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The war on drugs and the staggering cost to Bermuda

What does the drug war cost Bermuda each year? How about $300 million and rising? Here The Royal Gazette looks at the figures behind the misery as part of a series on drugs and their impact on the Island.

Bermuda pays a heavy price for its drugs war in both financial and human terms.

Drugs supply is kept artificially low given the gauntlet importers run dodging the authorities to get their illegal wares here. Yet demand is constant.

That in turn means street prices are kept high and those large profits can spark deadly clashes as gangs battle over lucrative turf.

Addicts pay top dollar for their substance and then get tempted into crime and prostitution to cover the vast gap between their cravings and their income.

Intravenous drug users risk HIV and hepatitis from sharing needles while drug mules risk life and liberty by packing their bodies full of potentially lethal chemicals.

The dealers’ need to squeeze the product to maximise yield means impurities are introduced into the drug all the way down the chain, meaning addicts play Russian roulette with a purchase which varies in potency from day to day. Overdoses and deaths are the inevitable result.

Yet for those with nothing but contempt for the drug barons, their drug mules and their clients, the price is high too if you stop to look at the figures.

In 1999 the Bermuda Police force stood at 322 officers, supported by 86 civilians a total of 408 people in an annual budget $41 million.

But this year the Bermuda Police Service had 477 officers a rise of 155 officers, now supported by 114 civilian staff, making a total of 613 people operating on an annual budget of $60.5 million.

That’s a staggering 52 percent rise in manpower in just ten years.

And yet they have not been noticeably successful in stemming the drugs tide. Violent crime rose 44 percent between 2000 and 2007.

How much of that can be blamed on the drugs trade?

One former senior Police officer talking on condition of anonymity, said those in law enforcement circles estimate that 80 to 90 percent of most crime categories are linked with drug and alcohol.

“There’s an abundance of evidence to link crime and drugs.

“Ask any corrections officer, probation officer, Police officer or your own neighbour and the answer will be the same drugs drive the crime rates.”

The officer noted that the Misuse of Drugs Act was enacted in 1972.

“We can say that we’re just about to enter our fifth decade of a ‘war on drugs’.

A single drug-driven offender can commit dozens of crimes per week, said the former top cop, and when they are removed from the streets crime rates plummet which is why Police target certain individuals.

“Just look at the variation of housebreaking/burglary offences in the last ten years to see how Police arrests of prolific offenders reduced crime. But, the revolving door syndrome is still at work.

“Let loose in a society, where these offenders are ill-equipped to cope, they resort to crime on their release from prison and crime rates escalate again.”

It currently costs $80,000 to house each prisoner per year and last year, Government figures showed the re-offending rate stood at 78 percent up from 68 percent from the previous year, with a total of 332 prisoners re-offending.

However a new way of calculating the figures saw that rate fall to 42 percent this year with 193 prisoners re-offending.

According to the King’s College of London International Centre for Prison Studies, Bermuda has the 15th highest prison population in the world per head of population.

The depth of the link between drugs and criminality is clearly shown in figures released two years ago which showed heroin use among new prisoners had doubled to 30 percent, while cocaine use had soared to 57 percent. And, of the 325 new inmates tested, 57 percent showed up as marijuana users.

In total, 64 percent of new inmates had at least one drug in their system.

But it is the problems caused by criminals out on the streets which concern most people as rival groups clash with machetes and guns.

The former Police officer said the gang culture was thriving in Bermuda because of the vast money to be made in drugs.

“Remove the incentive, or at least seriously disrupt it, and we’ll have a chance to curtail the growth and livelihood of the gang culture.

“Only then can we expect a reduction in violent crime and criminal gang activity.”

So if Police are costing $60 million per year, what of the other frontline services dealing with addicts and the criminal havoc they wreak?

• Bermuda’s Corrections Department is a $30 million-a-year operation requiring around 250 staff.

l The Customs Department costs the taxpayer $21 million a year and has a staff of 236 people.

• The National Drug Control Department runs on nearly $5 million a year and employees 28 staff.

• The Department of Court Services employs 38 staff and costs $5.2 million.

• The Department of Public Prosecutions employs 24 staff and costs $3 million.

No one is suggesting any of those services would wither away if the drugs menace was somehow magically cured.

Nor is anyone saying that $124 million, or anything approaching that sum, would be saved if the laws were suddenly changed.

But the figures give an indication of the scale of resources now being trained on the drug problem with little sign of success.

And what about the money being made on the other side of the drugs war?

Recently Police have been reluctant to estimate drug costs, claiming that mentioning the figures glamorises an illegal activity.

But one unofficial Police estimate in 2005 put Bermuda’s drug habit at $200 million a year giving a total drug war bill which is arguably approaching $300 million.

While all other MPs contacted for comment ignored the chance to discuss Bermuda’s drug laws, Opposition MP John Barritt did respond to say a rethink might be necessary.

He said: “I do not believe our war on drugs in Bermuda has been very effective, at all.

“I don’t think it unreasonable to wonder out loud whether there is the political will to come to grips with the problem.”

He said the National Drug Control department had been shunted from ministry to ministry, sapping strength and focus from the various programmes.

And he wondered, given the number of fatalities on the roads, why Bermuda’s laws had not been modified to penalise those driving under the influence of drugs.

Mr. Barritt said he favoured giving people a second chance and he was concerned that young people who made the mistake of dabbling in weed were restricted in travel, education and job opportunities when they got caught.

“I am all for reviewing what we have, looking at what is working and what is not, honestly and openly, and then fighting and pushing for what we think will work.

“I would therefore be prepared to look at our laws as they relate to cannabis in that context, and to debate the issues that arise.”

But Mr. Barritt cautioned that he did not want to encourage people to think that it was acceptable to live their lives stoned.

“I also feel the same way about alcohol. These drugs and their so-called ‘beneficial’ use are vastly overrated.”

Mr. Barritt urged the beefing up of the anti-drug message.

“It is ultimately behaviour we have to modify and to give our young people, and the not so young as well, the tools to make the right choices.”

Others are prepared to go much further.

KEMH surgeon Joseph Froncioni said: “Hard drug addiction is a sorry state for the individual.

“However, if control of these substances is left in the hands of criminals, it is society that suffers the consequences resulting from addicts’ desperation to fund their addiction.”

And Coalition for the Protection of Children head Sheelagh Cooper said: “What we are presently doing is not working.

“There are more addicts, more violent crime, more property crime, and increasingly invasive gang behaviour, more deaths on the roads and more guns.

“Decriminalising marijuana may be one of the possibilities to consider as we move forward.

“If marijuana were legalised or decriminalised, it would remove the profit motive and help put an end to the senseless violence that stems from drug battles.”

The question is are the politicians willing to consider a change of heart?

By Matthew Taylor

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