Why The War On Drugs Could About To Reach A Turning Point But Britain Lags Behind

'No one can ever say the world is united behind this goal of drug-free world'.

We've barely had time for introductions, but already Johann Hari is reeling off tips about Britain's war on drugs for me to investigate. Do I want to speak to a new group of ex-policemen and enforcement officials who want reform drug laws? Did I know Britain’s criminal justice system has a worse racial disparity problem than America?

"The only country that gathers statistics that has a worse racial disparity than the US in the developed world is Britain, which is extraordinary," he says. Vice News recently reported that black people, 3% of Britain's population, accounted for 20% of all Class A drug supply convictions.

Hari cites a 1993 study in the US that suggested 19% of drug dealers in there were African American, but accounted for 64% of arrests for it. Research from 2010 found there was a greater racial disparity in enforcement and imprisonment of drug offences in England and Wales than the US.

The 2014 Young Review, which looked into improving how our criminal justice system treats young black and Muslim men, noted that Britain imprisons black people more disproportionately than America.

Johann Hari, 37, spent three years researching and writing 'Chasing The Scream'
Johann Hari, 37, spent three years researching and writing 'Chasing The Scream'

Meeting me in the lobby of the British Library, Hari, 37, is so energised about discussing the topic, he keeps talking at the same pace when we interrupt the interview to re-locate indoors when it begins raining.

He distils the racial disparity into one comparison: "Zac Goldsmith was expelled from Eton for having cannabis. If he was a kid at a comp in Brixton, he would've got a criminal record, he would've been denied access to loads of employment opportunities. His life would've been really seriously marred. He didn't because he's white and he's from a rich family," he says.

"If Sadiq Khan, son of a bus driver on a council estate, had been caught with the same cannabis, he would've got a criminal record. The figures on that are really clear."

Hari has spent more time thinking about the drug war than most Britons. After a fall from grace as one of Britain's star columnists over plagiarism and using different guises to defame other journalists online, he left the Independent and spent three years researching and writing 'Chasing The Scream', the story of how the war on drugs began and why it must end. The work has drawn praise from experts and campaigners. Hari published the audio of interviews he conducted online and promoted a way for readers to submit corrections to the book. In the words of one critic's glowing review of the book: "This is a man with something to prove."

(L-R) US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, Bill Clinton and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at the 1998 session on drugs, where a 'drug free world' was pledged
(L-R) US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson, Bill Clinton and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at the 1998 session on drugs, where a 'drug free world' was pledged

The book argues that drug prohibition has given a huge market to armed criminal gangs, and that nearly all violence defined as "drug related" is warring over turf. In other words, drugs are not as deadly as the industry created by banning them. Using personal stories, the book illuminates the human origins and cost of a war the world is increasingly reluctant to fight. Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs in 2001. Switzerland has set up legal heroin clinics for addicts. Uruguay legalised marijuana.

On Monday, the UN General Assembly Special Advisory Session On Drugs (UNGASS) begins in New York. Hari wryly notes that the slogan for the last special session in 1998 was "a drug free world, we can do it!" That pledged to end drugs, all of them, by 2008. "People looking around will notice whether drugs have in fact vanished from the face of the earth," he laughs. The UNGASS is convening two years earlier than planned after the governments of Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia have called for it, because, in Hari's words, they have been "fucking destroyed" by the violence of the drug war.

“In other words, drugs are not as deadly as the industry created by banning them”

"By some estimates, more people have died in the drug war violence in Mexico and Colombia than died in Syria," he says. Countries keen on prohibition, like Russia and China, are bound to oppose any change. "This is the first time we're going to have countries standing up saying 'we are not doing this shit any more'," Hari says. "The failure of the drug war has become more obvious, the alternatives have been tried." Hari doubts those clamouring for change will get what they want: change to UN treaties permitting countries to experiment with policies of treatment rather than enforcement, and a panel of experts to spend two years looking at what policies work best. If prohibitionist countries resist the second one, they will be "exposed naked in front of the world for having to admit they do not want the look at evidence," Hari says.

He does not know which way Britain will go during the session. What he saw in 2012 does not inspire confidence. At the World Federation Against Drugs conference in Stockholm, draconian Russian drugs tsar Viktor Ivanov, whom Hari calls "one of the most evil people I've ever met", made a statement condemning those who would relax drug prohibition.

"Britain's representative stood right there next to him, with this declaration saying the war on drugs has been a great thing and we need to intensify it. That was shocking to me, that they could stand next to a man who is causing enormous amounts of deaths in his own country."

A short film about addiction, scripted by Hari

The fact David Cameron's government has been "all over the place" on drug reform makes him suspect the UK will "keep its head down" at the summit.

He calls the prime minister a "particularly grotesque example" of British politicians' inaction on the issue. The prime minister spoke in favour of "radical options" of reform as a backbencher, shortly after his election to parliament, noting the surge in heroin addiction prohibition had created. In 2012, he rejected the idea of a Royal Commission on drugs, saying his government's policies were working.

For Hari, the evidence is so conclusive he struggles to think Cameron genuinely believes that. "I don't think anyone could say I'm someone who has positive illusions about Cameron and Osborne but I can't believe they don't know, or if you sat with them privately, they couldn't intellectually make the case for ending the prohibition. There's no political capital in it and they don't give a shit basically," he says.

“By some estimates, more people have died in the drug war violence in Mexico and Colombia than died in Syria”

"Politicians are always calculating: 'If I do this, how much shit will I get and how much praise will I get'. At the moment, on this issue, you'll get some praise and a lot of shit. It's our job to change that ratio."

This could be harder in Britain than in America. Here there is not an activist grass roots movement for change like the one that has fought for US states like Colorado and Oregon to relax drug laws. In America, the Right has a strong libertarian streak. After years of advocating left-wing causes, Hari did not expect to hear Rand Paul, Republican presidential candidate, praise his book. Here, the Right has "more of a Culture War distaste for drug use," Hari says.

"Alan Duncan used to say fairly good things, Nigel Farage used to say fairly good things," he notes, trying to remember the few who have spoken about it. "It's the one thing I'd praise Nigel Farage for. He used to be really good. He doesn't talk about it anymore ... There must be British right-wingers who are good on this issue and I'd urge them to speak out. If you're against failed government policy, and a waste of tax payer money, well it's hard to think of more blatant item on the menu than the British drug war."

Nigel Farage previously said the 'time had come' to legalise 'certain drugs'
Nigel Farage previously said the 'time had come' to legalise 'certain drugs'
Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Discussing the race disparity in its enforcement, he says: "That should be a national scandal, I'm curious why more isn't said about it?" Hari, who used to conduct sit-down interviews with world-famous authors and public figures, suddenly asks me: "Why do you think it isn't?" Well, I begin, having not written a book on the issue, maybe we feel race issues are more of an American thing. Maybe racism is something we're quicker to dismiss because we think ourselves better than other countries at overcoming it.

"I think there's something in that," he says. "This could be wrong and I say this very tentatively. It's certainly not the main reason." He pauses with the most trepidation of any point in the interview and then begins his point.

"The people who speak out rightly and bravely on behalf of black British people being abused, some of them worry that it reinforces a negative stereotype about young black men being arrested for drug offences. They're worried it triggers a debate where people will say, 'well, they are dealers'. What we know from the American debate, what gets classed as a drug dealer is heavily radicalised."

Two of Hari's nephews attend a Jewish School in London where those selling drugs are "Nice North London Jewish boys". If they are caught, the school will ring the parents, not the police, he says, so they stay out of police statistics.

"You end up with this distorted picture that drug dealers are black which is false ... The kid who offers my nephew weed or some pills, he doesn't appear in the picture ... You can't punish everyone so the law is enforced people the police already harass, already stigmatise, already fear, the low-hanging fruit." He cites the story of American cop Matthew Fogg, who asked his superiors why they always mounted drug raids in black neighbourhoods and was told it was easier to target people "who can't afford attorneys".

Hari says the three changes he wants Britain to implement have already been tried elsewhere and worked:

-Decriminalise all use of drugs, following Portugal's example

-Legalise heroin for those addicted to it, following Switzerland's example

-Allow legal cannabis-selling co-operatives, following Spain's example

"Legal heroin clinics in Geneva look like a branch of Toni & Guy. No one ever dies there. Everyone leaves and gets a job," he says. He adds what he calls his "Jerry Springer moment". "Policies based on shaming stigmatisation have been tried and failed. Policies based on love and compassion and reconnection have also been tried. Everywhere that's tried them has a drug problem that's diminishing all the time. That has to tell us something."

Some change has come. Hari concedes more change will take "political capital" to overcome failed orthodoxies about what works, adding: "Who wants to spend it on this?" The world's most populous country still enthusiastically puts people to death for drugs offences. Whether reformists get what they want at this week's UN session, it will mark a point beyond which "no one can ever say 'the world is united behind this goal of a drug-free world'." he says.

In words that suggest there's optimism for the cause of drug reform in Britain, he says: "It becomes part of a much deeper momentum, with the rebellions happening all over the world... Knowing you are part of global movement really empowers you."


What's Hot