Front-line frustration in a war no one wins

CARL Williams, it must be said, never pretended to be an A-grade student.

CARL Williams, it must be said, never pretended to be an A-grade student.

Variously described during his shortened professional life as an unemployed supermarket shelf-stacker, property developer and professional punter, he was, in reality, turning over $100,000 a month by grinding out a variety of illicit pills of questionable quality.

Tony Mokbel was never inclined to enrol in night school to complete an MBA, yet was the stunningly successful CEO of his corporation, dubbed The Company.

Howard Marks, the charming Oxford University graduate, ran The Enterprise a worldwide cannabis business involving 113 known associates working in 14 countries. Over 20 years he used sea-going tugs, freighters and US Navy containers to transport massive quantities of cannabis to his shifting market.

That is the top end of the tree but the roots are voracious and increasingly, people with expertise in the field, say it will never be stopped.

Police say debt-ridden members of our Vietnamese community are risking their lives by smuggling heroin back to Melbourne on regular flights. Drug taskforce detectives have identified more than 100 who each carry up 400 grams a trip.

And local police street blitzes only temporarily disrupt the heroin deals routinely conducted in the laneways around a Richmond patch near Victoria Street.

The problem has been there since Dennis "Mr Death" Allen ran around the same streets in the mid-1980s, and it shows no signs of abating.

What is clear is this is a war where no one looks like winning and a growing school of frustrated experts are looking for a better way.

At the moment it is an academic argument, as no politician with any ambition to sit in the back seat of a government car with a flag on the bonnet and a hand on an assistant's thigh would ever stray from the hard line.

Number-crunchers know that tough on crime wins votes, while the alternative is a one-way ticket to a parliamentary retirement dinner. Those who question the sense of pouring more resources into this holy war are often painted as out-of-touch crackpots who want to turn our youngsters into a generation of glue sniffers.

But in the US, the country that has spent the most on drug law enforcement and still has one of the biggest problems, one of the most persuasive lobby groups is made up of those who spent their professional lives trying to clean up the mess.

More than 3500 former police, prison officials, prosecutors and judges have joined LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), which now has more than 50,000 supporters.

In Australia, where the group is still small, one of the foundation members is Greg Denham, the Yarra Drug and Health Forum executive officer.

While his title sounds a little soy latte for this columnist, we can confirm that Denham is no kaftan-wearing sociology tutor. He is a former police senior sergeant who worked at the sharp end, including the Zebra Taskforce investigating organised crime and police corruption. Denham spent 15 years in Victoria, served in the Queensland police and then spent years working in south-east Asia on an AusAID project to minimise the spread of HIV through drug users sharing needles.

He says repeated police blitzes (including the regular clean-up codenamed Elizabeth) only displaces the problem. "Like water it always finds its own level."

Denham says: "For every drug trafficker that you lock up, two more pop up. The writing is on the wall that we are heading down the wrong track.

"We are pouring more and more money into a system that doesn't work."

There are many serving police who say while we are not losing the war we are caught in the mud, going neither forward nor backwards. Some say between 60 and 80 per cent of their crime-related work is in some way drug-connected.

What is beyond dispute is that organised crime has only one rule: where there is a demand there will be a supply.

Despite arrests of people such as Tony Mokbel and despite huge seizures by federal and local authorities, the price and purity of drugs rarely changes.

There is no drought and there is no shortage. For every Mokbel there is a queue of crooks waiting to fill his patent leather shoes.

We in Melbourne have lived through a drug-related underworld war that claimed about 30 lives. Compare that to Mexico where there have been 52,000 drug-related murders in five years.

Latin American political leaders are sick of living in a state of near civil war, with corruption destroying the rule of law while massive cartels continue to supply affluent nations with illicit substances.

According to The Washington Post, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom told a December meeting of Latin leaders in Caracas: "Our region is seriously threatened by organised crime, but there is very little responsibility taken by the drug-consuming countries."

In other words, they are on the nose because of what we put up ours.

At the conference in Mexico, 11 Latin American and Caribbean leaders urged the big consumer countries to consider alternative strategies, including decriminalisation.

Around the world there is no shortage of police who can be bought, bankers who will wash dirty funds and lawyers eager to take drug money. No wonder some detectives feel like hamsters caught in a wheel.

LEAP co-founder Jack Cole is a man of passion and reason. You may disagree with his views but clearly he is a person who deserves to be heard.

Cole retired as a detective lieutenant after a 26 years with the New Jersey State Police 14 in narcotics. He made his name (while using a fake one) as an undercover operative.

He first went undercover in 1970 when President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs and within three years he was convinced the policy was not only failing but was creating untold damage.

"When you arrest an offender for robbery or rape the crime rate drops because he can no longer commit crime. When you arrest a drug offender you are just creating a job opportunity."

He maintains the "war on drugs" is a "self-perpetuating, constantly expanding, policy disaster".

He says the bulk of those initially arrested in the US are young people dabbling in selling drugs to their friends. When released, Cole says, their lack of education, combined with their criminal conviction, leaves them unemployable and they drift back to drug trafficking this time on a larger scale.

"We have a saying at LEAP, 'You can get over an addiction but you will never get over a conviction'."

Cole has the figures to back his views. According to the premier US narcotics agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration, by 1970 about 4 million people aged over 12 had used illegal drugs, which was 2 per cent of the population.

Now it estimates the figure at 112 million, which is 46 per cent of all Americans.

DEA figures show the wholesale price of cocaine has dropped by 60 per cent and heroin by 70 per cent since Nixon's 1970 declaration of war.

In 1970 US police arrested 415,600 people on drug charges, while in 2009 the figure jumped to 1,663,582.

"We have spent over a trillion tax dollars on that war, made over 39 million arrests, and today our prisons are filled to the breaking point with 2.3 million people, far more per capita than any country in the world 1.6 times as many as our closest competitor, Russia, and six times as many as in China.

"The results of this useless policy? Today drugs are cheaper, more potent, and far easier for our children to access than they were at the beginning of this war, when I started buying them as an undercover officer. That is a failed policy. When a strategy has failed this long and this miserably it is time to look for alternatives."

He doesn't want a free market, rather a regulated system, arguing you give up any chance of control when you hand a $500 billion industry to criminals. He maintains alcohol and tobacco type regulation make more sense than prohibition, which will continue to fail.

Newspaper columnists are supposed to have strong opinions on everything, particularly those matters upon which they are spectacularly ill-informed.

The truth is this one has no idea whether decriminalising drugs would make things better or worse.

What we do know is we have to stop looking to police to solve society's problems.

As Cole accurately observes: "Police are very good at protecting us from others but we are absolutely worthless at protecting individuals from themselves."

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