Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten submitted by Sir Keith Morris (DP113)

I had the privilege of giving evidence on 11 December 2001 to your Committee on the then government’s drug policy. I also submitted written evidence (Memorandum 41).1 I argued that the war on drugs, of which I had been a keen supporter in my time as British Ambassador from 1990 to1994, had failed at great costs to producer, transit and consumer countries and that a regulated, legal drugs regime should be adopted. I have reread my evidence and see no reason to change it. I also believe that events over the intervening ten years have reinforced the case for a serious consideration of “alternative ways—including the possibility of legalisation and regulation—to tackle the global drugs dilemma” as recommended by your predecessors in 2002.

I had taken a public position in this sense in the Guardian of 4 July 2001. Four days later in the Sunday Times Melanie Phillips grouped me with Mo Mowlem, Peter Lilley and the Daily Telegraph, who had called for cannabis to be legalised, and a TV series that thought heroin should be. “Without exception these arguments are intellectually dishonest, disingenuous or terrifyingly irresponsible.” I regarded that as a battle honour. The same week General Sir David (now Lord) Ramsbotham, then the Inspector General of Prisons, told a BBC programme that he had also concluded that drugs should be legalised. His reasons were the same as mine: a well intentioned regime had led to disastrous consequences.

Privately I received encouragement from ministers and senior officials in the British and Colombian Governments. Nine out of 10 of the people with whom I discussed it were in agreement, often expressing impatience that I had taken so long to get there. When I gave evidence to the Select Committee I was questioned sympathetically. The committee’s recommendation quoted above increased my hope that a serious reassessment of current policies might not be long delayed. I was wrong. There has been no change of policy and the costs have continued to rise.

In my evidence in 2001 I argued, as had wiser people than me before—Milton Friedman and The Economist—that prohibition made products very cheap to produce extremely profitable and that as long as there was demand someone would have an incentive to supply it. My experience in Colombia from 1990 to 1994 had shown me that the profits were so great that they gave organized crime the means and the will to take on the State as Pablo Escobar did at the head of the Medellin cartel from 1989–93. In Colombia the cocaine trade also made it possible for the FARC guerrilla group to carry on its insurgency after the end of the Soviet Union while similar groups in Central America made peace in 1992 when support was cut off. Indeed, although with strong US support- UK role was not insignificant- the Colombians killed Escobar in 1993 and broke the Cali cartel, Escobar’s rival, in 1995, it was the FARC and the AUC, right-wing paramilitaries formed to fight the FARC, who mainly benefitted from the trade which continued to grow until the early 2000s. The imposition of US sanctions to persuade President Samper (1994–98) to reintroduce extradition and crack down even harder on the trade had been counterproductive. It was this gloomy situation that I described in Memorandum 41.

I had looked at the situation after retirement. The international community had made an unwritten compact with the Colombians. (1) We would provide training and kit to help them stop production in Colombia. (2) We would stop the supply of precursor chemicals. (3) We would crack down on money laundering. (4) We would reduce demand. My reading was that we had done well on (1). We had made big efforts on (2) and (3) but had fallen far short, particularly on money laundering. On demand we had made no progress and I could see no way that in our modern consumer societies government could really affect the outcome. As long as demand held up the war on drugs would be unwinnable- it would just keep the trade profitable.

The costs of the war on drugs have continued to rise in the last ten years. Progress has been made in Colombia which risked becoming a failed state in 2002. Increased US aid- Plan Colombia- and an extraordinarily determined president—Alvaro Uribe 2002–10—backed by a public tired of the menace of illegal armed groups of left and right, has brought about a remarkable recovery in public order and the economy. But it has been an uphill struggle because although the drugs trade has been reduced it still remains large and profitable. And as in all counter-insurgency campaigns there have been abuses.

Relative success in reducing cocaine from Colombia has meant some increase in production in Peru and Bolivia. But much more dramatic has been the surge in violence on the transit routes to the US. The Medellin and Cali cartels controlled distribution inside the US. When they were eliminated the Mexican cartels, which had been paid to transport the cocaine to the US by the Colombians, seized the business there and became immensely strong. President Calderon’s decision in 2006 to bring in the Army to take them on has led to an escalation in violence with 8,000 deaths a year linked to the drugs war, some in clashes between Army and traffickers but more between the cartels as competition intensified. Less well reported has been the rise of violence in Central America which the Mexican cartels have used increasingly to smuggle cocaine as Mexico itself has become more difficult. Honduras now has the highest homicide rate in the world. Guatemala and El Salvador are not far behind. These are all relatively weak states where drug financed organized crime can intimidate and corrupt institutions.

The Caribbean, which suffered as the main route from Colombia to the US in the early days, has seen traffic to Europe replace the declining American trade. Venezuela too has become a very important route to Europe. Although there are other factors involved drugs related violence is a big contributor to the tripling of homicide in Venezuela in the 13 years of Hugo Chavez’s presidency. Brazil too has been afflicted the transit trade to Europe as well as many of the favelas around its big cities falling under the control of gangs of dealers. Much of the trade to Europe now goes through West Africa, making weak states like Guinea Bissau vulnerable to Latin American cartels.

From the British point of view the saddest part of this story in last ten years has been Afghanistan where HMG took the lead in counter-narcotics. Our main achievement seems to have been stopping the US importing its aerial spraying from Colombia. I am no expert but became involved briefly when the Senlis Council asked me to fix a meeting with the Minister in the FCO responsible for Afghanistan. They had been studying on the ground in Helmand and Kandahar the possibility of producing licit opium and turning it in the villages into morphine and codeine for export. They wanted to warn HMG of the dangers of deploying 3,000 troops to Helmand where most opium was grown. If this was part of a counter-narcotics operation it would push the population into the arms of the Taliban. The Minister at the last moment decided it would not be politic to see Norine Macdonald of the Senlis Council but did let me make the case. I told him in terms that the British public was largely unaware that 3,000 troops ere going to Helmand and had no idea of the implications they would be shocked when casualties followed. It would be very much in HMG’s interest to talk to the Senlis Council who had been in Helmand for two years already and knew the problems we would face.

There does not seem to have been serious thought given to how consolidation of the Afghan government’s authority could be combined with tackling the biggest concentration of opium growing in the world. It is deeply sad that a British heroin addict who steals to buy his dose is helping to finance arms for the Taliban to kill British soldiers.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy is an excellent starting point to what should now be a serious debate on alternatives to a regime which had clearly failed ten years ago and has done so even more spectacularly since. The call by President Santos of Colombia for such a debate is of great weight. Colombia has paid the highest price for the “War on Drugs.” President Santos has exceptional experience of it as Minister of Foreign Trade (1991–94), Minister of Finance (2000–02), Minister of Defence (2006–09) and President since August 2010. Given Colombian sacrifices it required great courage to speak out.

It is surely time to end the one size fits all approach. To allow countries to experiment. To use the UN conventions to police a licit trade between countries which decide to replace the present market in the hands of criminals with one controlled by states.

January 2012

1 www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200102/cmselect/cmhaff/318/318m57.htm

Prepared 8th December 2012