Former Independent columnist Johann Hari is back in the limelight with an explosive New York Times bestseller, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.”
Its release coincides with the centenary of U.S. prohibition and is told through the stories of the people whose lives it has most affected. Critically praised, the book has been endorsed by everyone from Elton John to Noam Chomsky.
As part of his three-year, trans-continental journey, Hari visited Juárez in Mexico, regarded at the time as the most dangerous city in the world. He spoke to a teenage assassin, a heroic protester in an angel costume and relatives of a social activist murdered by the Zetas cartel.
Yet beyond the individual tragedies, Hari was most shocked by the collective misery inflicted by Washington policymakers.
“The first thing that shocked me is that this is not something that Mexico has in any way chosen,” Hari told Latin Correspondent.
“If you look at the story of when the drug war begins, Mexico had a very good drug policy early in the twentieth century. The drug policy was run by a doctor, Leopardo Salazar Viniegra, who said that marijuana isn’t really the problem and we shouldn’t criminalize it and addicts should be treated with compassion. A pretty good policy. It would actually be pretty advanced today.”
Yet external pressure backed Mexico’s government into a corner.
“The reason why that policy changed is the U.S. government ordered the Mexicans to fire this guy. When Mexico refused, Harry Anslinger, the founder of the modern War on Drugs and the most influential head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the United States, ordered the supply of legal opiates to Mexico, which were used for pain relief in hospitals, to be cut off. So basically, Mexicans started to die in agony in hospitals because they didn’t have basic pain relief. At that point the Mexican government gave in. You see this pattern of intimidation running all the way through the imposition of the war on drugs in Mexico.”
The effect of this imposition is demonstrated by the staggering statistics. Ninety percent of the cocaine used in the United States passes through Mexico every year. Drug cartels make an annual profit of between $19 and $29 billion from U.S. drug sales alone. More than 100,000 lives have been lost in the drug war since 2007.
Legalization is the solution
Hari’s answer to these figures is to legalize drugs. Marijuana would be sold in the same way as in the U.S. states of Colorado, Washington and Alaska, where it is treated much like alcohol. Harder drugs like heroin would be regulated as they are in Switzerland, where addicts are prescribed their drug by a doctor, while having access to programs to help stop them using.
Looking at multiple drug liberalization experiments from around the world, Hari predicts that murder rates would fall, drug gangs would be financially crippled, overdoses and HIV rates would decline, millions of people who are currently imprisoned for non-violent offenses would walk free and addiction related-crimes like prostitution and robbery would plummet. What’s more, reform would save U.S. taxpayers an estimated $87.8 billion each year.
“That’s not how capitalism works”
Ed Vulliamy gave the book a glowing review in the Guardian but expressed reservations about worldwide legalization. His doubt is that legal drug manufacturers would target the developing world and that addiction might soar in areas of abject poverty.
Legalization “would no doubt suit places such as Vancouver, New York or Liverpool. But how would it work in wretched barrios around the cities of central and South America, townships of Africa and eventually dormitory towns of China and Bangladesh?” Vulliamy asks. “If hard drugs are legal, who is going to make them? Presumably the experts who already do, working not for narco syndicates but Big Pharma, another kind of cartel. And do we really trust Big Pharma to manufacture methamphetamine and process crack or heroin in order to sell as little as possible in the developing world? That’s not how Big Pharma works; that’s not how capitalism works.”
Vulliamy draws his conclusions from the behavior of tobacco corporations. Faced with declining sales in the West, cigarette giants have made up the difference by aggressively targeting the world’s poor. In developing nations, tobacco consumption continues to rise at a rate of around 3.4 percent per year.
Hari acknowledges that there are legitimate concerns, but stands firmly by his thesis.
“Firstly, I have yet to go to a poor place in the world where drugs could be more available. Whether it’s the South Bronx, Juárez or Kinshasa. These are places where drugs are ubiquitous. There is no one in these places who wants to use drugs and cannot get them.”
As for tobacco firms, Hari recognizes that they are “still promoting smoking in grotesque ways in poor countries.”
Yet it is only through legalization, he says, that we have the possibility to confront them, and the same would hold for drug manufacturers.
“We can criminally prosecute them, we can make it illegal for them to be based in our countries or operate in our countries. These things can be dealt with. The idea that we have to keep a drug war that kills millions of people in place and leave drugs in the hands of the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas, the Crips and the Bloods to prevent that from happening is simply a fallacy. There are much simpler policies that don’t involve killing millions of people.”
Mexico needs a “return to sanity”
Another concern is how cartels would react to the threat to their profits. Legalization could trigger a rise in kidnappings, extortions and other crimes. Cartels like the Zetas already draw about half of their revenue from non-drug related activities. Yet Hari looks to history to argue that legalization is unlikely to trigger a crime wave.
“With alcohol prohibition, where are the violent alcohol dealers today? The drinks aisle at Wal-Mart doesn’t go and blow up the local liquor store. That’s not because anything has changed about alcohol, it’s because the legal framework has changed.”
Under the current system, Hari adds, the Mexican government is left with very few options.
“If you’re the President and you’re looking at northern Mexico, effectively, you’re out-gunned, you’re outspent. It’s like saying what could the Mayor of Chicago do in 1925 to deal with the alcohol-related gangs? Well, argue for the end of prohibition is pretty much the only thing.”
Hari argues that President Enrique Peña Nieto should make legalization the single biggest diplomatic issue for Mexico to take to the world.
“David Simon, the great writer, said the United States is prepared to fight the drug war to the last Mexican. I think that’s true. I would say that President Enrique Peña Nieto, and every Mexican should be saying, ‘we won’t be sacrificed for a war that has never worked, can never work and will never work, we insist on a return to sanity.’”