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Nguyen Tuong Van's death is a wake up call: legalise illicit drugs

By Greg Barns - posted Monday, 5 December 2005

Van Nguyen is another victim of the refusal by the global community to end the futile policy of zero tolerance towards illicit drugs. If there was a more realistic approach to illicit drugs by countries then barbaric acts like the state sanctioned death of Van Nguyen would be consigned to history.

Consider this. The global illicit drugs market is worth $US 94 billion at the wholesale end of the market. The next largest “legal” global wholesale export market is meat at $US 52.5 billion. From cultivation and manufacturing through to use, the global illicit drugs market is worth $US 322 billion. The global illicit drugs industry is larger than the GDP of 88 per cent of the world’s countries. That’s because demand is high - 5 per cent of the world’s population - 200 million people - use illicit drugs.

These figures - unbelievable though they may sound - are tabulated in the 2005 United Nations Drugs Report.


And just as one country’s drugs industry is slowed down by law enforcement and crop eradication, another is booming. While Columbian coca production has declined by 50 per cent in the past five years, this year, Afghanistan produced 400 tons of heroin valued at around $US 2.7 billion.

And as Van Nguyen’s case shows, the fact that the global illicit drugs market is illegal means that there is a price premium on the product that makes it a very lucrative business for those prepared to take the risk by growing, manufacturing and trafficking the product.

The links between organised crime, terrorist activities and drugs are well established. And the victims of the current zero tolerance policies include impoverished subsistence farmers in countries such as Bolivia, Thailand and Afghanistan, as well as countless numbers of young men and women who languish in jails around the globe as a result of committing drug induced crimes.

That the global war on drugs is an abject failure is becoming an increasingly common view. Last month one of the US’s top judges, former North Carolina Chief Justice, Burley Mitchell, added his experienced voice to the chorus that includes Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Freidman and former US Secretary of State, George Schultz.

Mitchell didn’t mince his words. After years as a prosecutor and a judge, he’s been involved in thousands of cases predicated on zero tolerance for illicit drugs. He shocked his audience at a law enforcement forum by describing the war on drugs as a “total failure”.

“What if we decriminalised drugs?” Mitchell asked. “If you knock out all the profits, then there would be no more Colombian cartel. There would be no more Mexican cartel. They would be broken,” he said. Drug offences should be treated as a medical problem, according to Mitchell. As he rightly pointed out, “God, what could we do with the money we spend on sending people to jail?”


The execution of Van Nguyen will do nothing to deter drug producers, traffickers and users. As Raymond Kendall, a retired director of Interpol has rightly observed, “We cannot legalise our way out of the problem and we cannot arrest our way out of the problem”.

The answer is to regulate the illicit drugs market and move it away from the criminal justice system. The Economist magazine, in an editorial published on July 28, 2001, put the case for decriminalising illicit drugs concisely and rationally.

The Economist observed, “To legalise will not be easy. Drug-taking entails risks, and societies are increasingly risk-averse. But the role of government should be to prevent the most chaotic drug-users from harming others - by robbing or by driving while drugged, for instance - and to regulate drug markets to ensure minimum quality and safe distribution. The first task is hard if law enforcers are preoccupied with stopping all drug use; the second, impossible as long as drugs are illegal. A legal market is the best guarantee that drug-taking will be no more dangerous than drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco. And, just as countries rightly tolerate those two vices, so they should tolerate those who sell and take drugs.”

While the Australian Government has made valiant attempts to prevent Van Nguyen’s barbaric execution by the Singaporean authorities, it, and many in our community, are not looking at the underlying issue. That Van Nguyen is a victim of a global obsession with maintaining a policy that is unfair, unworkable and above all, a total failure.

Van Nguyen’s death should be a wake up call for all Australians. Legalise and regulate illicit drugs.

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First published in The Canberra Times on December 2, 2005.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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