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U.S. Should Follow Europe’s Lead in Drug-Law Reform
Published on Thursday, January 3, 2001 in the Long Island, NY Newsday
U.S. Should Follow Europe’s Lead in Drug-Law Reform
by Robert Sharpe
 
ONE OF THE MANY challenges facing a post-Taliban coalition government is the corrupting influence of drug trafficking.

Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, the raw material used to make heroin. According to the State Department, both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance have financed their activities by taxing the opium trade. A recent State Department report blames the Afghan drug trade for increased levels of global terrorism and notes that the production of opium "undermines the rule of law by generating large amounts of cash, contributing to regional money-laundering and official corruption."

Paradoxically, Afghanistan's brutal Taliban regime was able to reap obscene profits from the heroin trade because of drug prohibition, not in spite of it. The same lesson, unfortunately, applies here at home.

Just as alcohol prohibition did in the early 1900s, the modern-day drug war subsidizes organized crime. An easily grown weed like marijuana is literally worth its weight in gold in U.S. cities. In Colombia, the various armed factions waging civil war are financially dependent on America's drug war. The illicit trade keeps prices high and a cartel reaps the profits. While U.S. politicians ignore the historical precedent of alcohol prohibition, Europeans are instituting harm reduction, a public health alternative that seeks to minimize the damage associated with both drug use and drug prohibition.

There is a middle ground between drug prohibition and legalization. On the cutting edge of harm reduction, Switzerland's heroin maintenance trials have been shown to reduce drug-related disease, death and crime among chronic addicts. Modeled after U.S. methadone-maintenance programs pioneered here in New York, the trials are being replicated in Germany, Spain and the Netherlands.

In England, where more than 90 percent of heroin comes from Afghanistan, the Association of Chief Police Officers is hoping to break the link between heroin and crime by re-instituting heroin maintenance. The practice of prescribing heroin to addicts was standard in England from the 1920s to the 1960s. In response to U.S. pressure, prescription heroin maintenance was discontinued in 1971. The loss of a controlled distribution system and subsequent creation of an unregulated illicit market led the number of heroin addicts to skyrocket from fewer than 2,000 in 1970 to roughly 50,000 today. England's top cops say that the drug war is part of the problem. A spike in street prices leads desperate heroin addicts to increase criminal activity to feed their habits. The drug war doesn't fight crime; it fuels crime.

Portugal has decriminalized all drug consumption in order to shift scarce resources into treatment. Based on findings that prisons transmit violent habits rather than reduce them, a majority of European Union countries have decriminalized soft drugs like marijuana. Switzerland is now on the verge of taxing and regulating the sale of marijuana to adults. The reason? Something often heard during election years when opportunistic politicians seek to scare up votes: the need to protect children from drugs. Acknowledging the social reality of marijuana use, pragmatic Swiss policymakers argue that taking control of the most popular illicit drug out of the hands of organized crime will reduce exposure to heroin and other hard drugs.

America won't likely tax and regulate the sale of marijuana anytime soon, much less institute heroin maintenance, because politicians here are afraid to appear "soft on crime." But they wind up supporting a $50-billion war on consensual vices that finances organized crime at home and terrorists abroad. According to many drug policy experts, U.S. insistence on the prohibition model is the single biggest obstacle to reducing Afghanistan's reliance on the opium crop as a means of generating hard currency.

This country, founded on the concept of limited government, is using its superpower status to export a dangerous moral crusade around the globe. The vast majority of Afghan-produced heroin is consumed in Europe. If Afghanistan is to rebuild a civil society without the corrupting influence of drug trafficking, the United States needs to adopt a laissez-faire approach to harm reduction in Europe. Universal access to methadone and heroin maintenance in Europe would deprive organized crime of a core client base. This cutback could render heroin trafficking unprofitable, spare future generations the scourge of addiction and undermine the funding of any remnants of the Taliban regime.

Robert Sharpe is a program officer with the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization in Washington.

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.

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