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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: War the whole world is losing

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It seems even the generals no longer have much stomach for the international War on Drugs.

A former state premier, director of public prosecutions, federal health minister and federal police chief were among those who contributed to a recent Australian study urging a re-think. This week, the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London went further, recommending an immediate ceasefire.

IISS director Nigel Inkster, former deputy chief of MI6, pointed out that the problem is not so much that the War on Drugs isn't working, it's that it's making things worse. The drugs trade has spread to Africa and eastern Europe and is entrenching its standing in its traditional strongholds of Asia and the Americas, while the corrosive effects of narco-economies are undermining international security.

Long-standing and perhaps long-suffering readers of this column will be aware of my views. I believe future generations will see the War on Drugs as a monumental folly and struggle to understand how supposedly rational, intelligent people, leaders and led, could persist with an approach based on wilful ignorance, wishful thinking and an unwavering refusal to be swayed by the mountain of objective evidence.

What happened? There's a clue in the title of a book by German economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe: Democracy - The God that Failed.

Electoral politics have become overwhelmingly negative. Rather than challenge the status quo and offer new ideas that might give their opponents material for a scare campaign, parties keep their policy powder dry and concentrate on presenting the other mob as unfit for office. Any thinking outside the square is portrayed as a wildly radical, alien notion that would turn our little world upside down.

Thus President Barack Obama's push to extend affordable health care to most Americans has been recast as a totalitarian juggernaut. The hard right's pin-up girl, Sarah Palin, evoked Nazism, declaring that Obamacare would mean government "death panels" deciding whether elderly people and children with Down syndrome were worth keeping alive.

Much of the international community long ago concluded that domestic political considerations prevent the US forging a Middle East policy that's in its own interests, let alone those of the region and rest of the world. That conviction will only have been hardened by Republican candidate-presumptive Mitt Romney's charge that Obama "threw Israel under a bus" by suggesting the pathway to peace lay with a two-state solution roughly based on pre-1967 borders.

Because he thought there was something in it for him, Romney rubbished a widely touted formula, strengthened the hand of the most intransigent elements in Israel and reduced his own room for manoeuvre should he make it to the White House.

The Australian study urged politicians to "face the taboo subject". It might as well have urged them to attend the state opening of Parliament in koala skin mankinis.

This was Prime Minister Julia Gillard's response: "Tough policing is necessary to prevent the devastating consequences of drug use. Drugs kill people, they rip families apart, they destroy lives and we want to see less harm done through drug usage. We need to keep policing so we are tackling those who are seeking to make a profit out of what really is a trade in incredible misery."

Leaving aside the implication that the report's authors, who include her Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, don't know and don't care about the devastating consequences of drug use, what's the basis for Gillard's assertion that tough policing prevents them?

According to former police chief Mick Palmer, the police contribution to the War on Drugs has made "only marginal, if any, difference".

The IISS report refers to research indicating that to make a difference, authorities need to stop 70 per cent of all drug shipments. Anyone who thinks they get within cooee of that threshold obviously spends too much time watching re-runs of Miami Vice.

Or take this, from Obama speaking at last week's presidential summit in Colombia where he was pressed by Latin American leaders increasingly angered by the severe consequences for their countries of America's voracious appetite for illicit drugs and refusal even to discuss alternative strategies: "I think it wouldn't make sense for us not to examine what works and what doesn't, and to constantly try to refine and ask ourselves is there something we can do to prevent violence, to weaken these drug traffickers, to make sure they're not peddling the stuff to our kids and not perpetrating violence and corrupting institutions."

Good to hear. Well, now that you mention it, there is something ... Oh, you hadn't finished? I'm sorry, carry on.

"But I'm not someone who believes legalisation is a path to solving this problem."

In other words: Get real, it's election year.

- NZ Herald

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