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Why the ‘War on Drugs’ Failed —An Inside Story.

by Thomas Giblin (he/him)

culture & lifestyle writer

Fifty years ago President Nixon called for an "all-out offensive" against drugs and addiction—this ‘war’, a staggering policy failure, has led to decades of death and violence. Now as the conversation around drug law reform grows, two former drug traffickers and a drug policy expert provide us with the case for legalisation.

"Do you live with the regret—the guilt that you've taken part in this trade?" "No. I did what I did."

Pieter Tritton, now in his 40s, works as a painter and decorator - he's managed to clean most of the paint off his hands. We make small talk before the interview begins. "So my name's Pieter Tritton, otherwise known as 'Posh Pete', which is a nickname I absolutely hate, to be honest. I'm known for being an ex-cocaine trafficker."

I spoke to Tritton via Zoom; his friendly demeanour and knitted jumper didn’t give off the impression of an ex-drug trafficker. Instead, he could be a neighbour or a colleague. Tritton speaks so calmly of his trade and, despite his PTSD, the unimaginable horrors he witnessed are recounted with pained earnestness. He describes impregnating cocaine into rubber with such nonchalance that at times our conversation seemed as normal as if we were discussing the weather.

"They would put the cocaine into the solution, mix it with liquid latex, let that set in very thin layers and then open the groundsheet of a tent and stick these sheets of latex onto the groundsheet of the tent."

The blossoming rave scene of late 80s and early 90s Britain was a springboard for Tritton—the free parties he and his friends attended were full of drugs. Throughout his school years, he was “selling drugs every weekend.” But one morning he woke to a knock on the door and was arrested. Not wanting to jeopardise pursuing his lifelong passion and studying archaeology at university, Tritton stopped dealing.

When Tritton arrived at Cardiff University, he identified a gap in the market—thousands of students new to the city, and none of them knew where to find drugs. "Trying to survive as a student is pretty difficult.” So, in order to pay his bills and support his mother, Tritton "stupidly decided to start dealing drugs again.” One bad decision and it snowballed from here. He went from being a local drug dealer to trafficking cocaine from South America.

"The selling of drugs was more addictive than the taking of drugs" is a phrase Tritton uses. As an adrenaline junkie, it was the thrill of picking up drugs, the cat-and-mouse game with the police and role-playing as a 'gangster' which got Tritton hooked. Even though he’s gone straight, this still provides a lingering temptation. But, as he points out, he'd receive a life sentence if he was caught dealing drugs again. "My dad's getting old now, he's had a stroke. I don't want to put my family through any more fucking grief and stress."

Now living an ordinary life, Tritton had spent nearly half his life behind bars. In 2005, he was caught in an Ecuadorian hotel room with 8 kilograms of cocaine and sentenced to 12 years. Tritton "went through hell" during his decade in the notorious Litoral Penitentiary of Guayaquil, Ecuador. With gang violence being a regular occurrence, he witnessed death “any which way you can think of.” To survive, Tritton realised that it all was about money and if he could be “of some potential to them (the gangs), then it would give them some reason to keep me safe.”

He survived a decade in Ecuador, and upon his repatriation to Wandsworth Prison, Tritton experienced a sense of culture-shock. Despite returning home, society had moved on so fast and Tritton had been left behind. The whole of society had changed—the Internet had blown up, pubs had shut down and people weren't going out drinking on a Friday night. Now that Tritton has acclimatised and life has returned to ‘normal’, he works as a public speaker on the dangers of drugs alongside painting and decorating.

When asked about the war on drugs, Tritton says, "it's never going to be won." He’s pro-legalising drugs to regulate the market and "take out the financial gain." Governments should "manufacture them under licence, sell them in a controlled form and tax them to offset the negative health effects."

"How else are you going to control it?"

Conversations around drugs are driven by morality, so Tritton doesn't feel guilty for his part in the trade. "I was an entrepreneur", "a businessman", and "I viewed it as a commodity." Why should Tritton feel guilt if people die from drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes? Those companies don't feel guilt—the profits are too good.

Pieter Tritton and David McMillan briefly met in Wandsworth Prison in London in the early 2010s. They ended up on the same wing, living three doors down from each other, serving out their sentences. Tritton recounts watching a pirated copy of Underbelly Files: The Man Who Got Away, a telemovie based on McMillan's escape from Bangkok's Klong Prem prison. He turned to his cellmate and said, "I've got a funny feeling I'm going to bump into this guy."

David McMillan has a lengthy, laudatory Wikipedia page— it makes for odd reading. There's a sense of mythicism and romanticisation around McMillan, who is described as a "gentleman rogue.” McMillan's charm is evident, but there's an uneasy air about him even if Youtube commenters consider him a "hero.”

"I'm David McMillan. This battered old wreck of a face you see is attached to a body that's been through a disjointed career as a smuggler for probably 40 years or so." Now 66, his smuggling career started in the 70s with hashish from India. As his network of mules, 'passengers' and 'couriers grew, his smuggling ring spanned Australia, Thailand, South America and Europe. "It was not practical or safe to carry more than three and a half kilos or so - whatever it was had to be high value. It had to be either China White or heroin from northern Thailand or good South American coke."

"Illegal trading is not much of a thing to devote your life to."

McMillan now lives a life of domesticity with a partner and a job installing CCTV cameras. This lifestyle is a far cry from his life in the 80s as a multi-millionaire. McMillan states he's "made every mistake possible in the trade but survived." Most famously, after being caught in Thailand and convicted on drug trafficking charges,

McMillan escaped the 'Bangkok Hilton' weeks before he was scheduled to be executed - the only Westerner to ever escape. When recounting this brush with death, he's humorous - "it was by machine gun in those days. I can recommend it because at least it's relatively quick." This exploit has made him a fetish object for true-crime fans.

Although this prison escape made him famous, McMillan's happy this interview has a broader scope. His view is that "everything needs to be legalised." He uses the Swedish Systembolaget, a government-owned chain of liquor stores, as an example of what drug law reform could look like. "You fill out a form and line up with your tray. They give you what you came for."

McMillan damns the war on drugs as "artificial and fake—that every government knows it's unwinnable." He once told a judge, "I didn't set the price, the government did,” so if drugs are ever to be legalised, they must be priced accordingly—"if you open weed shops, they won't compete with the local dealer because the price would be so high if they were taxed on the same basis as tobacco." The approved duty on approved drugs like alcohol and cigarettes means there's a lack of political will and pressure from industry lobbyists.

As a young man, McMillan lobbied for change; he distributed a monthly magazine, The Australasian Weed, a drug-reform periodical, which advocated the complete lifting of the prohibition against drugs for recreational use. Forty years later, with 20 years spent in prisons worldwide, he's sure he would have had a much happier life being a "research scientist or something."

"We need to rethink and reform our drug laws completely.”

Hailing from the north of the United Kingdom with an accent to match, Fiona Hutton is an expert on New Zealand drug policy, drug reform and harm reduction. She's an Associate Professor at the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University and was active in the reform space around the 2020 cannabis referendum. You may have read her Spinoff articles.

We don't have much time together, so I ask Hutton about the current state of drug policy in New Zealand. "It was thought that prohibition would stop people from taking substances and therefore it would reduce harm...dry up the demand, etcetera. We can see that drugs are cheaper than they've ever been, and they're more available than they've ever been, that they're purer than they've ever been. Drug markets are thriving, and so it hasn't worked."

What stands in the way of drug reform? Stigma, politicians, lobbyists, misinformation, moral ideas about drug use and people who use drugs—it's complex. The "Say Nope To Dope" organisation, a significant voice in drug reform, says, "New Zealand is too precious to be wasted." A series of campaign posters uses the tagline, and one image stands out—a classic Kiwi dairy reimagined as a "Dope Shop". These advertisements, "based on outdated moralised notions of those who use drugs, influenced by rightwing religious groups from the US,'' are a triumph for fear-mongering.

New Zealand’s Misuse of Drugs Act, 1975 was influenced by the even older Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961. The evidence suggests that the approach to our drug laws, which govern our drug policies, is "not fit for purpose." Our approach has "caused harm more than anything," with our Māori population, who comprise about 15% of the population, being significantly overrepresented in drug conviction statistics—this is the case for most indigenous people worldwide.

Hutton would love to say, "in ten years' time, all drugs will be legally regulated in the New Zealand context, and drug harm will have dropped significantly." But as momentum for drug reform grows internationally, there's a fear that New Zealand will be the "last country standing that insists on clinging to these outdated laws."

El Infierno: Drugs, Gangs, Riots and Murder: My time inside Ecuador’s toughest prisons by Pieter Tritton is available online and in all good bookshops. Unforgiving Destiny: The Relentless Pursuit of a Black Marketeer by David McMillan is available online.


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