Machon: Prohibiting a Little Weed? What Damage It Did!

War on drugs is a disaster. I saw its fatal consequences, when worked for MI5 - claims Annie Machon.

Martyna Dominiak: As a former agent of the British Secret Service you are mostly known as an advocate for civil liberties and democracy. You frequently comment on the Manning and Snowden affairs, calling for freedom of speech and transparency of information. How did drug policy become one your topics of interest?

Annie Machon: For the last fifteen years I have been speaking on specific security and civil liberties issues. I’ve always known that the drug war failed; even when I was on the inside, working with UK Customs, I knew it was a failure. But my focus, obviously, had been on other things for personal reasons.

I was doing a speaking tour across Canada in 2009. After the talk someone came up to me and said: “Have you heard about the organization called LEAP, because you’d be a great spokesperson for them.” I met Jack Cole, the head of LEAP, in Amsterdam and I agreed to become a speaker for them, because I agree with what they do. There is this big UN shindig in Vienna every year, where I met more people. I could see the potential to build a network of speakers dotted all over the place. So I suggested to the LEAP board, why don’t we try and put something together in Europe, and raise the profile of LEAP. They invited me to be on the board of directors, to be a sort of point person in Europe. Now I spend my time continuing to travel and do my talks on the need for drug policy reform.

Many organizations advocating for drug policy reform in Poland and Central-Eastern Europe campaign for decriminalization, but LEAP is more radical and advocates legalization. Would you explain why?

I think it’s fantastic that many countries across Europe including Ukraine are going down the decriminalization route, because it does protect users, but it doesn’t answer the problem on the organized crime side. It’s fantastic that so many NGOs and civil society groups over the last decade have managed to get even the UN to discuss the issue of harm reduction and decriminalization. That’s a first big step to protect the end users, but it doesn’t protect society from the supply, so that’s what we really want to look at. And as I said, we all come from law enforcement, so much of our careers have involved dealing with the criminal side of the drug trade. Not just picking up drug users off the streets but the actual organized crime side: be it investigating or prosecuting or judging or imprisoning. The way that we see decriminalization is depenalizing the drug users. Often if you want to take the next step you will be looking at legalization. Individuals have the option to ingest stuff so long as they don’t harm other people. The reason that we advocate that is because the problem we see with prohibition is that it not only criminalizes the users, it also criminalizes the whole trade in drugs, which of course goes underground, so you get organized crime, the drug cartels and you get violence around the globe and terrorism.

Our assessment is that by ending prohibition, just like the end of alcohol prohibition, you take that revenue stream away from criminals and put it in the legitimate hands of government and then tax it. You then also have quality control of what people buy, which adds protection for the users. This is why we advocate that. We don’t advocate drug use per se, we’re coming from law enforcement, but we do say that people have a right to do what they want with their bodies so long as they know what the risks are and they don’t harm anybody else’s rights or commit crimes under the influence. In LEAP that is how we see the difference.

The global trade is worth somewhere between 320 – 500 billion USD per year, which is the third biggest trade in the world after oil, for example. It’s one of the biggest forms of revenue. And it’s all flowing into the hands of organized criminals and terrorists. We know just how epidemic the scale is, we can see the harms and the fact that it is getting worse everywhere.

Legalization for many people means “advertising of drugs”…

If you use the word “legalization” then people get very frightened, (as if) it would be some sort of drug “free for all.” Whereas in fact what we are talking about is a very controlled, regulated market in the same way as, or even more tightly controlled than, what we have with alcohol or tobacco.

We haven’t achieved the aim of the UN convention, which of course is a drug free world. In fact we’ve done quite the reverse. The supply is more available now than it was fifty years ago, drugs are cheaper, they’re stronger and there are more users. And we’ve seen the explosion of the biggest crime wave in human history. The drug trade is criminal and global. So for all these reasons, why keep trying to do the same thing again and again when it’s failing and actually making the problem worse.

So what did you see when, as you were saying, you saw it from the criminal side?

I can’t go into too you many details, but when I was working in the Irish counter-terrorism section in MI5, my job was to look at the movement of terrorists and their weapons into and out of the UK and of course the huge overlap between that and drug smuggling. In fact it’s usually the same people doing these things. So I was working with UK Customs all over the UK, at various ports and airports. And it became very clear that most of the terrorist groups in Ireland received most of their funding from the drug trade. And of course, as a little sideline, they could smuggle in sentex to carry out an explosion in the UK or something like that. It was the drug trade that gave them the connections, and that gave them the know–how in order to carry out the attacks as well.

What are some of the other results of drugs being illegal?

Looking at producing countries, we see they’re often decimated by gang violence, as the gangs or the terrorists groups battle for control of the market or production and then the first steps to trading it. Often these states are quite destabilized and corrupted by those groups. They are destabilized in the sense of security, so there is endemic violence and gang warfare which might even escalate to the level of a national civil war. And they are corrupted from inside when the officials or the government or the police are bribed or intimidated by these violent gangs to let them do what they want. It’s very easy for these sorts of countries to spiral into complete anarchy and become anarchist states, where there’s no real government and no safety net for the population.

We see the same thing, even more brutally I think, in the transit countries. Particularly across West Africa now, I mean Guinea Bissau, Mali, now Libya as well, which were destabilized for whatever reason and then the drug cartels realized it’s a very good transit route from Latin America to the consumer countries in Europe. So you have a mix of the drug cartels fighting for the trade routes, no real central power within these countries, no real central law enforcement, whatever law enforcement there is has been corrupted. And then, just to add more incendiary to the mix, you have the terrorist groups as well, such as the Al–Qaeda affiliates, resurgent in all those countries.

Libya in particular has been very marked, because since NATO went in, and all these various little militias are left fighting there, the whole country is destabilized. These militias are getting a lot of their funding from drug transit trade and drug use is spiraling out of control in Libya, as is HIV infection. So that’s how those countries can be damaged.

In terms of consumer countries it’s less brutal. The damage is mainly done to the users. Of course you do still get the drug warfare going on, and the gang violence to control bits of the trade. In America in particular – I suppose because they have the gun culture as well – we’ve seen how incredibly violent and brutal it is becoming, and whole areas of cities have been ghettoized because of the turf battles between drug gangs. Even in Europe we’re seeing that more, even in UK we’re seeing more gang related drug violence. It harms every side of society and it can have that corrupting influence on the law enforcement.

But what do we care about this violence which is not in Europe, but somewhere in South America, Africa… Why does it matter to us?

Two things. One is the human condition. It’s not your country, it’s not your people, but we live in a very globalized society. And we depend on whole different areas of the globe for different resources and trade. So from a purely practical, self-interested point of view, we in the West need to ensure that some of those countries remain stable or at least functioning in order to get the resources we want from them. So that is one reason: pure self interest in the western way.

In the West we should be aware that if prohibition continues and the demand continues to grow then the violence between the gangs to supply that demand will also grow, so we could get into the sort of spiral of violence that we see in America.

Do you think is it really possible to change or start changing the UN conventions by 2016?

I think it’s possible to introduce a properly informed debate. At the moment we have this dreadful system of consensus, which of course means that nothing ever changes apart from the draft legislation that is cranked out every year, so it really is a pointless exercise. I think if we can get a group of countries within the UN to start asking awkward questions, or even threatening to secede like Bolivia did, because they wanted to change the law around the coca leaf, then that will create pressure from inside. But I also think that things are already rapidly changing in the world, economically and politically, with a sort of resurgent confidence in the Latin America countries. They’re much more anti-North America and willing to stand up against America. We see the economic issue in Europe as well, where many countries are so broke. Britain is unofficially bankrupt, for example. The economic arguments around regulated controlled markets and actually being able to tax those markets might make it imperative to actually start to change the law. So the change may come from outside the UN and force the UN to change the resolutions purely for reasons of survival perhaps for some countries. So I think we need pressure on the inside but I think outside events will probably have an impact as well. There might be another war in the Middle East, whole other regions could become destabilized, and so on. So, trying to factor in all these possibilities, I don’t think the status quo will last beyond the decade.

What about the US, because from one side you have progressive laws in particular states, but on the federal level it somehow remains the same. Do you know if the attitude towards international drug regulation is changing?

The US has been a sort of moving force behind prohibition anyway. It should be the place that we can effect change. Now of course two states have completely legalized cannabis use, which is fantastic and I’m sure other states will follow suit. But it remains to be seen how it’s going to be officially implemented, and what the federal response is going to be. Of course the vested interests of the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] in particular are huge. So this is going to be very interesting to watch. LEAP started in the US, and it’s been growing exponentially the past 10 years. It’s pretty effective on the local level, meaning it’s increasingly effective in certain states. So for example in Colorado it is coming up for a vote. LEAP poured all its energies from across the country into that one state, did lots and lots of state media, etc. And then the law changed.

There was research done afterwards – not by LEAP – to find out what changed people’s minds, why did they vote to legalize. And LEAP was the most significant factor, apparently. Because you have these very senior-looking law enforcement types saying we need decriminalization. Whereas the most stereotypical image in most people’s minds is, you know, hairy hippies and free weed, things like that. These were pillars of society, very respectable people. So that really impacted the more conservative elements. That was just one key example of how they can make a difference and do, increasingly. There are others, like the prison official giving evidence at state level assemblies. Again, doing it in a measured and reasonable way with all the facts and figures at hand, can provide an informed debate and I think people do listen to that.

Can you talk about more about vested interests?

God, where to start? Well, the DEA was of course set up to counter alcohol smuggling during the alcohol prohibition years. That ended in 1933, and they had about 55 thousand staff by that point, so what could they do with all this staff when they don’t have a job any more? That’s when they started lobbying to change the drug laws and actually outlawing marijuana and all the rest of it. So the key factor was the DEA in what has now spun out of control globally.

Then of course you do have completely different vested interests, including all of the law enforcement now. Particularly in America they quite often get most of their funding from assets seized from drug trade. They can keep 80% of that, and they feed it straight back into police coffers. You’ve got the increasingly militarized police. You have the vested interested of sixteen different US intelligence agencies – sixteen! – including the CIA, which has notoriously been involved in destabilizing producing countries and using the drug trade as a reason and excuse to intervene in Latin American countries over the last few decades and across the Middle East. Now they have the war on terror to play with, so they don’t really need the war on drugs as an excuse any more. So there is a whole sort military, security infrastructure that has had a vested interest in keeping the drug trade going. Then of course you get black money sometimes, which can be fed into black ops funds, which the CIA can use off the books, so that’s quite a corrupt factor. But then you have other commercial vested interests like the alcohol and tobacco lobbyists’ groups, which are hugely wealthy and spend huge amounts of money lobbying governments, even the US or EU government, to keep the status quo in place.

And it’s very easy to keep in place because the message has been so successfully put across: drugs are evil. Especially in America, where you have evangelical fundamentalist Christian morality. It’s become quite entrenched in people’s minds. Drugs are evil, they kill our children, we’re all very frightened of them. This is what the UN used a lot: children’s rights. What about the rights of children not to be preyed upon by dealers outside the school gates?

If you look at the situation forty years ago the concept of gay marriage was completely left-field, nobody could conceive that it would be possible. And yet, country after country completely changed their cultural understanding of that issue. The same a hundred years ago with women’s right to vote; for hundreds, thousands of years we weren’t allowed to, and then something shifted.

So I think the meme around drug prohibition will shift in the same way. When it goes it will probably go quite fast. It’s just getting to that point and how much more damage we will do to our planet to get there in terms of violence and civil wars. But I think it’s going to be interesting and perhaps fast forwarding 20 – 30 years, the next couple generations are going to look back on us and think: “What the hell were they thinking?! Prohibiting a little weed or something?! Looking what damage it did!”

Annie Machon is a former British Security Service (MI5) intelligence officer who left the Service at the same time as David Shayler, her partner at the time, to help him blow the whistle about alleged criminality within the intelligence agencies. Drawing on her varied experiences, she is now a public speaker, writer, media pundit, political campaigner, and PR consultant. She is also now the Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Europe. She has a rare perspective both on the inner workings of governments, intelligence agencies and the media, as well as the wider implications for the need for increased openness and accountability in both public and private sectors. In 2005, Machon published a book: Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers: MI5, MI6 and the Shayler Affair.

Interview made during East Drugs Story conference in Kiev in June 2013. The author Martyna Dominiak for this article was awarded the second prize in the contest for Polish journalists “Show true colors of drug policy” organized by Open Society Foundations Global Drug Policy Program.


Member of the Political Critique interested in drug policy |