The War on Drugs: Will we ever Win?

A couple of recent news stories.  Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, the outgoing President of the Royal College of Physicians, has urged the government to legalise both cannabis and hard drugs, arguing (counter-intuitively) that this would reduce harm, and reduce the costs to the taxpayer. He has supported the Chairman of the UK Bar Council, Nicholas Green QC, who has also proposed reviewing the current laws.
Meantime the Mail reports that police discovered 7000 – yes, seven thousand – cannabis factories in the UK last year – more than double the previous year.  Other reports indicate that the street price of hard drugs has been getting lower – a sure indication of plentiful supply.   If our War on Drugs is designed to reduce usage and availability, it’s clearly failing. 
Channel Four has just completed a three-part series, “Our War on Drugs”.  Documentary film-maker Angus Macqueen started from the conventional view that criminalisation of drug use is the only appropriate response, but has become convinced over time that the Drugs War is doing more harm than good.  His third episode, dealing with Afghanistan, was horrifying.  It is clear that drug dealers, and drug money, have infiltrated the whole body politic in Afghanistan.  Police, the Afghan Army, the political classes and parts of the judiciary are compromised by the trade.  We want to believe that our British troops in that country are fighting and dying for freedom and democracy, so it is appalling to realise that they may well be simply protecting the corrupt structures of a narco-state.
Despite the American and British presence there, Afghanistan is reportedly the world’s largest producer of opium, with production up 150% since 2001.  Both sides – the Taliban and the Afghan establishment – are involved in the trade.  And for many poor Afghans, growing opium is the only way they can feed their families.  Not only is our War on Drugs failing in the UK – our war on opium production in Afghanistan is failing too.
Is there another way?  Let’s think what our objectives are for drugs policy.  We want to minimise usage and harm.  We want to cut out the crime that surrounds addiction, the thefts and the muggings that shame our streets, that cost huge sums, that take up so much police time.  We want to prevent major dealers (and terrorists) from amassing fortunes, which they may recycle into other criminal or subversive activity.  And we want to prevent the creation of narco-states like Columbia, Mexico and Afghanistan.  We may also spare a passing thought for the impoverished farmers who grow the opium crop for sparse rewards.
Macqueen believes that legalisation would achieve all these objectives, which penal policy has so signally failed to achieve, and I think he may be right.  Of course this is counter-intuitive.  Many honest folk (and good Conservatives) would respond by saying “Yes, but why would we want to increase drug usage and addiction?”  The answer is, we don’t want to increase usage, and we believe that decriminalising use will reduce it.
How?  Because the drug trade runs on money.  Lots and lots of money.  It is arguably the biggest global industry.  And because it is a criminal enterprise, all that money goes to criminals.  They make so much money because they command a risk premium for a dangerous calling.  And they stand outside schools pushing drugs to children because the rewards are so high.
It’s simple: marketing is driven by profit.  Legalise drugs, sell them through legal channels, and the money goes to the tax-man and can be cycled into rehabilitation, education, recovery programmes, harm reduction.  The marketing imperative is gone.  The selling pressure is gone.  The glamour of risky deals with dangerous suppliers is gone, replaced by boring grey packets with prominent health warnings.  The price needs to be fixed at a level to discourage casual use, but not so high as to allow a black market in cheaper product.
The mere fact that quality would be controlled would help with harm reduction, since street drugs are usually cut with other dangerous substances.  And a legal (but controlled and taxed) market would provide an income for those poor farmers in Afghanistan, and reduce the illegal wholesale trade, whether through Karzai’s henchmen or the Taliban.  The only alternative to simply sticking with a failed policy is to do something radical and new.  Legalisation may be the thing.
There are two conflicting strands of thinking in conservative philosophy – authoritarian and libertarian.  We’ve tried the authoritarian approach to drugs for decades, we can’t make it work, and our streets and our children are at risk.  It’s time to give the libertarian approach a chance.  And I argue that it’s a fundamentally conservative approach, since it recognises the reality of incentives, and restructures the market so as to deny incentives to the bad guys.
I know that there will be many good Conservatives, who would support me on issues like the EU or climate change, yet who will be deeply uncomfortable with this view on drug legalisation, and I apologise to them.  But when we’ve been flogging a dead horse for fifty years, maybe it’s time for a different horse.

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6 Responses to The War on Drugs: Will we ever Win?

  1. If only more politicians would come out and support this stance! It’s the politics of the bleedin’ obvious but still we (and more so the US) insist of fighting and losing this easily winnable battle.

  2. TonyW says:

    I strongly agree with you that present policies are doing more harm than good. Angus Macqueen’s documentary made a good case. On the other hand, I am deeply suspicious of the likes of Ian Gilmore and David Nutt in that both are currently waging war on alcohol. I fear that their motive for entering the debate is to allow them to compare alcohol and tobacco with illegal drugs and provide them with a platform for advocating prohibition of both, in line with other drugs.
    I hope I’m wrong though.

  3. Dave Atherton says:

    Roger you have made a valuable contribution to the debate. Portugal has effectively decriminalised class A drug possesion “Thus, drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but violations of those prohibitions are deemed to be exclusively administrative violations and are removed completely from the criminal realm.”

    What has been the net result. “More significantly, none of the nightmare scenarios touted by preenactment decriminalization opponents — from rampant increases in drug usage among the young to the transformation of Lisbon into a haven for “drug tourists” — has occurred.” Also:

    “Although postdecriminalization usage rates have remained roughly the same or even decreased slightly when compared with other EU states, drug-related pathologies — such as sexually transmitted diseases and deaths due to drug usage — have decreased dramatically. Drug policy experts attribute those positive trends to the enhanced ability of the Portuguese government to offer treatment programs to its citizens — enhancements made possible, for numerous reasons, by decriminalization.”

    The Cato Institute concludes: “The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success.”

  4. Dave Atherton says:

    Firstly can I confirm I can spell “possession” corectly. Secondly the USA admits after spending $1 trillion on the war on drugs that “Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

  5. paul crossett says:

    I allso agree with Roger Helmer. I use cannabis with my epilepsy medication to help me stay siezure free when i dont use the cannabis for a week or two i start to have siezures again but i feel like a criminal for this i dont drink alcahol and i dont dont use any other drugs,i dont get incapasitated with this as i take it like medication, sorry if anyone doesent agree with me this is just my view, i dont like to feel like a criminal but i want some kind of normal life sizure free.

  6. Many thanks for all these helpful comments!

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