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March 14, 2008 - Times of India (India)

Column: If Drugs Were Legal, Scarlett Might Be Alive

By Jug Suraiya

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

If drugs were not banned, would Scarlett Keeling, the British teenager who was raped and murdered in Goa, be alive today? Perhaps.

It was not drugs that killed Scarlett; it was the criminalisation of drugs that led to her death and to the subsequent cover-up attempt by the local police who allegedly are in collaboration with the drug mafias, mainly from Russia and Israel, who have reportedly set up operations in the state.

Scarlett's murder raises a question often asked by libertarians: Does the prohibition of certain substances (tobacco, liquor, drugs) do more harm than good? In the case of liquor, the experience with prohibition worldwide, from the US to Stalinist Russia, has been emphatically negative.

Indeed, the growth of the mafia in the US has been traced to prohibition. In India, sporadic or piecemeal attempts at prohibition in various parts of the country have led to organised bootlegging, rampant corruption, gang wars and liquor deaths caused by toxic moonshine.

There is medical evidence to suggest that both tobacco and liquor have more long-term deleterious effects on health than most if not all drugs (nicotine, one of the most poisonous substances known, is said to be several times more addictive than heroin).

Despite this, drugs are almost universally banned -- and equally universally used -- while liquor and tobacco are, more or less, freely available in many if not most parts of the world.

Thanks to largely unchallenged convention, liquor and cigarettes are both seen by legislators and by society in general as 'less immoral' than drugs. (Though in the Indic tradition, drugs like charas are routinely used by sadhus and tantriks, and bhang is a staple of Holi.)

A 'dope fiend' or a 'crack head' is deemed to be a greater threat both to himself and to others than an alcoholic or a chain-smoker. This is mainly because using or dealing in drugs is seen to be a criminal act, while using or dealing in liquor or tobacco is not.

Drugs, by themselves, may well be less harmful, addictive or life-threatening than either liquor or tobacco (marijuana, for example, has proven medical benefits, including that of giving pain relief to cancer patients); what is harmful and life-threatening is the criminalisation of drugs through their proscription.

The legitimisation of drugs is not a moral issue; it is an economic issue. There is just too much money to be made in drugs -- by drug lords, dealers, pushers and corrupt law enforcement officials -- for the trade ever to be legalised, thereby bringing down prices hugely and putting paid to corruption.

In the End of Faith, Sam Harris notes that the UN has estimated the international drug trade at $400 billion a year, a sum larger than the US defence budget and which constitutes 8 per cent of all global trade (textiles account for 7.5 per cent and automobiles for 5.3 per cent).

"The total cost of our (US) drug laws could easily be in excess of $100 billion each year. Our war on drugs consumes an estimated 50 per cent of the trial time of our courts and the full-time energies of over 4,00,000 police officers. These are resources that might otherwise be used to fight violent crime and terrorism."

Harris concludes that it is prohibition itself which has made the drug business so lucrative, with profit margins ranging from 5,000 per cent to 20,000 per cent, and thereby impossible to eradicate.

Forget morality or public health issues. The real reason that drugs can never be legitimised is purely economic. Just too many people -- in Goa and elsewhere -- are making too much money thanks to the ban.

By driving drugs underground so that their dealership is in the hands of criminals rather than legitimate, and accountable, entrepreneurs, prohibition increases the risk factor, not just for drug users but also for the community as a whole which faces the consequences of organised crime networks, on the one hand, and a corrupt 'enforcement' machinery, on the other.

Legalise drugs? Scandalous idea. But is it any more, or less, scandalous than the possibly preventable death of Scarlett, and many more like her? A question, perhaps, whose time has come to be asked.

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