War on Drugs 
What Has The U.S. War on Drugs Done?

Amaris Lee reports on IRSOC's panel discussion of America's War on Drugs

"Drugs" sign in shop window. Photo by garyowen via Flickr.

“Drugs” sign in shop window. Photo by garyowen via Flickr.


In Trinity term, the International Relations Society hosted a panel of speakers to broach a topic the Society has never before discussed – the War on Drugs. Bringing together three impressive and diverse speakers, the panel debated the effects of the War on Drugs, and possible alternatives to the status quo of criminalization. Each member of the panel was given a quarter of an hour to make a brief speech outlining their views, following a question and answer section in which they engaged with each other, and the audience.

The first speaker on the panel was Mauricio Rodríguez-Múnera, the Colombian Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The main focus of his speech was to present Columbia’s view of the War on Drugs, which has been shaped by many years of experience on the frontline. “We don’t want other countries to live the tragedy that we lived, and we are still living. We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of citizens. We want this tragedy to stop as soon as possible.” The Ambassador believes that the devastating consequences drugs have had worldwide are exacerbated by the criminalization of drugs. He argued that the current approach “is not working”, instead proposing a new approach to the War – an “open debate based on evidence, led by scientists and experts”, that avoids ideological or politicized arguments. He did concede that this will take time, that many are reluctant to see change, or make innovations, and that there is fear that change may be even worse. Accepting the fact that change will happen gradually, Rodríguez-Múnera contended that too drastic a change would in itself be a problem. The President of Colombia has already begun this incremental approach to change. Having presented what was largely an official view, Mr Rodríguez-Múnera concluded with his personal, rather optimistic, viewpoint: we have reached a crucial turning point and from here, change for the better will happen.

Niamh Eastwood then took over. Eastwood is the Director of Release, an organisation campaigning for a fairer legal framework regarding the treatment of drug usage within the United Kingdom. She pointed out the problems that have arisen from drug policing in society, and in particular, their disproportionate effects on ethnic communities. Of the number of white people caught with cocaine, for example, twenty-five percent are charged and seventy-five percent are cautioned. The statistics are almost reversed, however, for the black community. Moreover, prosecution and criminal records affect the future employment, educational and travelling opportunities of those criminalized for drug-related crimes, exaggerating inequalities within society even further. Release is thus campaigning for decriminalization, a movement supported by many prominent figures in society (such as Richard Branson and Judy Dench). However, the campaign has thus far failed to win government cooperation. Eastwood then presented an impressive array of examples to disprove the argument that changing drug laws will lead to the “sky falling in with people using crack and heroine on the streets”, with examples from across Europe, from Belgium to Portugal to the Czech Republic. In all of these countries, decriminalization has not let to any statistically significant increase in drug use, and in some cases, has led to more positive outcomes. Ms Eastwood ended by conceding that this policy is no panacea – it will not deal with the supply side, nor with other harm linked to the drug trade. There is, however hope – decriminalization has led to a greater appetite to reform “when people realise the sky doesn’t fall”.

The third and last speaker was Dr Neil Carrier, the author of Africa and the War on Drugs. He focused on the West coast of Africa, what he called the “new frontier in the war on drugs”. He pointed out that the perspective people hold on the War on Drugs is often one-dimensional, and that moral panic make ambiguities become certainties, in turn leading to a lack of questioning of the details. This has suppressed alternative ways of looking at the issue of drugs in Africa. For one, the intensity of the problem tends to be exaggerated, as statistics conflate cannabis and other soft drugs with hard drugs, when use of crack and heroine is far below the consumption of these softer drugs. Moreover, drugs have often helped instead of impeded development, as they provide livelihood for farmers, with many switching from growing coffee to growing drugs. Hence he pointed out that the impact on rural development and livelihoods has not been negative, something received wisdom in the War on Drugs hides in the ambiguity surrounding it. Problems that do exist, he argued, are entwined with much deeper and pre-existing problems such as weak government.

The panel thus provided three well informed and very different perspectives on the War on Drugs, allowing members of the audience to better understand the various lines of discourse surrounding this issue.