On Monday, a 16 year old from south London, Daniel Spargo-Mabbs, tragically died after taking ecstasy. Yesterday, the BBC’s London TV News carried extensive coverage of the boy’s funeral, focusing on the faces of crying teenagers, while solemnly reporting another drug death.
Except of course, Daniel didn’t die from taking ecstasy. If he’d taken ecstasy, he would still be alive today. His parents have been tricked into joining yet another crusade against ecstasy, just as Leah Betts‘ parents were, two decades ago. Betts wasn’t killed by ecstasy either (she died of water intoxication after drinking rapidly 7 litres), but for a decade after her death, morons would scream her name at anybody who tried to argue against the moronic criminalisation of the drug. If you read the reports carefully, you’ll see that Daniel’s post-mortem was “inconclusive”. He may have died from drinking, or from water intoxication, or from some other drug that adulterated the pill he took. But not from taking ecstasy.
Daniel is being used to orchestrate a moral panic over a safe drug, just as Leah was. It’s not hard to see who might benefit from such a panic. 9,000 people died last year after using Britain’s second-most dangerous recreational drug, alcohol. 9,000 died the year before, and the year before that. Can you name any teenager who OD’d on booze and was used by the media to highlight the dangers of drinking? No? Me neither. And yet alcohol kills around 1000 British people for every one who dies after using ecstasy.
Morons don’t understand statistics, but they understand sad stories. They remember Leah and they will remember Daniel, but the many more victims of alcohol will go to their graves unnamed.
Why this panic, and why now? Because ecstasy is at its most popular in many years. Clubbing is back, dance music is back, and ecstasy (MDMA) is back. Parents should be pleased that their kids are choosing an alternative to the killer drug, ethanol; they should be pleased that their kids are dancing rather than drinking and fighting; but the alcohol industry is seeing its revenues dented by the club scene, as it did in the 1990s, and it’s fighting back hard. Daniel is the face of their new advertising campaign. And it hasn’t cost them a penny.
The moronic BBC, and the other media outlets that deliberately mislead the public about the relative safety of drugs, should be held to account for their lies. They are pushers for the alcohol industry. They should tell the truth, and they should apologise for the many deaths that they’ve caused.
This is the truth:
People die from drinking because every competitor to alcohol is banned. The alcohol industry must be delighted; imagine if the government intervened in every market in this way.
People die from taking dodgy pills because the government refuses to regulate the recreational drugs industry, and allows pills to be sold without testing or labelling.
People die from water intoxication because the government refuses to allow teenagers to be taught how to take drugs safely.
People die from snorting dodgy cocaine because the cocaine industry too is unregulated, and the powder sold as coke in the UK is cut with various other things.
The alcohol industry kills kids. The government kills kids. The BBC kills kids. The mass media kills kids. It’s an insult to Daniel Spargo-Mabbs that he should be exploited in this way after his unnecessary death; but a multi-billion pound industry requires that teenagers continue to die.
With cannabis liberalisation starting to take place all over the Americas, it may be that the moronic “war on drugs” (and yes, whoever thought up that concept must have been on drugs), is finally peaking. What better time could there be to buy some weed, and have a smoke with your kids? Even small babies can join in – just make sure you blow a little smoke in their direction.
Shocked? Angry? Upset that I mentioned drugs and children in the same sentence? I was, of course joking; while I believe all drugs should be decriminalised for adult use, I equally believe that the concept of liberty applies to adults, not to children. It is right that parents, teachers and other adults should restrict childhood behaviour, for many reasons.
So why is there no outrage at the widespread use of recreational drugs by children? Sucrose, fructose, dextrose and other members of a popular family of drugs (known on the street as “sugar”) are addictive stimulants with serious health implications. Even conservatives who think that cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine should be banned often use these dangerous substances, and shockingly, even give them to small children.
Europeans became addicted to sugar centuries ago, with demand so high that the early Atlantic slave trade was driven by the need to grow more. The sugar industry grew in wealth and power, and has its claws so deep into our culture and our politics, that few politicians dare question its right to push its dangerous substance to our children.
Only one politician has tried to make a – very modest – stand. The mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, tried to ban the sale of huge servings of sugar-rich drinks (if you haven’t been to the US, the size of drink portions on offer are astounding – at least double what you will find anywhere else). Bloomberg’s plan was struck down in court, allowing the drug pushers: Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s and the rest – to keep on selling quantities of the drug that are lethal if used long-term.
There is huge ignorance and hypocrisy here: sugar is probably more dangerous than a number of illegal drugs; yet people who would never touch these, will happily buy their kids Pepsi instead of milk or water – such is the addictive nature of sugar, and the overwhelming power of the sugar lobby to drown out any criticism in the media.
I think Bloomberg got it wrong. Just as cannabis and cocaine should be legally available for adult consumption, so should sugar. But none of these substances should be sold to children. Morons, thinking they are fighting for “liberty”, swallow the sugar industry’s propaganda just as readily as they buy the bullshit of the gun lobby.
It’s time to ban the sale of sugar to kids, along with all other potentially dangerous drugs; in a generation, adult consumption will also fall, and the apparently unstoppable “obesity epidemic” will start to fade away. But the sugar industry has been the world’s biggest drug pusher for centuries – as Bloomberg found, it will fight vigorously to defend its market.
West Africa is probably my favourite part of the world. It contains some of the oldest, most stable and (therefore) most developed human cultures on the planet. Its economic development (it probably goes without saying) lags behind much of the world; but in spite of this (or more accurately, because of this) West African societies are culturally more developed than many other societies on the planet. Tens of thousands of years of uninterrupted cultural evolution have created beautiful musical, dance, language and social skills – which explains in large part why I go there. I’ve spent part of winter there for most of the past few years, dividing my time over six countries.
This year, I’m freshly returned from The Gambia, mainland Africa’s smallest country (with under two million people) – a bizarre side-effect of the British/French scramble for Africa whereby the river Gambia (and a little land either side) was carved out of French Senegal by the British. Although Gambia comprises the same main tribal groups as Senegal, and Gambians typically have family ties with Senegalese, Senegal has managed to create some form of democracy, and forms part of the wider community of French West African nations. Gambia meanwhile has effectively been the private plaything of one man, Yahya Jammeh, since he was “elected” in 1996.
Gambians take great care when speaking out against Jammeh. In a nation so small, political rivalries are personal ones. Anyone who raises a voice against his bizarre behaviours will quickly reach Jammeh’s attention, and run the risk of vanishing in the middle of the night. I previously mentioned Jammeh’s magical ability to cure his citizens of AIDS; it seems that his near-insane behaviours have only increased since then. On this trip, I noted a change in tone when talking to Gambians about local politics. They are angrier, and less reticent about sharing their views on Jammeh.
Last summer, Jammeh got rid of a few minor problems by reinstating the death penalty and having nine prisoners shot by firing squad. This led to some unusually outspoken opposition, in particular by the leading Imam Baba Leigh. The response was sadly predictable; Imam Leigh was taken from his home in early December, and has not been heard from since. In turn, this has led to Imams uniting to call for Leigh’s release, and growing organisation of ex-pat Gambians in New York and elsewhere.
Against this backdrop, most ordinary Gambians live on the verges of poverty. Electricity is only widely available along Gambia’s short coast (which serves its tourism industry). While some African states (notably Ghana and Rwanda) are introducing near-universal healthcare, Gambian healthcare remains for the wealthy. And there are plenty of wealthy Gambians; the contrast between rich and poor is striking.
And in yet another insane presidential decree, Jammeh has declared each Friday a public holiday (to increase mosque attendances) and decreed that public workers should work longer days over a four-day week instead, and schools should open on Saturday. He has imposed a new Valued Added Tax. While African states undoubtedly need to increase their tax take in order to build desperately needed infrastructure, Gambians are under little illusion that much of their tax will go to help build the nation.
The 2011 uprising in North Africa led to hopes of an “African Spring” in sub-Saharan Africa too. There were protests in Uganda, but these were viciously suppressed by President Museveni (also a contender for most-moronic leader). Black Africa was not quite ready for its “Spring” moment. The Arab/North Africa uprisings were driven, in large part, by the rise of instant communication. While most people in sub-Saharan Africa now own a mobile phone, the services are limited, and most important, the region is not well-connected to the Internet. Access is usually via Internet cafés, and is extremely slow.
Or at least, was extremely slow. France Telecom has invested heavily in the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) project, high-speed connectivity between Europe and the West African coast. The first phase of this project went live in December. While South and East Africa already have high-speed connectivity, this is West Africa’s first real access to the global Internet. The impact can’t be understated; since Europe and West Africa first met each other 500 years ago, the relationship has been asymmetrical to say the least. For the first time in human history, the playing field in communication has been – to some extent – levelled. Simultaneously, African economies are growing at breakneck speed. Education levels are rocketing, and many wealthy ex-pats are returning home from Britain, France and the USA, bringing skills, investment and employment.
West Africa is on the verge of emerging as a global force, primarily via its biggest member state, Nigeria – ACE may represent the tipping point. While European morons attempt to drag the continent back into nationalism and isolation, Africa rises and joins the global economy (indeed – for the first time, I met several European ex-pats living in West Africa not for travel or charity, but for work).
All of these factors mean the writing is on the wall for Africa’s moron leaders – especially Jammeh, perhaps the most moronic of them all. A seismic event is about to happen; as with all earthquakes, we can predict where, but not when. Perhaps Jammeh, Museveni and their like have another decade to rob and brutalise their people, but I predict it won’t take that long.
At long last, Africa’s lagging economic development can start to catch up with its unparalleled cultural leadership. The Western world has a surprise coming.
The UK’s Channel 4 last week televised a remarkable experiment, screened over two evenings. The channel had funded, for the first time, detailed scientific research on the effects on the brain of the drug MDMA, better known as Ecstasy. A selection of volunteers, including some well-known people, had been given an 83mg dose of the drug (or a placebo) before spending an hour and a half having their brain function analysed in an MRI scanner.
Ecstasy first became popular in the US during the 1980s, and rapidly spread around the world, primarily as a club drug. It induces a sense of happiness, well-being, and increases people’s ability to empathise with and care about other people. It’s an intensely social experience, and is far better than alcohol at creating a bond between people. It was banned in the US (for no good reason that’s ever been articulated), and then around the world – after all, global drug policy has been decided by the US for many decades.
In the UK, a well-orchestrated campaign was rolled out in the media to frighten the public into supporting a clampdown on the drug. The death of Leah Betts after taking her first pill on her 18th birthday, in 1995, created a perfect opportunity for the tabloid press to generate a moral panic. Betts’ autopsy later revealed that she’d died of water intoxication, a surprisingly common condition caused by drinking too much water and washing the sodium out of one’s system; but of course, the tabloids and politicians didn’t retract their earlier version of events. Ecstasy was falsely established in the mass imagination as a “killer drug”.
The reasons for the demonisation of relatively safe drugs such as Ecstasy are many and complex. No doubt, the alcohol industry fears the emergence of competitors and lobbies behind the scenes to ensure that alcohol remains the only government approved method of twisting reality. Our politicians too are generally ignorant on the drugs issue – or if they’re not, they’re all too aware of how they will be attacked in the press if they come out in favour of decriminalisation. But ultimately, as noted above, these decisions are made in Washington rather than London. American puritanism and control-freakery is global policy, until the day the UN finds the collective strength to say no to America.
The police also enjoy the extra powers that come from drug prohibition. I often see police with sniffer dogs pulling people out of London club queues; and you have to wonder who in the police or political hierarchy sees it as a priority to stop people dancing on Ecstasy in private venues. It gives some justification to the current police cuts, if there really are no higher priorities for policing a large city on a Friday night. Most clubbers know how to get past drug searches, so the small amounts retrieved by police and club security can only represent a tiny proportion of the total; the fact is, sniffer dogs provide easy arrests for the police, which can look good when aggregated into national crime statistics. The Home Secretary can brandish increased numbers of arrests and incarcerations, without having to make clear that no additional serious crimes have been dealt with.
In the 80s and 90s, high quality Ecstasy was easy to find, generally in pill form. Then, an EU ban on a precursor chemical made true MDMA scarce. Pills were still sold in clubs, but often containing other drugs, such as caffeine, BZP and later, mephedrone (which then in 2009 became hugely popular in its own right). True Ecstasy was hard to find. And then over the past couple of years for some reason (I’m told alternative manufacturing processes were developed), pure MDMA has burst back onto the scene. These days, MDMA is more usually sold as pure crystals than pills – probably because pills are now more distrusted after years of fakes being sold, and MDMA crystals are easy to test by taste and appearance.
Almost 30 years after Ecstasy appeared on the scene, it is more ubiquitous than ever, and being sampled by a whole new generation, either as a club drug or a bonding experience to be shared among friends at home; which highlights (yet again) the complete failure of drug prohibition. Countless millions of pounds have been spent, countless thousands of young clubbers and festival-goers harassed by police, and many thousands arrested and criminalised, pointlessly.
The Channel 4 experiment included tests on pills seized at the Glastonbury music festival. A third of pills contained no MDMA at all, while many of the remainder were adulterated with other substances. Many prohibitionists hold up this kind of study to prove the dangers of substances like MDMA; but on the contrary, this merely demonstrates the danger of prohibition. The ban on so many drugs like MDMA has simply pushed people to try increasing amounts of untried, untested substances – a recent study reported around one new recreational substance appearing on the market every week. Tabloids regularly run scare stories about new drugs, many so ill-informed and laughable that they’re reminiscent of the hilarious spoof drug “Cake”, invented by the British comedy show Brass Eye.
And it’s not as if MDMA is a dangerous substance. It has been sampled by tens of millions of people over three decades, many of them long-term users, and recorded deaths attributed to Ecstasy are so low as to be statistically insignificant. For example, in 2010, between five and 18 Ecstasy-related deaths were recorded, depending which statistics you use; and in most of these, Ecstasy was cited as a contributory factor, rather than the sole cause. Annual estimated Ecstasy use in the UK varies between half to one million. On this basis, eating salty or fatty food carries a far greater health risk than taking Ecstasy.
And even if the drug were more dangerous than it seems to be, why should people not have the right to use it? Banning everything more dangerous than Ecstasy would see an end to legal swimming, driving, eating most foods and without a doubt alcohol and tobacco. The global panic attack that has led to the banning of dozens of safe substances (as well as a few more dangerous ones) bears no sane explanation. Popular drugs are banned without thought, before scientists can get a chance to research them. The government realises that if publicly funded research gave Ecstasy the all-clear, to maintain the ban would appear ludicrous. So almost no funds go into researching substances – while the government hypocritically continues to label them as dangerous.
Many observers noticed years ago that the War on Drugs had been lost. Many ex-Presidents and police chiefs call for it to end, but only after retiring from office; the moron consensus doesn’t allow senior officials to tell the truth about drugs policy.
If you’re still in doubt, perhaps you should try MDMA for yourself – you’ll find it at the Silk Road marketplace, or perhaps via a young friend or relative. You’ll find yourself wondering why a substance far safer than alcohol, that makes people more caring and loving towards each other, is treated by the authorities as a threat to society.
For half a century or more, the Great American Terrorist Roadshow has brutalised one region after another, crushing freedom (in the name of freedom), deliberately destroying economies, creating chaos, and leaving millions of dead people in its wake. Following the Roadshow’s sellout tour of South-East Asia in the 1970s, Uncle Sam turned his attention to Latin America. Whether done in the name of fighting socialism or drugs, or simply carried out in secret, US terrorism crushed democracies, propped up murderous dictators and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.
In the 1990s America grew bored of killing Latinos and decided to go bully Arabs instead – no doubt, Latin Americans watched the Gringos leave with tears in their eyes. Latin America was left alone (to some extent anyway) to lick its wounds and rebuild its freedoms. Today, Latin America hosts some of the world’s most vibrant and independent democracies – and it’s hardly surprising that giving America the finger is a popular pastime among leaders in the region.
So when a Bolivian government minister announced that he would ban Coca Cola this coming December, nobody was too surprised. The suggestion is more than just a dig at America’s favourite weight-enhancer; it’s a symbolic statement on the US “War on Drugs”, which continues to terrorise and destabilise Latin American countries. Coca leaf, the raw ingredient used to make cocaine, is a traditional Bolivian product, and commonly used as a mild stimulant. The US-initiated ban on coca is an attack on the Bolivian economy, which could benefit from legal coca exports. Bizarrely, Coca Cola is the only US company which is allowed by the federal government to import coca leaves for use in Coca Cola (although it refuses to confirm or deny the use of coca in its products).
In summary: the US government bans the import of a Bolivian agricultural product, with the exception of one company, which uses that product to make a drink which is consumed by millions of Americans. It could make sense to ask why coca isn’t more generally allowed for sale in the United States – a trade that would boost the Peruvian and Bolivian economies. But sensible questions are incompatible with the Orwellian War on Drugs.
Naturally, the Bolivian idea of banning Coke (the tooth-rotting, obesity-encouraging variety) is now being downplayed as a comment “taken out of context”. A serious point has been well made, but with Latin America now perhaps the world leader in freedom and democracy, we can expect to see more serious initiatives towards ending the moronic War on Drugs – and perhaps see America turning its aggressive gaze back on the region in response.
This week, the UK government ended a consultation on whether cigarette companies should continue to be allowed to use branding and packaging to make their products more attractive. I’ve read and listened to some of the coverage, trying to decide as to whether this strategy will be effective in cutting smoking, but so far few facts have emerged from the noise of debate. Anti-smoking campaigners argue passionately for the ban, while “libertarian” free market advocates claim it will have no effect, and stifle freedom.
My heart is with the ban; the tobacco industry has proven itself to be the worst kind of scum, successfully denying any link with cancer for decades after 1950s research revealed the risks (indeed, denial of the tobacco-cancer link until the 1990s was a favourite moron argument, paralleling today’s denial of climate change). Only when huge class action suits threatened the industry’s very existence did it turn away from lying about its product’s health risks. Tobacco is by far the most dangerous of all recreational drugs, linked with an estimated 18% of all deaths in British over-35s, and 5% of all hospital admissions. My libertarian sympathies, also, aren’t aroused by the prospect of forcing the removal of branding from packaging. Liberty is for people, not corporations, and nobody is (yet) suggesting that people shouldn’t be allowed to buy or smoke tobacco (I’d strongly opposes any outright ban on tobacco sale or consumption). The idea that anyone is losing liberty by having to buy Marlboro in an olive rather than red-and-white pack is ludicrous (yet this kind of argument is a common piece of “libertarian” nonsense).
Would a branding ban reduce smoking? That seems less clear. Its advocates seem to have more passion than facts at their disposal. A comparison with the illegal part of the recreational drugs business suggests that branding isn’t a pre-requisite for product popularity. Highly popular drugs, such as MDMA (pure Ecstasy crystals) and cocaine are typically delivered in small plastic bags, or neatly folded up in a old lottery ticket. Cannabis is sold in a plastic bag or clingfilm. There are some approximations to branding: batches of Ecstasy tablets can usually be identified by size, colour, shape and stamp. Mitsubishi pills were popular a decade or so ago, and popular brands like Apple and Nike have taken over more recently. Rumours of a particularly good batch of pills would make a particular brand popular; but in a black market with no trademark protections, if “Apples” are all the rage, manufacturers will quickly begin producing fake Apples. Cannabis is “branded” based on its strain; a grower who creates a hybrid to be proud of will give it a memorable name – classics include White Widow and Orange Bud. But once the seeds are in the public domain, all brand control is lost.
Due to their illegality, cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy can’t be effectively branded; but their popularity seems undented nonetheless. For decades (millennia in the case of cannabis), these drugs have only increased in popularity. It seems that branding, rather than increasing overall market size, simply increases the ability of corporations to control the market. To me, that seems like a bad thing – corporations create brand loyalty in order to ultimately reduce consumer choice and dominate the market.
It seems that brands contribute to the monopolisation of markets, reducing competitiveness and choice. The huge variety of recreational drugs for sale, and the endless scientific innovation in the field contrasts favourably with the increasing lack of innovation in legal markets, where corporations, having established dominance, get better returns from crushing competition than from investing in research and development. This is the classic contradiction of Capitalism; by succeeding, it dies.
On this basis, branding is the ultimate enemy of the free market. Can anyone claim that McDonalds or Budweiser have led to improved choice or quality? Brand psychology is hugely sophisticated, and we’re all susceptible, however aware we are. It’s why Brad Pitt sells more movie tickets than a brilliant, but unknown actor. It’s why in a strange city, I gravitate to Starbucks – it’s not the best coffee, but it’s familiar and I know what to expect.
Perhaps libertarians, rather than defending the right of British American Tobacco to lure us with fancy packaging, should be welcoming the tobacco experiment, and calling for its extension. In a sane world, perhaps adults would be presented with a choice of unbadged tobacco, alongside unbadged cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy, all of which have far fewer health issues than cigarettes. Of course, we don’t live in a sane world – but it’s worth at least thinking about.
Denver, Colorado. Yesterday, yet another unknown white American opened fire on some of his fellow citizens, apparently at random. He attended a premier of the latest Batman movie, threw a smoke grenade, and strolled around shooting (apparently) complete strangers. This story is so familiar, as is the aftermath: arguments over gun control, heated discussions over why people do this, sick jokes. But who can blame the jokers? We’ve been round this loop so many times before – what else is there to say?
This – and I mean people opening fire on random strangers with no apparent political target or goal – is overwhelmingly an American phenomenon. I found a list of notable school shootings on Wikipedia and crunched some numbers (I realise that this one wasn’t a school shooting, but I wanted a quick global comparison of such events, and this was the first reliable-looking resource I found).
Here’s a breakdown of the above list:
USA (current pop: 312m) : 118
Canada (pop:34m): 11
Europe (pop: 738m): 22
South America, Asia and Australia (pop: 4572m): 13
Africa isn’t mentioned: although it’s a continent where many horrors have occurred over the past century, kids walking into school with guns and spraying their classmates with bullets may not be among them.
A European like myself may start by smugly noting just how much more prevalent such events are in North America. But this is to miss a wider point. It seems that the “white world” has a random violence problem; factoring in the one incident in Australia, only 7.5% of these incidents happened in Asia or South America, regions comprising well over half of the world’s population (this ignores that two of the “Asian” incidents took place in Israel, which is effectively a European colony too – I didn’t check whether these Israeli incidents were “classic” school shootings, or the result of the Israel/Palestine land struggle).
It is Europe, and its diaspora, that has claimed the moral authority to dominate, invade, bully, occupy, bomb and manipulate the rest of the world’s populations for the past 500 years or so. The collapse of the European empires didn’t end this behaviour, but merely shifted the centre of the Empire from London, Paris and Berlin to Washington DC. Indeed, America has been relentless in pursuing the same claims that Europe had once made: Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Lebanon, Libya, Iran – these (and their resources) were all territories jealously claimed by European powers before the new American Empire came into being.
This article isn’t about analysing why events like yesterday’s in Denver happen – I’m sure even as I write, thousands of blog posts have been published on that subject. I’m merely pointing out what should be obvious: not only does the “Western World” (aka white world) not have the moral authority for its endless wars and occupations; it lacks any moral authority at all. Most of the huge slaughters in the past few centuries have been carried out by Europeans or their descendents; and even those few that weren’t – the Cambodian killing fields or the Rwandan genocide – have Whitey’s fingerprints all over them (America’s secret Cambodian war led directly to the Killing Fields, and The French, Belgians and the Vatican were squarely in the frame for Rwanda).
This shooting is a reminder of something that most of the world is never allowed to forget: the violence that is so much more implicit in European cultures than almost any other (an excellent book, Dark Continent, looks in more depth at this truth). Westerners have deep trouble understanding or believing this, despite the endless wealth of evidence surrounding us. Even today, far-right agitators attempt to persuade us that it is the Muslim world, not us, that is the threat to world peace; a precursor to persuading morons that yet more white violence, just one last push against Iran, or Venezuela perhaps, is the answer to the problems facing the planet.
It’s time for Whitey to get some self-knowledge. When the European diaspora ends its eternal blood lust, the world will take a huge step towards civilisation. While America is incapable of stopping crazy, gun-wielding morons from shooting up schools, McDonald’s or cinemas, how can it possibly justify having military bases (undeclared occupations) in over 150 countries?
The typical retail recreational drug dealer isn’t the most ambitious of characters. The job offers a decent income, short working hours and the chance to spend all day getting high on your own supply and watching porn; no doubt the dream job for many teenage males, but a little bit sad if you reach your 30s and you’re still doing it. The skills required are minimal – find a supplier and a set of digital scales, spread the word through friends (carefully, mind) and the customers start to roll in. Thanks to the prohibition of drugs, there’s no need to provide good customer service, or a quality product. Competition is minimal, and the free market limited – customers have little choice but to come back, however bad a service or product they receive.
The stupidity of prohibition really hits home when you realise what kind of morons end up dealing drugs for a living. According to Drugscope, British “coke” is only about 26% pure when it reaches the customer, and can contain any blend of a dozen or more substances. In order to keep his prices keen and his margins high, the dealer will cut in other, cheaper (and sometimes more dangerous) drugs and fillers. The buyer has little idea what he’s actually buying – and the same applies to other drugs from heroin to hashish and pills of various types.
The official line is, of course, that prohibition exists to protect the public, but this is nonsensical. Most “drug deaths” aren’t caused by the substances that customers think they’re buying, but by the unknown substances that are sneaked in by suppliers, or uncertainty over dosages. In just one of many examples, Lancashire police warned users a few years ago that cocaine was possibly being cut with a carcinogenic substance. Cocaine itself isn’t a particularly dangerous drug (far less so than alcohol, for example), but moronic attempts at prohibition have made it into one. If this happened in any legal business, the authorities could step in; but our moronic leaders have decided that the recreational drugs trade will be run by criminals, with no regulation whatsoever.
Many recreational drug users are well-informed about the substances they choose to use, and thanks to the Internet, reliable health information (which should be provided by governments) is shared among users. Drugs deaths are extremely rare – the real killer drug, alcohol, kills ten times more people than all illegal substances combined. Alcohol is a dangerous substance used by the majority because they have no other legal drug options, and little understanding that safer substances exist. A large minority of people choose other drugs, but find trouble with sourcing clean and reliable supplies because they are illegal.
A genuine free market in recreational drugs would give users the control to buy what they want, from trusted suppliers, instead of basing their drug choices on what is legal, or easily available.
That moment has arrived. No: political leaders haven’t overcome their stupidity, corruption and cowardice, and decided to legalise, regulate and tax a drugs market; instead, technology has stepped in to fill the void. The Silk Road marketplace is a web site set up by unknown geeks and run from unknown places. It makes use of state-of-the-art technologies in encryption, anonymisation and digital currency. It allows sellers to list products, and buyers to browse, check out vendors, and purchase safely. By use of an eBay-style rating system, vendors can score suppliers by reliability and product quality. Just as with eBay, the rating of vendors allows the “wisdom of crowds” to help reliable, honest vendors to be identified.
You want ecstasy, LSD, ketamine, cocaine or diazepam? Heroin, cannabis, hashish or morphine perhaps? They’re all there, and many more. The site can’t be accessed via a regular web browser; it uses the Tor browser to route connections through multiple servers and prevent them being traced, and the Bitcoin electronic currency to allow anonymous payments. The marketplace has been around for over a year – Gawker reported on it on 1st June 2011, and it still appears to be thriving.
I’m far from being an anti-government, fundamentalist libertarian. It’s true, as the Silk Road demonstrates, that markets are often good at creating freedom in the midst of repression, and that competition tends to lead to better, cheaper products and better service. But I also believe that good regulation makes for better markets; governments have a duty (which they currently shirk) to control the quality of recreational drugs and inform customers of what they’re buying. Government negligence in refusing to regulate the drugs market destroys millions of lives, and entire countries; there should be global outrage against the “war on drugs”, but the corporate media does a great job in persuading the majority that drugs, rather than the “war on drugs”, are the real menace.
The Silk Road presents an opportunity for governments to accept that the “war on drugs” never had a hope in hell of succeeding. They could destroy the system overnight by offering their citizens legal, regulated, safe supplies of drugs. As I’ve blogged previously, they could reduce the damage caused by alcohol by offering legal alternatives. But politicians are too badly informed, or cowardly, and vested interests too powerful, so rather than do the sane thing, authorities are no doubt trying to track down and arrest the operators of the Silk Road. In the interest of liberty, and of saving yet more countries from being torn apart by the “war on drugs”, let’s hope that they fail.
Since prehistoric times, almost all human societies have used drugs. They’ll never go away; our leaders can only ensure that they are as safe – and as good – as possible. The Silk Road is a technological, market-based attack on the “war on drugs” – it may not be ideal, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The Australian Sex Party is a recently-formed progressive political party, with a strong emphasis on civil liberties. Dismayed that none of the mainstream parties were prepared to stand up to lobbyists from the religious right, Fiona Patten and her colleagues founded the new party and stood for election against those who supported the introduction of strong Internet censorship in Australia. Fiona recently visited London, and I took the opportunity to interview her.
A tweeter questioned today whether I (being British and watching from afar) perhaps don’t understand the anger driving people over the Trayvon Martin shooting. I’d suggested that all sides needed to “chill-the-fuck-out”, following a bounty put on Zimmerman (the shooter) by the New Black Panthers, and the retweet of Zimmerman’s address by film-maker Spike Lee (which turned out to actually be the address of an old couple).
It’s true that, from afar, it’s hard to really take the pulse and understand people’s feelings in a foreign land – although Twitter does help convey the emotion of the event far better than the “old media”, where events are cleansed through the minds of journalists. It’s been possible to watch the reaction emerge hour-by-hour: incredulity that Sanford police didn’t arrest a killer; the obvious racial stereotyping that was going on; the shouts of racism; the counter-accusations from morons determined to find fault in a 17-year-old unarmed boy who had been killed; the bizarre, peculiarly American polarisation, splitting the country in half over a case where the basic facts seem so simple.
It’s true, I’m undoubtedly missing local, cultural nuances, watching from London, but I have some advantages; it’s easier to see bigger pictures from afar; and I have the advantage of comparison. How would this same story unroll in the UK, mainland Europe or elsewhere?
There was a time, before mine, when America was viewed here with little but admiration. The US presents itself so effectively; Hollywood had packaged and presented a place that was exciting and free (if somewhat violent). But coming of age in the early-80s, that time had already passed. The civil rights era and Vietnam had tarnished America’s claim to being the land-of-the-free. By the time I could follow politics, America, under Reagan, was the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism, and a threat to the independence of small states. I had Chilean friends who had fled Pinochet’s regime of terror, backed to the hilt by Reagan. South African apartheid was holding together, largely because of quiet backing from the US, and nearby states such as Angola were being torn apart by US-backed insurgencies. The small Caribbean island of Grenada was directly invaded to prevent a left-wing government taking over. US-backed terrorists were killing thousands in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and more. The Afghan Mujahideen, precursor of Al Qaida and the Taliban, was skinning Russian soldiers alive, backed with US funds and arms.
We also learned that life in the US was different from the Hollywood view. British reggae band UB40, a favourite of mine at the time, wrote a song in 1981 called Tyler, about Gary Tyler, a young black man from Louisiana who had been obviously framed on a murder charge; yet not one person, police, judge or jury, stopped him from going to jail. Similar stories were to be heard frequently. The freedom mask was slipping.
I first went to the US in 1989, and have been perhaps 15-20 times since. I fell in love with San Francisco and other cities, and began to see a 3D picture behind the 2D portrayals. As I visited more, I went more off the beaten track. The segregation was the first thing to surprise me. It seemed the civil rights movement hadn’t settled racial issues as I’d thought, but merely ended in a ceasefire. White flight left black populations inside cities, while the suburbs were white. And notably, the sight of a mixed-race couple, which was becoming commonplace in London, was extremely rare, even in “liberal” bastions like New York or San Francisco. I began to see that police brutality was so common, it could happen right in front of even me, a tourist. The police acted with such arrogance and authority, I began to wonder how such a police state could exist in a country that believed itself to be, not just a democracy, but THE democracy.
I saw homelessness on a scale I’d never seen in Europe or elsewhere. I visited black ghettos in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Las Vegas, and saw a desperate, poor, lawless country, unlike anything I’d seen before. I saw that thuggish police drove around the ghetto outskirts, the message clear: you do whatever you want inside, but don’t you dare step outside. US ghettos aren’t just poor neighbourhoods; they are drug-infested, crime-infested prison camps.
I saw the reality of a country without universal healthcare. People everywhere living in fear of the simplest thing: falling ill. I’d been born two decades after the establishment of Britain’s NHS, and the idea that people in the richest country could have to cope without medical care was shocking. Today, universal healthcare is even appearing in Africa: Ghana was the first to implement it there, a few years ago. And yet America is currently tearing itself in half over Obama’s simple proposals to ensure that people are covered by insurance.
I began to be sure of one thing in America’s future. There’s a revolution coming. Or perhaps more accurately, there’s a permanently rolling, rumbling revolution ready to burst to the surface when it can. Why else would military-style policing be needed on a daily basis? How else do you explain an incarceration rate higher than China or the Soviet Union at their worst? I began to wait for the trigger.
In 2000, the election was blatantly, publicly rigged to bring George W Bush to power. Voter lists had been casually cleansed of black-sounding names. Florida police had been physically stopping black people from voting. In the 21st century, the old South was still there, plain as day. The US journalist Greg Palast quickly exposed the scam in a short film. But not one media network in the US would show it. The US media was censored to the hilt. The film was instead shown on BBC TV’s Newsnight – I’m not sure if it’s ever reached American TV, and YouTube didn’t exist back then. Then Katrina hit, and the world saw a third-world population living in the middle of the world’s wealthiest country.
In late-2001, four black friends of mine came to visit London from Houston. At the time, London tourism had been badly hit as Americans had cancelled flights, post-9/11, so I asked my friends whether they’d been afraid to travel. One of the girls looked at me and said “We’re black. We live in Texas. Pretty much anywhere is safer than home.”
In 2011, Occupy Wall Street, a remarkable grassroots movement, exploded into life from apparently nothing. Putting aside arguments over its approach or lack of policies, what has been most obvious is its violent suppression. The scenes coming from New York or Oakland aren’t scenes from a free country. The first amendment seems to no longer apply on America’s streets.
Violence, daily police harassment, police killings with impunity are the day-to-day experience of many Americans. Meanwhile, in TV-land, perfectly coiffured blondes report on a version of reality that doesn’t seem to exist if you walk the streets of an American city. The shooting of Trayvon Martin inevitably crystallised the rage. The screaming over racism-or-not, justified-or-not doesn’t capture what I see: a place that’s so afraid of itself that it’s possible to debate whether killing of an unarmed man may have been justified. Whether Zimmerman was racist or not, he was conditioned enough to see a threat in a lone, unarmed black teenage male. He was scared. From here, all of America seems scared. Of what? Of “black crime”. And Muslims. And Latinos. And immigration. And drugs. And people-muscling-in-on-my-hard-earned cash. And getting sick. And terrorism. And Iran getting nukes. And Iraq getting WMDs. And Communism. And Somali pirates. And Hugo Chavez. And Fidel Castro. And people peacefully protesting against injustice in the streets. What sane wealthy country would need to build gated communities?
The people who are least afraid are the ones who most deserve to be. America’s minorities seem to be weary, fed up, and angry. The rage around one boy’s shooting is a small taster of what is to come. America: You can’t lock up everybody, although you seem to be trying to. Egypt and other countries showed that the most brutal policing won’t keep people in their place forever.
The US is a country that feels it should “police” the globe. In practise, US wars bundle up the racism, fear and hatred prevalent in US society, and inflict them, unwanted, on the rest of the planet. If the US ever did have a moral right to intervene in other countries, it long since surrendered that right. All this can be fixed: get corporate money out of politics, put the police in their place as servants, not masters, reduce prison populations, introduce modern healthcare, stop letting the ultra-rich set the media agenda. Alternatively, perhaps you should revisit your national anthem: land of the free and home of the brave? That’s not how it looks from here.