How effective is the War on Drugs?
“Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?”
Just in case there is anyone left who hadn’t noticed stark contrasts in policy and personality between the US president and Canadian prime minister, Donald Trump chose a call about trade tariffs with Justin Trudeau ahead of this weekend’s G7 summit in Quebec, to reference an action by British troops, (taken after organizing a sumptuous dinner on said premises) during the War of 1812.
Inevitably, and probably as intended, Trump’s question prompted world-wide discussion. With the US on the brink of a trade war with its closest partners in Europe and NAFTA and the off-on Korea meet meaning Trump’s only successful summit with Kim so far has required a Kardashian, the Donald’s craving for attention is destined to keep carrying on.
With regular mood swings.
So, more than a little sympathy in the room then for Trudeau, both as host of this G7 meet, and because of Canada’s vulnerability to its neighbour’s much larger economy if protectionism rises.
To some extent this would be par for the course for Canada and the US anyway, even if the Canadian PM and POTUS were more closely aligned politically. But the contrast could not be made bolder than Trump v Trudeau. Throw in the former’s unpredictability, and his pre-summit tantrums were perfectly predictable.
Less foreseeably, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s attendance at the G7 summit Outreach event and Canada’s strong political backing for Bangladesh’s leadership role in hosting Rohingya refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, arrives at a moment of notable divergence.
Trudeau’s government is going all out to fulfill his campaign pledge to legalize cannabis, including challenging the international community to amend UN anti-drug conventions, the very same summer Bangladesh’s government is talking up a War on Drugs and law enforcers have killed over 140 people while suddenly arresting thousands in anti-narcotics drives.
A one-word Canadian song title comes to mind. And yes, it probably is, but a busy agenda, protocol and Trudeau’s commitment to supporting Sheikh Hasina’s leadership on Rohingya refugees, mean it won’t get in the way of bilateral ties.
Regardless of one’s attitude to dynastic politics, a special relationship between the pair is undeniable. Pierre Trudeau’s role as the prime minister who patriated Canada’s constitution was a simpler task than Sheikh Mujib’s achievement in leading Bangladesh’s independence, but the legacy of both leaders’ fathers clearly looms large in their nations’ contemporary political identities.
With Bangladesh and Canada both destined by geography and history to support a multi-lateral global order, in contrast to the “America First” uni-lateralism of President Trump, you can bet Sheikh Hasina and Justin Trudeau will want to meet many more times. Not least because the latter’s date of birth, December 25, (what else!) 1971, makes him roughly the same age as liberated Bangladesh. A shoo-in to invite in celebrating Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary of independence, surely?
Of course, both Trudeau and Hasina have elections to win before 2021, and politics is unpredictable, but health permitting, the odds on both still being in place then will shorten by the month.
Should this be the case, which would see Sheikh Hasina leapfrog Nehru and Sirimavo Bandaranayake as the longest serving prime minister in South Asia after Partition, then how her government gets there is what matters to every Bangladeshi, and it is for this reason I hope, however improbably, that she and Justin Trudeau make time to openly discuss the global War on Drugs.
I appreciate the methamphetamine menace of yaba makes it a much deadlier substance than home-grown ganja, but then even more so is the cheap tobacco that kills 100,000 Bangladeshis each year while being conveniently sold at every tea stall across the land.
However effectively RAB arrests drug dealing kingpins and talks about interdicting smuggling from South East Asia, yaba’s chemical nature makes it simple to synthesize locally. For this reason alone, however noble a goal and populist it may seem in the short term, the government’s drive for a War on Drugs is fated to be as meaningless and unwinnable as the phrase itself.
Lest anyone forget, a century of US-led global prohibition efforts has proven a total failure. In the first 40 years alone after President Nixon supplanted his predecessor’s call for a War on Poverty with his own declaration of a War on Drugs, the US government spent $1 trillion to something worse than no avail. A costly folly of sky-rocketing incarceration rates, increased criminality, smuggling and corruption that clearly failed to curb abuse of drugs.
By contrast, evidence from two generations of decriminalization in the Netherlands has not only provided safe spaces for those who choose to dabble in cannabis and other intoxicants, but more importantly, made it cheaper and simpler for authorities to medically treat those with addictive personalities and consistently reduce the number of Dutch adolescents falling prey to harmful drug habits.
It is ironic, now that US states like California and Colorado are following suit, albeit in a more corporate manner than Amsterdam’s coffee shop model, that Bangladesh used to have state licensed marijuana and no formal laws prohibiting its cultivation as recently as the late 1980s.
History proves the goal of curbing drug misuse is better served by treating it medically and accepting that state-enforced prohibition doesn’t deliver its promise.
Of course, Justin Trudeau’s politics are about far more than simply upholding the right of adults to indulge in a joint.
Liberal democratic norms, internationalism not isolationism, supporting diversity and the rights of refugees, not indulging bigoted views and racism like most of the Trumpian clique, such values matter to ordinary people in Canada and Bangladesh alike. Or for that matter, people in the US, who may now be looking to their northern neighbour as being better then their own government at delivering the American dream.
In a world where successful, election-wining politicians like Erdogan and Putin feel the need for authoritarian control freakery, nationalists lead the world’s two biggest democracies and the EU is losing at least one member soon, there is a risk of it becoming possible to see protectionist strongman demagogues as the new normal, and Trudeau the traditional democratic liberal pragmatist, as an outlier.
Foretelling the future is a fool’s errand most of the time as the football World Cup will shortly prove to most pundits.
Even so, while I can’t say who will win the next Bangladesh general election, I am sure, come 2021, leaders the world over and whoever is in power celebrating the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence, will continue to face a choice between the path of Trump and the Trudeau way.
I don’t need a coin to know which way will be better in the long run.
Niaz Alam is a member of the Editorial Board of Dhaka Tribune. A qualified lawyer, he has worked on corporate responsibility and ethical business issues since 1992. He sat on the Board of the London Pensions Fund Authority between 2001-2010 and is a former vice-chair of War on Want.