Sometimes I worry that I am out of touch with popular culture. I know nothing at all about football, and even less about pop music. And while most young people (I have the impression) know all about drugs, and could buy them, if they wished, at a moment’s notice, I personally wouldn’t know where to look. I have only once in my life been offered the opportunity to buy any, and that was around twenty years ago on the streets of Kathmandu, when a local young man sidled up to me and tried (unsuccessfully) to make a sale.
Yet I could hardly be unaware of the damage that they do. Poppy crops fund the Taliban in Afghanistan (so much of our money, so many soldiers’ lives, spent propping up the profoundly corrupt “government” of the world’s largest opium producer); drugs drive mafia-style wars on Colombia; they underlie street crime throughout the Western world; they corrupt our youth and destroy young lives; they enrich young thugs and bankroll a host of other crimes; and they cost our economy and our law enforcement agencies terrifying amounts of money.
No one can be in any doubt about the scale of the damage. And as a conservative, my instinctive solution is a traditional, zero-tolerance, “get the police out on the streets sorting it out”, send-em-down-and-bang-em-up approach. Yet we have to face the reality. Every variation of that system has been tested to destruction, and it just isn’t working. Prohibition of alcohol in the US is a relevant case history. Whether you sympathise with the objectives of prohibition or not (and I don’t – I used to work in the whisky business), it demonstrated that (A) prohibition didn’t stop people drinking; and (B) it promoted gang violence and criminal activity. It created the opportunity for Al Capone to flourish.
One of the few sensible things that Tony Blair said was “What matters is what works”, and that surely applies in spades in this case. So when Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, the outgoing president of the Royal College of Physicians, says that legalisation would reduce crime and improve public health, perhaps he deserves a hearing. And when former Home Office Minister Bob Ainsworth says the same thing, perhaps we should stop and think, before rejecting his views merely because he’s Labour.
That’s why I was disappointed when my old friend and Burton Tory MP (almost East Midlands!) Andrew Griffiths came out with the standard party line that the idea of legalisation was “bonkers”. Andrew may be orthodox, and win the applause of the traditionalists, but he’s backing a loser.
One of the most annoying comments in this debate (although Andrew didn’t say it) is “But we mustn’t legalise drugs, because we don’t want to increase consumption”. Of course not! The idea of legalising them is to reduce consumption, by taking the profit and the risk premium and the glamour out of the trade – and to cut out the huge amount of low-level street crime that addicts undertake to feed their habit. Profit drives marketing and distribution. Profit gets pushers hanging round school gates. Take out the profit and the glamour, and you decimate the business.
Of course all those that favour legalisation also call for strict controls, medical protocols and so on, and they are right to do so.
I am not quite saying that we should legalise drugs. But I do believe we should have a rational debate. And one more thing: it’s no good just insisting on maintaining a policy that has been tried for decades and has comprehensively failed. Nor is it any good merely tweaking it at the margin. I think it is incumbent on Andrew, and those who espouse prohibition, to offer us a better idea for solving the problem. I suspect they can’t.