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Winding down the war on drugs: Towards a ceasefire


FROM the Colorado state capitol in Denver, head south on Broadway, one of the city’s main arteries, and before long you find yourself in “Broadsterdam”, a cluster of dispensaries with names like Ganja Gourmet and Evergreen Apothecary. They peddle dozens of strains of pot, as well as snacks, infusions and paraphernalia, to any state resident bearing a “red card”: proof of a doctor’s recommendation.

Landlords in the area were struggling, says William Breathes (a pseudonym), whose reviews for a local paper make him, he says, America’s first mainstream pot critic. But when Colorado began to regulate the sale of marijuana for medical use in 2010, they saw an opportunity.

Broadsterdam of 2013, and many places like it in America and Europe, would have been unimaginable in New York in 1961, when diplomats hammered out the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which aimed to counter the “serious evil” of addiction. That treaty, with 184 countries signed up, underpins the prohibition policy of the past half century. Though an international debate on legalisation has barely started, experiments are already showing how the production and consumption of drugs could be regulated.

Change is coming because the “war on drugs” is being convincingly won by drugs, and the powerful criminal gangs who deal in them. Since 1998, when the UN held an event entitled “A drug-free world: we can do it”, consumption of cannabis (marijuana) and cocaine has risen by about 50%; for opiates, it has more than trebled. And a swelling pharmacopoeia of synthetic highs is spinning heads in dizzying new ways. The UN reckons that 230m people used illegal drugs in 2010. They and their suppliers (usually the humblest ones) fill prisons in rich and poor countries alike. Drug convictions account for almost half of American prisoners in federal jails.

Burned at both ends

If efforts to stem demand have been futile, trying to control supply has been disastrous. The illegal-drug industry’s revenues are some $300 billion a year, according to the very roughest of guesses by the UN, and flow untaxed into criminal hands. Drug-running mafias corrupt and destroy the places where they operate. Of the world’s eight most murderous countries, seven lie on the cocaine-trafficking route from the Andes to the United States and Europe. Only war zones are more violent than Honduras. More than 7,000 of its 8m citizens are murdered each year. In the European Union, with a 500m…

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