Thursday, December 13, 2012

The road to nowhere

A good read from the always engaging Richard Branson, this time on the senseless "war on drugs." Hope I live long enough to see us shake off that grand bit of foolishness, but I'm not counting on it.
I come from British Columbia, a land where the marijuana grows so abundantly and well that the veteran growers driving that $6-billion-industry would be winning agricultural awards and international acclaim for their products were it any other crop.  Now I live in Honduras, a country situated halfway between the world’s largest cocaine producer and the world’s largest market for cocaine.
Could there be two better examples of the utter failure of the war on drugs? We've been hard at it for more than 40 years now, and the result of all that effort is that more people than ever are using drugs, selling drugs, going to jail for drugs,  getting killed over drugs, and making a living from drugs.  Yeah, that’s a job well done.
Global leaders look at the world through an economic perspective all the time, which is why it baffles me that they can’t seem to get their head around the illegal-drug industry. It follows the same guiding principles that govern the free market: Find a niche, serve it well and stay ahead of the competition, and you just might make a lot of money.
It’s possible to shift people’s thinking, of course. Consider the dwindling number of cigarette smokers over the last four decades in countries that have relentlessly campaigned against smoking.
But that’s a different thing entirely than prohibition, which is how we've managed “bad” drugs like cocaine, heroin and marijuana all these years. History has proved prohibition a failure as a strategy, and now we've proven it again. Yet here we are, still treading water while a rising tide lifts an industry grown so large that I fear no government will ever actually control it now.
I went to one of the hotel pools a couple of months ago and found myself in the middle of a big wedding in the adjacent reception area. It was a different looking crowd than I've seen at most Copan events – better clothes, higher heels, little girls looking like cotton candy in their pink dresses, hair bows, teeny-tiny purses and matching dolls.
 I remarked to the manager the next week that a striking number of the male guests seemed to have very big guns in their belts. “That’s because they’re narco-traficantes,” he told me matter-of-factly. “But they’re nice ones. We don’t have the bad kind like they have in Mexico.”
I wouldn’t know about the Mexicans. But the point the fellow brings up about nice-guy narco-traficantes is a good one.
We’re still conjuring bogeymen when we think about drug trafficking. But in fact the industry is fully integrated with “regular” society. The children of people in the illegal-drug trade go to school with your children. They shop at the same stores you do, and in all likelihood worry about the same kinds of things that worry us all over the course of a lifetime.
 Whether it’s Honduras with its vast cocaine distribution network or B.C. with its marijuana cultivation, the truth is that people working in the illegal-drug industry look and act a lot like the rest of us. For the most part, they don’t stand out in a crowd. I suppose some of them could be pure evil, but I’d bet that a lot of them just drifted into their jobs the same way that many of us do.
I don’t know if there was ever a time when we could have regulated this industry; it’s hard to control a market for things that give pleasure. But we certainly can't get there by sticking with prohibition.
You could probably make an “if only...” argument as to what we could have done to reduce drug consumption if we’d had a workable plan around that goal. You can change people’s behaviours if you work at it long enough with just the right strategies.
But it’s way too late for that now.
There’s nothing “burgeoning” about the illegal-drug industry anymore. When we inevitably get around to regulating an industry that we’ve been trying to deny since the 1970s, the regulators will be up against well-developed markets, huge investments, major transportation infrastructure and products that are completely beyond their control.
People, there’s no war anymore. The “bad” guys won. We played this hand so poorly that all we can do at this point is to hang our heads for all the wasted years and then find ways to tax what we can, decrease the violence in the industry, and give the public (especially young people) enough honest information about drugs that they can make informed decisions.
A global illegal-drug industry is what happens when countries with lots of money and guilt over pleasurable activities encounter impoverished tropical countries full of poor people desperate to make a living. You have to know how a story like that is going to end.  Time to get real.

No comments: