes:

“The EMCDDA refers to this consensus as GBE:  a global, balanced, evidence-based approach. Portuguese decriminalization was never seen as a concession to the inevitability of drug abuse. … In this formulation, ‘global’ designates an acknowledgment that all aspects of drug policy—prevention and anti-trafficking efforts—require international efforts.  ‘Balanced’ requires a sense of both proportion and a roughly equal emphasis on supply reduction and demand reduction. ‘Evidence-based’ requires that all policy judgments be grounded in data and exclude moral and ideological considerations.”

My interest lay in scanning this report for evidence in relation to drug-trafficking. I found that the level of convictions for drug trafficking offences had fallen commensurately with the convictions for drug possession since 2001. Of course that should not be taken in isolation for a number of reasons. It may be the case that the Portuguese police “lost interest” in investigating organised crime groups (OCG’s) involved in drug trafficking as a result of the new regime. In any event, Portugal is a small country by EU standards and not considered to be a “hub” of drug trafficking activity. Further research is needed in this area.

In this digital age one would have to be a visitor from another planet to be unaware of the spread of the influence of Russian OCG’s over the years. These gangs are active in all forms of racketeering from Moscow to Milan to Miami. Earlier in 2016 the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS) “outcome document” was set to be adopted by UN diplomats until Russia stepped in. According to one source, “They [the Russians] deny evidence that we learned decades ago… They bullied everyone.’ The Russian representatives seemingly got their own way and the original text was altered considerably to suit Moscow’s agenda.

This UN role in influencing the domestic drugs laws of individual nation members is not to be underestimated. Britain’s Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 exists in no small measure to the relevant UN treaties. It strikes me that one valid reason for the UK to adopt the Portugal example of decriminalisation is to deny the opportunity for Russian OCG’s to prey on the vulnerable.

There are more pressing reasons. The influential United Kingdom (UK) Focal Point on Drugs is the national partner of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and provides comprehensive information to the Centre on the drug situation in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The group works closely   with the Home Office, other government departments, law enforcement including the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).

Its 2015 report is truly mind blowing merely from the perspective of the money spent on law enforcement in SOCA’s stated aims of the four ‘P’s’:

  • Pursue – prosecuting and disrupting people engaged in serious and organised crime
  • Prevent – preventing people from engaging in this activity
  • Protect – increasing protection against serious and organised crime
  • Prepare – reducing the impact of this criminality where it takes place

Many of those activities are devoted to investigating OCG’s involved in drug trafficking.

Until the advocates of ending prohibition elaborate upon and intelligently articulate their arguments, I suggest a moratorium on repeating the same old tired mantra. One thing is clear – it’s high time the UK government and the whole country held an informed debate about the decriminalisation of unlawful drugs.

My mind is already made up. UK law enforcement lost two of its best undercover officers because of the pointless “war on drugs.” It has to be ended, but how?

My new book Undercover: Operation Julie – The Inside Story is available on UK Amazon and US Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.


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