Great drug debate results Fact Checking The Great Drugs Debate

This week a number of big names (and Peter Hitchens) joined for a marathon debate on the motion that “it’s time to end the war on drugs”. Those debating included:

 Juan Manuel Santos (current President of Colombia), Vicente Fox (former President of Mexico), Antonio Maria Costa (former Executive Director of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime), Jeffery Robertson QC, Misha Glenny, Richard Branson (speaking as part of the Global Commission on Drugs on behalf of 15 ex South American Presidents), Russell BrandJohann HariElliot Spitzer (former Governor or New York), Barry McCafferty (former director of US National Drug Policy Control), Ed VulliamyDr. Theodore DalrympleSandeep Chawla (Deputy Executive Director UN Office for Drugs and Crime), Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Former President of Brazil, Head of Global Commission on Drugs), Dr. Bernard Koucher (Former French Foreign Minister, Former French Health Minister), David Eaglemen (Neuroscientist), Geoffrey Robertson (Human Rights Lawyer), Julian Assange (Wikileaks).

I have transcribed the key quotes from both sides to encourage fact checking and to help establish a public record. I’ve attached the relavent source materials where applicable – if you would like to add a source or post a rebuttal to a factual point, just transcribe and source appropriately in the comment section and I’ll paste the info in. Only strictly evidence-based rebuttals will be included.

Current President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos begun the debate by describing: the very high cost Colombia has paid for the war on drugs:

“We have lost our best judges, our best journalists, our best politicians, our best policeman, our best soldiers but this problem has not disappeared”.

Misha Glenny followed:

“Drugs are more available than ever and more powerful than ever”. He describes how Mexican narco-traffickers wish the prohibition to continue to participate in an illegal unregulated market because this type of market is so profitable. Glenny describes how according to UN estimates, to prevent drugs being profitable we would have to block 75% of the trade, the current estimate is between 20% and 30%.

Antonio Maria Costa Former Executive Director, UN Office of Drugs and Crime fought back:

Arguing that the illegal drugs market is smaller than it would be if drugs were legal and described his fear that pharmaceutical companies would cash in if drugs were legalised.

Misha Glenny later rebuked this point: “Before the other side gets too carried away attacking big pharma and big corporations, let us not forget Plan Colombia, a plan to deliver $1 billion a year from the US to Colombia to bring down the Cocaine trade. Of that £1 billion a year, $750,000,000 never left the US. It was instead given to companies such as Lockhead Martin and other big companies who then went on to make a fortune out of the war on drugs.”

Jeffery Robertson QC pointed out:

Quoting one of Costa’s own recent reports that stated that “250,000,000 people take illicit drugs and less than 10% have any problems which means about 225,000,000 people take drugs for pleasure or to relieve pain” without issue.

Richard Branson speaking as part of the Global Commission on Drugs on behalf of 15 ex South American Presidents:

Described how the war on drugs is “an unmitigated failure” and how “in Portugal 10 years ago they decriminalised drugs and they have reduced the number of heroin addicts by 50%”…, “they have managed to stop an enormous amount of people breaking and entering”, “the number of people under 18 taking drugs has gone down for all drugs”. The most important thing is there is a no sign of a major increase

Read the Global Commission on Drugs report in full below (PDF), read a further detailed analysis of the Portuguese situation here.

Russell Brand describes how (by criminalising drugs):

“You exacerbate and enhance the problem, I am a recovering drug addict and I know that drug addiction is an illness it is a disease, so by crimanalising that, you criminalise a large section of the population, you malign them and stigmatise them, you generate more crime, you create a criminal culture and speaking from the perspective of a sufferer, it’s simply not helpful”.

Vicente Fox, Former President of Mexico (2000):

Once described the war on drugs as the “mother of all battles” but now believes that it is “most urgent that we stop the war that has got 60,000 young kids killed.. among them many innocents, among them hundreds of policeman and hundreds in the military… the loss and the cost is incredible, the fear, the loss of hope for the future. This has put a heavy economic burden on the nation, the loss of tourism, the loss of foreign investment, the loss of our pace of growth. When I was president, the economy was 25% larger than the Brazilian (economy), today the Brazilian economy is 50% larger than the Mexican economy”.

Robertson QC, comments how Mexico was placed under:

“pressure from the White house, in 2006 not to decriminalise small amounts of cocaine or cannabis”

Mexico Drug War Map Fact Checking The Great Drugs Debate

Click for interactive map of Mexico's drug war*

*Health warning: Mexican authorities have been accused of “under-reporting homicides and manipulating the data“.

Johann Hari:

“When you criminalise a really popular substance it doesn’t vanish, you transfer control from doctors and pharmacists to armed criminal gangs.. which are absolutely on the side of the war on drugs”. Hari describes how the head of Mafia Cruenza, one of the largest old drug cartels was caught on wire-tap stating his view that “this war is an absolute sham which keeps all of us in business”. Hari goes on to state that “any country which enforces the war on drugs has a significant rise in homicide rate, after alcohol prohibition ended in the US, the homicide rate fell by 20% and never rose to the same level until prohibition was enforced in the 70’s. China is currently detaining half a million addicts in what are effectively Gulags, torture is absolutely widespread.. that’s the face of the war on drugs in the largest country in the world.. Russia has the fastest rising HIV rate in the world because when you crack down on heroin addicts, they hide their needles, they don’t throw them away – they share them. The war on drugs is the biggest friend the HIV virus ever had”

Elliot Spitzer, former Governor or New York leads the debate against the motion along with Barry McCafferty, former director of US National Drug Policy Control:

Responding with the claim that they have reduced drug consumption by a third over the past three decades. Both Spitzer and McCafferty emphatically claim they “we do not incarcerate just for use, it is the violence that attends that use that sends people to jail” but admit a “discracefully high encarceration rate, 2.1 million people behind bars”. They admit that they estimate 80% of people behind bars have a drug problem but completely ignore the argument that this is a result of prohibition.

Misha Glenny later directly accuses Spitzer and McCafferty of outright lying, asserting “that the number of people arrested in 2009 (in the US) for non-violent drug offences was 1,600,000”.

Ed Vulliamy:

Continues Spitzer’s staggering ability to ignore all the arguments addressed so far, stating “the one thing that stands a chance of throttling all the misery” is to address drug profits through the banking system. He appeals to the audience shouting he wants to see “the bankers in the cells” but in a double act that has clearly been well perfected beforehand a grinning Spitzer interrupts him so he doesn’t have to provide any explanation of how this could ever work in practice.

Dr. Theodore Dalrymple (former prison doctor):

Challenges the idea that the relationship between crime and drugs is as simple as presented, arguing that the crime rate in Portugal has increased (Dalyrymple later cites Eurostat for this claim. Eurostat note that over the same period, comparable countries such as Italy and Spain have also seen rises in crime, suggesting that the rise in crime in general is not related to drug use.)

Sandeep Chawla, Deputy Executive Director UN Office for Drugs and Crime:

States that “while crime rates may come down, public health costs would go up”. In a spectacular failure to understand the notion of a debate, Chawla both ignores the fact that his statement about crime directly conflicts with his compadre Dalyrymple’s statement a moment earlier and goes on to blindly ignore all of the prior evidence based discussion about public health costs to the contrary. Chawla makes the good point that there is a prescription drug epidemic in the US but negates this with the weird argument that “tobacco use has gone up” when this is patently not the case.

Peter Hitchens enters the debate with a stream of bile and bigotry vilifying drug users and calls Russel Brand a “selfish kid”. Hitchens argues the case with Brand and shows his true colours (just in case we didn’t know them already).

Antonio Maria Costa Former Executive Director, UN Office on Drugs and Crime:

“Stop all drugs wars.. In 2012, we celebrate a dreadful anniversary.. 150 years from the end of the Opium wars. When the west, our countries, forced China to consume drugs. At that time, greedy investors, it was the East India Company as you recall, wanted to make money by poisoning the Chinese with Opium. China opposed this, our countries won the war and forced the Chinese to consume drugs for a century, tens of million died in China from addiction, war and famine. The tragedy of drug legalisation we forced on China dwarfed what is happening in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia etc. To conclude, when I hear drug investors in Europe and North America advocating drug legalisation behind the fig leaves of a campaign to stop the war on drugs I cringe and I say stop all drugs wars whether fought by bullets or by bombs, investors greed can be as harmful as Mafias guns. Drugs have come from both sides of the aisle, therefore vote no, against this motion.” This is a strange argument to make in the context of the modern day situation for a number of reasons, notably the East India Company was effectively a front for the British imperial government of that era.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Former President of Brazil, Head of Global Commission on Drugs:

I was surprised when hearing the previous case (Antonio Maria Costa) because in our case in Latin America.. people have been killed by the war on drugs, it is a complete failure of what the war was supposed to do – control cartels, as the president of Colombia just said before me. Our democracy is being undermined by powerful cartels.. We must explore legal and social models of regulation of drugs.. The point is that in Portugal they are being successful in reducing the number of people that are using drugs”.

Dr. Bernard Koucher, Former French Foreign Minister, Former French Health Minister:

“We have lost the war on drugs.. the drug consumers are more numerous and the consumption is higher.. we acted the same way against alcohol and tobacco, what was the result? Alcohol consumers were not so high after the end of prohibition, we had to enforce the mafia and we did, it was a stupid war. It has taken 40 years to convince anyone we are right about Tobacco but now (we have), it must be under the control of the state.”

David Eaglemen, Neuroscientist:

“What’s clear is the reason that we are losing the war on drugs is because we are attacking supply and that’s like a water balloon, if you press it down on one place it comes back somewhere else. We need to be addressing demand, the brain of the addict. At this point we know a great deal about the circuitry and the pharmacology of the addict’s brain. There are familiar pharmacological treatmets that obstruct the effect of the drug – you can block the high.. you can recruit the immune system to sop up the drug and there are new methods that use real time feedback via brain imaging… we can train a person how to deal with the craving. We could do a great deal with neuroscience with that money (the $40,000,000,000 spent on the war on drugs in America last year).”

Geoffrey Robertson, Human Rights Lawyer quoted former opposition candidates who have changed their views since winning office:

David Cameron: “I beg the labour government not to return to the war on drugs”

(House of Commons, 5th December 2002)

Barack Obama: “The war on drugs is an utter failure”. Before he became president and dedicated $40,000,000,000 a year to fighting it.

Julian Assange, Wikileaks (Via video link from house arrest):

“Any situation that has clearly come to an impart where there is a clear failure needs experimentation and trials with models around the world and there have been steps to do that but we have seen that the US through it’s diplomatic force has been exercising it’s force to prevent these trials.”

View the relavent cables here.

“We must have basic principles.. we as individuals have a right to our own self determination, we have the right to freedom of thought, we have the right to freedom of speech, provided we do not engage in some sort of violence to others, these are our rights to do what we will with our own thoughts and own bodies and this is sacrosanct. The state should not intervene with these rights. In order to keep our freedom of thought we should have the right to control our own mental states. (Drugs) give some people extra creativity and this is something that we need accross the world. We should look to marijuana as an example, this is a drug that is about as addictive as potatoes, yet it has been swept up in to this war on drugs. We have to remember we really do have a war on drugs and like all wars it is irrational, it is a raquet and there are industries that fight and lobby to keep the money flowing.”


Jahangir, A. Fuentes, C. Gaviria, C. Zedillo, E. Cardoso, F. Papandreou, G. Shultz, G. Solana, J. Whitehead, J. Annan, K. Arbour, L. Cattaui, M. Llosa, M. Caspers-Merk,M. Kazatchkine,M. Volcker, P. Branson, R. Dreifuss, R. Stoltenberg, T. (2011). War On Drugs. Report Of The Global Commission On Drug Policy. (PDF)

HUGHES, C., & STEVENS, A. (2012). A resounding success or a disastrous failure: Re-examining the interpretation of evidence on the Portuguese decriminalisation of illicit drugs Drug and Alcohol Review, 31 (1), 101-113 DOI: 10.1111/j.1465-3362.2011.00383.x

Eurostat: Portugal Crime Figures (PDF)

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