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Steve Rolles from Transform; Winning the War on Drugs (interview)






Flying to South America to provide expert advice to Uruguay’s iconic marijuana legalisation guru President Jose Mujica in 2012, British drugs expert Steve Rolles played a significant role in helping the President draw up plans for full legalisation.


Chatting to Skrufff this week, the Transform campaigner says he’s now quietly confident that worldwide Prohibition could soon be over, not least because of the decriminalisation drives happening in the heartland of the War on Drugs- America.


“It’s impossible to predict precisely but I would expect some form of decriminalisation of possession in the next British parliament and probably legalisation and regulation of cannabis in the one after that,” Steve suggests.


“Concerning other drugs – it’s harder to know, but the experiments with regulating ‘legal highs’ in New Zealand are one possibility and something that will probably lead to wider experimentation with legal drug market regulation. It’s now a case of  ‘when’ and ‘how’ reform will occur, not ‘if’.


There’s room to be optimistic,” he says.



Skrufff: What exactly was your role in Uruguay’s recent cannabis legalisation process: how did you get involved?


Steve Rolles (Transform): “The Uruguayan Government organised a series of expert visits in late 2012 to inform the process of developing their Bill for the legalisation and regulation of cannabis. because of the work Transform have done in this area over the years – in particular the 2009 publication ‘After the war on drugs: Blueprint for regulation’ we were invited to be one of these delegations. I travelled there with my colleague Lisa Sanchez from our Mexico office for an intense week of meetings with the National Drug Policy Directorate, various government officials and parliamentary committees, lawmakers, NOGs, media, and academics.


We made numerous presentations, did Q&As and discussed the detail of the developing legislation with the various officials involved in the drafting. Other experts that visited before and after us included people involved in the US reforms in Washington and Colorado, experts on international law, regional security, and medical issues around cannabis use.


It was very nerdy but also very rewarding to be working so directly with government doing what so often previously we had just been campaigning on. In 2013 I returned for another week of meetings – this time with around 40 local and international experts to fine tune the draft bill and then engage in a series of public engagements to discuss the policy reforms with the public.”


Skrufff: Did you personally speak to President Jose Mujica?  What was he like compared to European politicians?


Steve Rolles (Transform): “Yes we did have a meeting with Mujica – he’s great – he’s 78, a former revolutionary who was captured, tortured and spent years in solitary confinement. He has no political ambitions or pretentions; he’s just someone trying to the right thing for his country. He still drives to work in his battered old Volkswagen Beetle – which is parked on the street outside the presidential office, and he still lives in a very modest farmhouse, having donated his presidential palace to be used for educational purposes.


He also gives most of his presidential salary to charity. It’s almost disconcerting meeting a political leader like that when we are so used to the cynical politicians here. He’s the real deal – wise, generous and uncorrupted by power. But we didn’t spend long with him, to be honest – most of the more detailed high-level meetings were with the Prime Minister and Cabinet.”


Skrufff: How significant is their decision to legalise; where else might fully legalise?


Steve Rolles (Transform): “It’s very significant because it represents a decisive fracture in the international consensus around prohibition as a necessarily global framework – the three UN drug control treaties. Others have talked up change but Uruguay has acted, and even though it is only a small country, it is has huge symbolic importance for the international drug control system and wider debate.


As Mujica has said ‘someone had to go first’. The prohibitionist consensus has been in place for over 50 years but is now over – and because this was led by a national government it creates space for other dissenting member states to move as well- especially now the US federal government has effectively green lighted the cannabis legalisation moves in Washington and Colorado.”


Skrufff: You’ve been working for Transform for almost 20 years; how do you manage to avoid become cynical? And how do you manage to handle all the hypocrisy (with all the off the record stuff politicians tell you, that they agree with legalisation)


Steve Rolles (Transform): “It’s often been frustrating – and change has been slow – often feeling like two steps forward and one step back. I almost left to do something else a few years back – but my interest has been fired up again by reform becoming a reality, and getting the opportunity to work on real world reforms rather than just arguing that they would be a good idea.”


Skrufff: What’s stopped you from switching careers to something more lucrative?


Steve Rolles (Transform): “Money has never been a big motivation for me – I get by just fine and get a lot of rewards in ways beyond a fat salary. Seeing the years of work we’ve done paying off is very gratifying and I also get to travel around the world, meet amazing people, and help achieve genuinely positive change  – so I’m not complaining.”


Skrufff: Numerous high profile respected bodies and individuals (The Economist/ George Soros etc) are active supporters of full drugs legalisation: why is the Daily Mail still so powerful in the UK?


Steve Rolles (Transform): “I’m not sure the Daily Mail is as powerful as many people think it is but because its readership is a key population of floating voters, politicians in the major parties pay it more heed than they might otherwise. And I think even the Mail is coming around to the need for change – even if the arguments for them are different.


For them reform is more about not wasting money, and reducing crime – they aren’t interested in the health or rights of drug users, or of the international dimension – but bring the discussion back to where their tax is being spent, or the chance of them getting mugged and there’s a chance of movement. There’s also a generational process going on – the older generations who don’t really understand the issue are being replaced by the post war generations who do.”


Skrufff: Have you ever had trouble (threats or intimidation) from criminals concerned that you’re threatening their livelihoods?


Steve Rolles (Transform): “Not yet – but we will probably know we are winning when that starts happening. Its more of a threat in our Mexico office – we have to be very careful with trigger happy cartels famous for ordering hits on journalists, politicians and human rights defenders they feel threatened or slated by. We have had security training and regularly review the situation – but haven’t had any trouble yet.”


Skrufff: Anything else to add?


If you want to find out more of get involved – check out the transform website







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