Comment: Should drugs be legalised?

Drug policy rests upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the problems
Drug policy rests upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the problems

The debate about drug policy is dominated far more by heat than by light. It's time to have a grown-up discussion about legalisation.

By Peter Wozniak

Bob Ainsworth has used the luxury of the backbenches to call for the decriminalisation of all illicit drugs. The editors of the right-leaning press are already preparing their attacks. But far more important than the headline of the Labour MP's stance, is his call for a rational debate about drugs policy. It is something which has been sadly lacking since the first international conference on drugs policy was held in Shanghai over a hundred years ago.

Rather than losing ourselves in the maze of drugs as a moral issue, in arguments about the timidity of politicians and the reactionary attitude of much of the media, let's restrict ourselves, dear reader, to a very simple question - what would happen if all drugs, including heroin and cocaine, were legalised?

The answer is equally simple: No-one can be really sure, because no government has yet had the boldness to institute such a regime, so dominant is the US-determined paradigm on the subject.

Here, our policy is dictated by a much-loathed piece of legislation known as the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1972. Although recent governments have toyed with the idea of a harm reduction strategy, most noticeably when then-home secretary David Blunkett downgraded cannabis to a Class C drug, the system has always reverted to the basic norm of the legislation - that drug-taking cannot be morally neutral, but a criminal act.

The current system of drug classification is proof of this. If it were based on the harm a substance caused to the user in a medical or scientific sense, then heroin and crack would be joined by alcohol and tobacco near the top of the list. Cannabis and ecstasy would barely feature.

True, there are dangers and ailments related to the use of the latter two, but they tend to be whipped up with distasteful frequency to be placed on the far more serious levels of the problems caused by drugs like heroin.

Much of the debate falters around 'tackling the drug problem'. The fact is there is no such thing as a singular 'drug problem', but rather a myriad of drug problems. Public health and acquisitive crime are certainly two, but they should also be joined by the negative effects of current drug policy.

The 'war on drugs' is an utter fallacy. To quote the excellent US television programme The Wire:

"You can't even call this s@?t a war."

"Why not?"

"Wars end."

If drug use is a cause of incredible harm and social ills, then so is prohibitionist drug policy. Although policy-makers wilfully deny this, they may as well deny the setting of the sun. It is a fact.

The point of drug policy is to discourage and stop people using drugs. On all counts, the current policy consensus fails - and woefully so.

Drug use has consistently gone up. Every strategy targeting the supply of drugs has failed. America's 'Operation Blast Furnace' in the 1980s, which aimed to eradicate cocaine in what was then the largest producer, Bolivia, cost billions of dollars and resulted in a depressingly familiar outcome.

When the supply was threatened, it moved. To Colombia. I need hardly go further into the problems experienced in that country to demonstrate that Blast Furnace achieved very little indeed.

In Afghanistan, Nato has tried to encourage farmers to switch from poppy production to other agricultural sources of income, often at huge costs in subsidy. The trouble is, poppies are attractive to Afghan farmers precisely because they are cheap, thrive anywhere and can be transported to market without petrifying. They've no incentive to change their ways, because the demand for heroin continues unabated.

On the home front, the war progressed little better. There is no evidence whatsoever that drug use in Britain has gone down as a result of decades of sustained efforts to criminalise the practise.

Prohibitionist drug policy has achieved two things. One: A burgeoning prison population amongst whom drug use remains hugely prominent, resulting in a criminal justice system so clogged to the brim with minor drug offences that there is little time to deal with more worthwhile pursuits.

Two: It has handed the market of drugs entirely over to the hand of criminal syndicates, whose tenure has meant users are charged exorbitant prices, causing a far greater number of crimes of theft by drug users desperate to conjure up the cash for their next fix. Drugs are also a huge source of revenue of organisations which spread their tentacles into other areas of crime and terror - including the Taleban.

Having criminal gangs in charge of drug distribution doesn't stop them being used, despite the noble efforts of police forces, border agents and, indeed, our troops and intelligence operatives. It can only add to the public health problems and crime relating to substance misuse.

So then, what would happen if we take up Mr Ainsworth's suggestion? Surely, given the drug problems caused by the very practise of prohibitionist policy itself, the results of decriminalisation would be a panacea?

It is tempting to agree.

Legalisation would, in one fell swoop, push the criminal enterprises which currently profit from it out of the market. Rather than the inconsistent drug strengths causing large numbers of overdoses, the quality and supply of drugs could be closely monitored by government.

It would free up the prisons to house more serious criminals than the casual drug user who gets done for possession. It would free up the courts to deal with those cases.

Heroin addicts, instead of being forced into crime to gather the funds they need to fuel their habit, would be far more likely to become productive members of society.

Treating drug use as a public health issue rather than one of debased criminality is eminently sensible given the medical evidence - which is unfortunately still wilfully ignored by politicians of all stripes.

But, as you will remember, when I asked the question 'what would happen under legalisation?', it came with the caveat that we cannot be entirely sure. And therein lies the rub.

Decriminalising heroin, cocaine and cannabis may solve all of the problems I have described above, only to replace them with ones which should be equally concerning.

Drug policy is often treated as having a simple answer: Listen to the scientists, decriminalise and watch the horrific consequences of prohibition be rolled back.

That may not be the case. Although we cannot be sure, it is likely that legalisation would result in greatly increased use. If that increase would perhaps not be to the extent of the current legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco, we should nonetheless be fearful of the consequences of encouraging what would probably be a significant expansion of use - and the strain it would cause on hospitals, treatment centres and families.

Good liberals will argue that that is none of the state's business, that it is up to the individual to decide what they put into their bodies.

Being a liberal myself, those arguments carry a lot of weight, but I remain convinced we should be cautious about following Bob in his crusade for full decriminalisation.

Drug policy isn't working, but the 'drugs problem' will not simply end by making them legal.

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