The debate on drugs policy

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.

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10 Responses to The debate on drugs policy

  1. trevb says:

    I don’t agree with drug use but like you Roger I don’t see that prohibition works. You only have to look at places like Thailand and see how many westeners get death sentences for drug smuggling and yet idiots still try. If that doesn’t stop people why should our over lenient penal system be any deterent.

  2. With due respect, this is one of the few issues regarding which I do not agree with Roger. Having said that, his reasoning (and evidence) do support the position which he has taken. But, only if you consider illegal drugs as more or less equally damaging to vile addictions such as smoking and drinking in excess. Indeed, Roger is careful to point out that he does NOT support legalising drugs. Therefore, he clearly has some reservations himself? But, I do not. Is it not obvious, that even attempts by the state to administer or control illegal drugs would be a massive incentive for people to use them even more widely? As I see it, abandoning the war against drugs is also simply giving in to powerful criminals – and allowing free choice to take precedence over both morality and commonsense. Personally, one wonders if a “better idea is needed”. Instead, the implementation of our current tactics must be applied far more effectively – combined with reforms to make the criminal justic system faster and more efficient. In addition, some relatively minor changes to existing legislation may well make a big difference – to how society tackles both criminals involved in distributing drugs and their victims? Along with longer jail sentences, the drug classification system should be simplified and applied consistently (for example)?

    • No Julian, it’s not obvious that deciminalisation would increase use — indeed as I argue, the opposite is the case. I used to work in marketing, and I understand the way profits drive a business. Take out the profit and you take away the marketing push. And it is absolutely NOT giving in to criminals. If the state controlled distribution, there would be no place for criminals at all (provided we don’t make the same mistake as we’re making with tobacco, where we set the pricing at a level that allows a black market).

  3. Techno says:

    The drugs trade is international, so legalisation would have to be carried out multilaterally. Unilateral legalisation would cause unintentional and unpredictable consequences eg. drugs tourism or illegal drugs ending up on the legal market and vice versa.

  4. Theoretically, yes, prices could be set and so on. But, what about the surrounding factors which cannot be controlled..? Firstly, are you seriously suggesting that the average drug user can be trusted to use such substances in safe amounts? And, if so, is it not likely that easier access to drugs would encourage more people to use them? Furthermore, the kind of people who use drugs would be perfectly willing and able to sell and share drugs – which had been provided by the state. This would exacerbate the scale of the problem still further, would it not? What kind of society do advocates of this approach have in mind? Perhaps, that question is most worrying of all, for the vast majority of citizens who would not want to live in an intoxicated state? Our cultural heritage is already under threat. Although it could not be proven statistically (or in financial terms), culture in general would be undermined still further – if drug usage was even more widely perceived as some kind of alternative leisure pursuit?

    • If the vast majority of citizens do not wish to live in an intoxicated state, that rather argues against legalisation increasing use! I stick to my point, that new users are recruited because pushers make huge profits. If the state controls distribution, that will not be the case. Again, for the third time, take away the profit and you take away the marketing incentive. Access and quantities would be controlled through medical protocols, so there should not be a problem either of users dealing, or of “drugs tourism”. We should simply be treating addicts, rather than forcing them to steal and mug to feed their habits.

  5. You obviously have more faith than many, in the eternal efficiency and reliability of “medical protocols”. You have also failed to even acknowledge, a few of my other observations (let alone respond). At the end of the day, drug addicts do not generally behave rationally or in line with market forces. For example, many of them have mental problems or other addictions (for example). Therefore, these factors must be fully taken into account. Whatever we disagree about, at least we are talking about the key issues in a mature and honest discussion. More than can said, of our modern Parliament, sir!

  6. Greg says:

    Whisky can be a very harmful thing to consume and indeed probably a far riskier substance than many banned drugs Roger. If we started with a clean slate and were legislating as to what to keep legal and what to ban there are plenty of things that would allowed!

    If you legalise other drugs you can put them in the hands of sensible individuals who will pay their taxes (thus creating a profit for the taxman), and also create spaces where people can consume the drugs legally. When I was in my teens I spent a bit of time in Camden where it is far easier for under age children to get hold of weed than it is alcohol. This is because most sellers of alcohol are fairly sensible, don’t want to lose their licence and only sell to adults. Sellers of drugs have no such qualms as they have little to lose.

    Furthermore lives will be saved through legalising many of these drugs. If I bought whisky from you I would know it is safely produced and would know that the strength is likely to be the same. If I want to buy ecstasy I am unlikely to have those things to rely on as I doubt I could buy it from someone as reputable as yourself.

    Frankly I would rather make most drugs legal and allow people such as yourself to see them in not dissimilar ways to whisky sales. Take them out of the hands of criminals, put them in the hands of businessmen I say. Of course there will be addicts (as there are now with all drugs including alcohol) but the criminal element is removed, the safety of the drugs is improved and the taxman gets a share. Then let the police go after those who abuse the drugs and cause havoc (including those tanked up on booze) and let those who want to have a quiet spliff at the end of a busy week to get on with it.

  7. Despite Greg’s attempts to justify his views, many (including myself) are not at all convinced with the idea that narcotics can be sold or distributed in a controlled way by the authorities. In reality, general trends and statistics have shown – that using any type of drug can (and often does) encourage usage levels to increase. Greg seems to forget, that just about all drugs have the potential to kill (legal or otherwise). For example, I can remember the media reports of single ecstasy tablets – being the cause of death for a number of young people. If legalised, the most addictive drugs in particular, would increasingly control the very lives of those who use them. After all, they would be indirectly supported by the state in such a scenario.

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