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A Good Neighbor Policy Turned Bad

Last November, when I wrote a column entitled “Are We All On Drugs?” I commented on the failed drug policies that have resulted in the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world and little evidence that our national drug habit is subsiding. That and subsequent columns have attempted to identify some of the unintended consequences of the “war on drugs.”

This month, with some trepidation, I’d like to share some reflections on another one of those unintended consequences. It is unfortunate that those who speak out on the futility and counterproductivity of our present drug policies are sometimes accused of coddling drug dealers and promoting drug use by children. I hope my thoughts on the “foreign policy” component of those policies will not be condemned as “unpatriotic.”

Not the first time

A note from history: the drug wars of this century are not the first. In the nineteenth century, Chinese green tea, silk and porcelain became popular among Europeans and Americans. The British East India Company developed a third-party trade exchanging British-made goods in India and southeast Asia for cotton and opium, welcomed in China as currency in spite of the Imperial Chinese prohibition on opium. During the early 1800s, opium addiction reached epidemic proportions in China, even afflicting the upper command of the Imperial Army, despite the enactment of drastic laws against the opium trade.

Here are a few sad parts of a remarkable “Letter of Advice to Queen Victoria” written by the Chinese Imperial Commissioner in Canton, Lin Zexu, in 1839:

“Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly your honorable ruler would deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused. . . . We have also heard that the ships coming to Canton have all had regulations promulgated and given to them in which it is stated that it is not permitted to carry contraband goods. This indicates that the administrative orders of your honorable rule have been originally strict and clear.

...Anyone who dares again attempt to plant and manufacture opium should be severely punished. . . . Now we have set up regulations governing the Chinese people. He who sells opium shall receive the death penalty and he who smokes it also the death penalty. . . . The fact is that the wicked barbarians beguile the Chinese people into a death trap. How then can we grant life only to these barbarians? . . . Therefore in the new regulations, in regard to those barbarians who bring opium to China, the penalty is fixed at decapitation or strangulation. This is what is called getting rid of a harmful thing on behalf of mankind.”

When the British persisted in bringing in their opium, Lin Zexu ordered some 2.5 million pounds to be seized and destroyed and detained the entire foreign community. In what became known as “the Opium Wars,” the British retaliated by sending warships, defeating the unprepared Chinese, and forcing them to sign the first of what the Chinese dubbed the “unequal treaties” that ceded Hong Kong, gave England “most-favored-nation” status, exempted British nationals from Chinese law, and forced China to pay reparations. Illegal drugs continue to be international commodities. The United Nations estimates the annual traffic to have a value of $400 billion, or roughly 8% of all international trade. In June 1998, leaders from around the world wrote an open letter to U.N. Secretary General Annan. The full text and names of the dignitaries who signed it can be found at www.csdp.org/ edcs/figure25.htm. Some excerpts:

“We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself.

Every decade the United Nations adopts new international conventions, focused largely on criminalization and punishment, that restrict the ability of individual nations to devise effective solutions to local drug problems. Every year governments enact more punitive and costly drug control measures. Every day politicians endorse harsher new drug war strategies.

What is the result? . . . This industry has empowered organized criminals, corrupted governments at all levels, eroded internal security, stimulated violence, and distorted both economic markets and moral values. These are the consequences not of drug use per se, but of decades of failed and futile drug war policies.

Persisting in our current policies will only result in more drug abuse, more empowerment of drug markets and criminals, and more disease and suffering. . . . Mr. Secretary General, we appeal to you to initiate a truly open and honest dialogue regarding the future of global drug control policies—one in which fear, prejudice and punitive prohibitions yield to common sense, science, public health and human rights.”

Present day issues

The President’s Office of National Drug Control policy has repeatedly said that the most effective strategy to reduce the harm of drugs is to reduce demand by putting resources into education and drug addiction treatment. That truism has been ignored in practice.

On the international front, perhaps the most tragic examples of our pursuit of flawed drug control policies involves Colombia, where a long and bitter civil war has put both left wing guerillas and right wing paramilitaries (and probably high government officials as well) into the coca trade. Colombia is now the third ranking recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel and Egypt. Critics of our $1.3 billion “Plan Colombia” have compared it to the Vietnam War so often that the U.S. State Department issued a bulletin, “Why Colombia Is Not the ‘Next Vietnam.’”

Can we stop drug abuse and addiction in the U.S. by defoliating Colombia? Is Plan Colombia likely to succeed? At what cost to U.S. taxpayers? At what cost to Colombian peasants? Is it a moral policy? Are there better alternatives?

Educate yourself. Start with our government’s explanations and justifications for Plan Colombia. Use your critical thinking skills to test the underlying facts and assumptions. Then share your thoughts with your U.S. Senators and your representative in Congress.

Fred Noland is the 2000-2001 President of the King County Bar Association and a partner with MacDonald, Hoague & Bayless.



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