Select Committee on Home Affairs Memoranda


Submitted by Sir Keith Morris

  1.  My conviction that legalisation of drugs is the only way to limit the harm that drugs can do stems from my experience as a participant in the drugs war in Colombia from 1990-94 and my observation of developments since. I have been witness to the costly failure of prohibition and have finally been driven to the conclusion that policies, which I implemented and in which I believed, were doomed to failure because they came from an era, which has passed.

  2.  Intense international collaboration with Colombia started in 1989 when the Colombian state came under direct attack from the Medellin drug cartel headed by the infamous Pablo Escobar. Escobar's aim was to force the government to stop the extradition of Colombians to the US, a policy that the US believed was essential given the difficulty of bringing traffickers of the power and ruthlessness of Escobar to justice in Colombia itself. The Europeans, with the UK to the fore, joined the US in providing training and equipment to help the Colombians both to resist Escobar and reduce the cocaine supply. We also committed ourselves to control the flow of precursor chemicals to the region, to tackle money laundering and to reduce demand in our domestic markets. This was a new departure and we believed we could succeed.

  3.  It took until the end of 1993 to kill Escobar and dismantle the Medellin cartel. The cost had been thousands of lives, three presidential candidates, two justice ministers, many judges, soldiers, policemen and countless civilian victims of his indiscriminate bombing attacks. Yet the supply of cocaine had not been affected. The Cali cartel had simply replaced Medellin as number one and heroin production had started. And a constitutional convention in 1991 had prohibited extradition. When I left Colombia in late 1994 I could see that victory would require a much bigger effort on the part of the consumer countries to deliver our side of the deal.

  4.  The fight against Escobar had attracted most resources and attention while he was alive but the internal conflict that drugs was fuelling was much wider. Colombia had had a communist insurgency since the mid-60s. These groups were supported by the Soviet Union, Cuba and China. They had limited public support and did not pose a real threat to the state. If the Colombian state had not been traditionally very limited in its power, due both to constitutional restraints and chronic shortage of cash, the insurgency could probably have been dealt with fairly quickly. But Colombia was nevertheless growing steadily and poverty was being reduced markedly. In my view it is probable that but for drugs all the guerrilla groups would have reached a negotiated settlement when communist support ended as happened in Central America. Several groups did do so and took part in writing Colombia's very democratic new constitution in 1991. But the strongest group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), had struck lucky. They were strong in the jungles of Colombia's southeast just where the traffickers needed to put their labs and grow their coca. They charged them protection money and rapidly grew on the proceeds. The smaller Army of National Liberation (ELN) had found a way of extorting money from the contractors building oil pipelines in the northeast. To complicate matters further the drug traffickers had taken over paramilitary units originally formed by the Army and were using them to defend their newly acquired ranches from the FARC and ELN. These groups were declared illegal by the government but allied together as the Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

  5.  This conflict worsened after 1994 due in large part, I fear, to US policies. President Samper (1994-98) was accused of having used Cali cartel money for his election. The US told him he would be judged on his anti-narcotics performance. Within a year the Cali cartel had been put out of business. But when members of his campaign under investigation tried to implicate the President the US upped the ante. They called for more military operations and tougher legislation, even the reintroduction of extradition. They slapped on sanctions under their certification system for drug producing countries, contrasting in their announcement their lack of confidence in Samper with praise for the Colombian police. When Congress voted against Samper's impeachment they withdrew his US visa. US aims were achieved because Samper delivered on the legislation. But the cocaine flow continued and coca production shot up from 1995 to make up for falling supplies from Peru and Bolivia.

  6.  The cost was great. The Armed Forces were demoralized by the open contempt of US officials for their C-in-C. Defeats by the FARC when they ventured into the jungle on US planned missions lowered morale more. The FARC and ELN were jubilant. The former in particular grew fast as drugs income increased from coca production. They refused to talk peace with a president even the US said was corrupt. The AUC grew even faster than the FARC as many farmers turned to them for protection against the guerrillas. Investors were discouraged by US sanctions. Growth fell and the public sector deficit soared as Samper spent to retain political support for himself and for the unpopular US backed legislation. In 1998 he left his successor Pastrana with the economy moving into recession for the first time in 70 years.

  7.  By late 1997 the US Congress and then the administration realized that they had allowed drugs concerns to dominate US policy. The effect had been to destabilize the country and gravely weaken the Colombian state, making it vulnerable to a communist takeover. Policy went into reverse and Pastrana received full US backing with the $1.3 billion Plan Colombia, aimed at both increasing the Armed Forces capacity to reduce coca production and strengthening the state. Unfortunately it came late. Pastrana adopted an ambitious twin-track strategy of talking peace with the FARC and building up the Armed Forces. Both required extra spending but he had to cut spending to restore confidence in a country hit by recession and a rising deficit. As a result recovery has been slow, unemployment has remained around 20 per cent and emigration has soared. The Armed Forces have improved but not enough to prevent the guerrillas and the AUC from increasing attacks on small towns and kidnapping even more people. Public support for the peace process has plummeted. And the production of coca and cocaine continues to grow.

  8.  The Colombian conflict is particularly intense but it is just one of many fuelled by the drugs trade in producer, entrepot and even consumer countries across the globe. Terrorist groups from the FARC, ELN, AUC and Sendero Luminoso to bin Laden's Al-Qaeda and the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries have all benefited from the extraordinary profitability of the trade. So too have repressive regimes like the Taliban and Myanmar.

  9.  The supply of drugs will continue whatever the efforts as long as the traffickers can obtain the necessary chemicals, launder their money and have a market. Despite intense international cooperation and the best of intentions we have not been able to make a real impact on any of these.

  10.  Demand is clearly the key. I simply do not see any hope of reducing it significantly. Many now regard recreational drug use as normal. Prohibition worked in the 1950s when I was young because hardly anyone even thought of using drugs other than alcohol and tobacco, which were taken enthusiastically. But there has been immense social change since with either the law or social attitudes liberalized on homosexuality, abortion, extra marital sex, drinking, gambling, broadcasting, Sunday trading, you name it. Personal choice is the credo. On everything except drugs where the law has been made even tighter. In this climate prohibition not only does not work but it does great damage. Users are at risk from impure drugs, millions of law-abiding people break the law just because they use drugs occasionally, addicts are pushed into crime to feed their habit and the rest of society suffers intolerable levels of crime as a result.

  11.  I must leave detailed proposals about legalisation to those with greater knowledge. But it strikes me that if appropriate regimes were established pragmatically for each drug, with product testing and taxation used for increased research, education and treatment, the harm drugs now do could be greatly reduced. Of course it would not be easy. There would be a black market and the defenders of prohibition are probably right in saying that it would encourage greater use and hence addiction. But I do wonder whether those psychologically likely to become addicts are often put off by current laws. And they would be looked after as normal members of society with a health problem.

  12.  The benefits would be immense both to consumer-less drug deaths, less crime- and producer countries- less conflict and corruption. We would have to convince our American friends who were the architects of the present system. But as prohibition is a major source of terrorist funds they may now look at it differently. And no consumer country would benefit more. More young black Americans are in jail than in higher education.

September 2001

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