Historians around 2100 and beyond will surely look at the ‘war on drugs’ as one of the most absurd policies of the 21st century. Much like we, today, react with a derogatory, “WTF were they thinking?” when reading about the US prohibition of alcohol back in the 1920s. Our descendants will probably be less forgiving of us, however, precisely because of our haste to pass judgment on our Prohibition-era selves.
After executing 7 foreigners and 1 Indonesian for drug smuggling charges last Wednesday, Indonesian Attorney General, Muhammad Prasetyo, told reporters, “I would like to say that an execution is not a pleasant thing. It is not a fun job.” His primary concern seemingly to put everyone at ease over any convictions of sadism they thought he might have. He continued, “But we must do it in order to save the nation from the danger of drugs.”
He, nor the Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, got into the specifics of how exactly the killing of 8 drug convicts – 14 in total this year, if we count executions in January – would achieve that. Sure, it would stop these 14 individuals from putting drugs back on Indonesia’s streets; but even then at least two of them – Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran of the Australian “Bali Nine” smuggling ring – were actually working on getting drugs out of the country.
Every time Widodo has found himself faced with the question of why he chose to reinstate the death penalty for drug offences, he has reiterated the same response: that 50 people die each day in Indonesia from drug use. That that would put the annual figure at 18,000 and the decennial figure at 180,000 – numbers an Al Jazeera journalist countered were unverifiable. And that, for this reason, his government cannot compromise on the death penalty for drug dealers. So, presumably, he perceives it to be a deterrent. But, believing capital punishment should be a deterrent, does not make it one.
There have been many studies trying to prove or disprove the theory that executions ultimately save lives by putting off would-be criminals from committing an offence. The problem with these studies is that so many random variables factor into a single crime, it can make the evidence for or against the existence of a deterrent effect “very fragile and unstable”. Frankly, if you’re choosing to put someone to death to send a message, you should at least be able to extend them the courtesy of guaranteeing that message is delivered to the right recipient – through a DHL-style courier service, for example, and not by throwing an unstamped envelope in the Indonesian post and hoping for the best.
Although the deliberate execution of bootleggers didn’t exist during Prohibition, the US government did construe of an equally nonsensical deterrent for the distribution and consumption of alcohol. This was, to borrow from Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927, “to poison a random assortment of citizens in an attempt to keep the rest of them sober”. In order to deter its citizens from drinking alcohol produced for legitimate reasons*, the US government chose to lace it with poisons such as mercury, making it – if not just unpalatable – lethal for human consumption. Unfortunately, in its ingenious plan to make alcohol more nocuous than it was before it was banned, the state failed to factor in the human resolve for achieving a state of inebriation. So it is that, in hindsight, we criticise the Prohibition for having passed the control and extremely lucrative revenues of alcohol distribution from the hands of the government to those of a sophisticated underground criminal network as, “easily the most extreme, ill judged, costly and ignored experiment in social engineering ever conducted by an otherwise rational nation.”** Until now.
Instead of learning the lesson of Prohibition in America, the United Nation’s strategy for a “drug free world” has adapted it to a global scale. But, similar to alcohol, trying to suppress drugs is like playing a perpetual game of whac-a-mole: however much you successfully target one area of the supply and demand chain, another will always pop up to taunt you a short distance away. Consequently, the ‘war on drugs’ has, by some estimates, created a global illicit drug trade worth $300 billion annually. Money diligently spent on expanding drug lords’ collections of gold-encrusted weapons embossed with images of the Virgin Mary or of exotic animals featuring high on the IUCN’s endangered species list. Then there’s the human cost of cartel related violence, or of the violence that drug trafficking enables.*** And the human cost or misery exerted by governments keen to take a tough stance on drugs through mass incarcerations, the blocking of HIV-preventing needle exchanges, and the enactment of draconian punitive measures no where near fit for the crime.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, indebted countries continue to justify throwing money at enforcement-led drug policies, “at the expense of proven public health policies”, bent on eradicating the ineradicable and running on a decade’s old slogan, “a drug-free world. We can do it!” No, sometimes we should acknowledge the unambiguous history lesson and accept that we just can’t.
* These included paint thinners, anti-freeze and antiseptics.
** Bill Bryson (2013) One Summer: America 1927
*** The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) contends that drug trafficking and global terrorism are interlinked – a position recognized by the UN Security Council – the scale of the relationship is hard to assess. A direct connection was found between the Madrid bombings and the illicit drug trade, where drugs were the currency used to commission the bombings.