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The business of substance abuse

Sunday, October 13, 2013
Business Eye
An Eastern Division Task Force officer walks by a field full of fully grown marijuana trees.

The suggestion by Chief Justice Ivor Archie that the use of marijuana in small quantities should be decriminalised is a welcome invitation for this country to at last enter into the international debate concerning cannabis. It is a debate which has been ongoing for some time and one must be grateful to the Chief Justice for finally putting the issue on the table.



It is important that parties to this important discussion understand that decriminalisation of marijuana, or for that matter any now-restricted substance, does not signify its approval in any way. One can disapprove of the consumption of alcohol without supporting prohibition and one can disapprove of the use of tobacco without supporting its criminalisation. 


The debate should focus on the efficiency of prevention methods as against the negative effects to society of having to treat as criminals a great many people who would otherwise be considered solid citizens and who are guilty of harming no one but themselves. 


The Economist has recognised this. The production, distribution, and sale of illicit substances is treated as one of the world’s major industries, comparable to big oil and the automobile industry. The publication measures the success of the “war on drugs” by the rise and fall of the price on the streets of New York City at any given time.  


Unfortunately for the drug warriors, the price has held steady over the decades as improved methods of detection of incoming drugs into the United States are countered by improved methods of exportation from supply countries. The reason for this is that the profits of the trade are enormous and give great incentive to drug lords to innovate ever more imaginative methods of getting the product onto the American or other target market.


One hopes that the debate does not seek to reinvent the wheel. There are many examples of the unpleasant social effects of governments attempting to control desired substances to guide us. The disastrous experience of the US in its attempt to impose prohibition on the consumption of all alcohol is there for all to study.



After a turbulent decade, the “Demon Alcohol” eventually triumphed and today the US as well as the world at large is content to accept regulation and taxation of the product together with its destructive aspects as a trade-off against the mayhem of the prohibition years.


Worldwide, a more enlightened approach has been adopted to protect people against the dangerous effects of tobacco consumption. Thanks to education of the public on the ill effects of using tobacco, it is now universally accepted that smoking is dangerous to your health. The Marlborough man, long a figure extolling the manliness inherent in the smoking of that particular brand of cigarettes, is long gone and packages of cigarettes now carry dire warnings of the dangers of smoking to those still brave enough to use the product.


There is no doubt that those who work closely with the illnesses caused by tobacco smoking would be delighted if its use were completely criminalised. They would see this as not only an attempt to save lives but as an expression of stern disapproval as well. 


Unfortunately, experience has shown that such a move would only have the effect of vesting tobacco with the allure of forbidden fruit. The unfortunate smoker—who now is treated like a pariah by having to have a cigarette in the road because he cannot join his companions inside the house—might well acquire the glamour of a reckless lawbreaker.


The Chief Justice’s suggestion has sparked a call for studies of the consequences of decriminalisation of cannabis to be presented to Caricom for consideration at some future date. It is well to remember that several of the states of the USA, together with some European and South American countries, have already decriminalised marijuana and their experiences are available for scrutiny. 


In fact, so pervasive is the trend towards decriminalisation that those countries who do not follow may well find themselves on the wrong side of history. The Chief Justice only mentioned marijuana, but inevitably, as a nation, we will be called upon to consider the success or otherwise of the war on drugs in which we have been engaged for decades, as well as the consequences of that war on our society.


In 1971, over 40 years ago, a motion picture called The French Connection related the story of how a Frenchman was foiled in his attempt to bring narcotics into the US. He was arrested and his supply, which consisted of one briefcase with a few pounds of cocaine, was confiscated. The audience at the time considered the narrative of the motion picture to be a fair comment on the scope of the trade in narcotics and the success in containing it. 



Today, 40 years later, the trade is estimated at a value of US$320 billion annually worldwide.



Everard Medina is a former president of the T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce


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