Why do some political leaders change their tune on drugs once they're no longer actively involved in politics?

Last week the first United Nations general assembly special session (UNgass) on drugs for 18 years endorsed the prohibitionist approach that has cost so much and achieved so little.

It was criticised by perhaps the most high-powered advisory body in international affairs. The Global Commission on Drug Policy's (GCDP) 22 members include eight former presidents or prime ministers and a former US Secretary of State, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve and UN Secretary-General.

The divide between the GCDP's elder statespersons and the UNgass delegates representing governments around the world couldn't be wider. The former believe the global war on drugs has failed "with devastating consequences" and advocate decriminalising drug use "by those who do no harm to others"; the latter insist the war must continue until we have "a society free of drug abuse".


In terms of real world policy prescriptions and goals, this makes the old When the Cat's Away song Melting Pot ("What we need is a great big melting pot/Big enough to take the world and all it's got/Keep it stirring for a hundred years or more/Turn out coffee-coloured people by the score") seem like a hard-headed action plan to eliminate racism.

There's an exception to the syndrome of politicians having a lightbulb moment when they no longer have access to the switch: our very own Don Brash, who caused a stir in 2011 by advocating the decriminalisation of marijuana.

In the speech in which he came out as a decriminaliser, Brash made a point which, in a way, answers the question I posed at the outset: he said he was "haunted" by the thought that a lot of police time and resources could be better deployed keeping people safe from "real criminals intent on harming us," as opposed to attempting to enforce prohibition. However, the middle-class citizens who decide the outcome of most elections don't see it in those terms. While they may fret about a mythical breakdown of law and order, the reality is the middle class doesn't live in fear of real criminals intent on harming them.

Why should they? The odd burglary aside, their chances of a close encounter with a real criminal are pretty low. What they do worry about, though, is their children getting into drugs.

The irony is that this fear validates a key argument in favour of decriminalisation: although drug use is illegal, parents aren't worried about their children becoming criminals; they're worried about them becoming victims. They support prohibition believing, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary, it will prevent their children from having access to drugs and becoming prey to temptation.

Prohibition/interdiction has failed and will go on failing because, notwithstanding UNgass's fatuousness, a lot of people like taking drugs and where there's demand, there'll be supply. That's capitalism.

The biggest mystery of the war on drugs is why devout capitalists fail to grasp that, by interfering with the supply and demand process, prohibition actually incentivises the narcotics trade: because the product is illegal, its price is artificially high and the producers and distributors pay no tax on their enormous revenues.

While drug-related violence might be out of sight and out of mind in the leafy suburbs, that's not the case in less fortunate societies. We wring our hands over the carnage in Syria but what of Mexico where authorities estimate there were 164,000 drug-related homicides between 2007 and 2014?

Like rivals in any industry, the drug cartels are competing for market share, the market in question being the USA: right next door, massive, well-heeled and with the highest rate of illegal drug consumption in the world. While Mexico bleeds, America gets high.

The governments of the world have chosen to reload rather than rethink, meaning more money and resources will be thrown at the problem with no discernible effect: violence will continue, drugs will still get through, consumers will go on consuming and organised crime will get richer and more powerful. In other words, the worst of all possible worlds.

Debate on this article is now closed.