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Home » International, Westminster

Thinking outside the box on changes to drug legislation

Submitted by on 16 Nov 2010 – 10:52

By Baroness Tonge

Baroness Jenny Tonge. Photo: Annie Mole.

About ten years ago I visited Colombia with two other MPs under the auspices of Christian Aid. The object of the visit was to see some of the problems faced by the poorest farmers in Colombia, in their battles with groups linked to the drug cartels in South America.  And we saw problems all right.

We travelled up river from Turbo on the Caribbean coast and after hours of pushing and pulling the boat along the silted up river, we arrived at a village where Peace Brigades International had re-established people, who had been living in slums outside Turbo. A deal had been done with the ELN (National Liberation Army, similar to the FARC) to allow them to be subsistence farmers, in return for having no arms and not interfering with the activities of the drug barons.

Unfortunately for the village, a week before we arrived, one of the village men had been accused of carrying arms and had been tortured for a week in front of the villagers and then the children had been forced to play a football match with his severed head. All pretty common stuff in Colombia at that time.

Coca production in Colombia creates such horrors and our smart young things in the city enjoy their snorts of cocaine in the lunch hour. I have often wished those same young things could have been forced to live in the villages of Colombia and see how their ‘pleasure’ was produced.

Colombia is ‘better’ now. The USA and EU have helped Colombia to try to eradicate the coca crop and FARC/ELN, but the problem has just shifted. Now Mexico is the misery centre of the drugs trade in South America. Similar happenings occur in the opium growing regions of the world, (Afghanistan is one) and we in the West go on creating the demand in illegal drugs.

World wide the illegal drugs trade is around $315 billion per annum—1% of world GDP, the same amount roughly as the trade generated by the top 100 arms producing countries of the world. It is all illegal and nobody collects any taxes. The tax is human misery.

The human misery in this country costs around £16 billion per annum, in crime, police activity, and treating addicts. It is a wicked waste of resources and destroys whole neighbourhoods up and down the UK. Prohibition is the cause of the problem, not addiction.

Now someone as wise as Sir Ian Gilmore, outgoing President of the Royal College of Physicians, has repeated what many of us have been saying for ages. Drug addiction, particularly heroin addiction is an illness and should be treated as such. Alcoholism, likewise, is an illness and is treated as such, so is tobacco addiction. All drugs should be treated in the same way; or at the very least we should set up a Commission to look honestly at all options, for ALL drugs including alcohol and tobacco.

The LibDems have been calling for such a commission for several years.

The Coalition Government is doing all sorts of things which were not in either party’s manifesto so why not this one? It could transform our country, save huge amounts of money and set an example to the rest of the world.

I was never involved in hard drugs at university. I have never even smoked a joint! Alcohol and tobacco were our poison, and some fellow students became addicts of one or the other or both. We saw heroin addicts as patients, on occasion. We now have leaders who are of the drug generation and probably see them in a totally different way.

Will they be brave enough to tackle this one by thinking outside the box for once? I doubt it.