A few days ago a bunch of the usual suspects — luvvies and celebrities — called for the legalisation of drugs. Such calls are easy to ridicule, but hard on their heels came a more substantial report from former world leaders, including former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, making much the same point. The “War on Drugs” has been a colossally expensive failure, they say, and we need a new paradigm. And predictably, the governments of the USA, and Mexico, and the UK have dismissed their proposals as misguided and damaging.
Within the broad church of the centre-right, there are two distinct schools of thought — authoritarian and libertarian. I have to admit that I’m all over the place between these two schools. On penal policy (and capital punishment), and immigration, I’m squarely in the authoritarian camp. But on private and personal behaviour, I lean towards libertarianism. I don’t much mind what you do, so long as it doesn’t harm others, and so long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.
An example: while I hate smoking with a passion, I nevertheless feel that the draconian controls placed on smoking these days are infringing the personal liberty of the large minority of our fellow citizens who choose to smoke. And I fear that there will soon be moves to go down the same road on alcohol. I recognise the damage done by alcohol abuse, but I shall not be best pleased if they mess with my right to buy and consume wine. And beer. And whisky.
So where do I stand on drugs? I’m not calling for liberalisation (Daily Mirror please note, before we see any more hysterical headlines), but I am calling for a rational debate, and just now I think the liberalisers have the better arguments.
It is a self-evident fact that the “War on Drugs” has failed (just as Prohibition failed in the USA), with enormous consequent harm, especially since a high proportion of low-level crime and street crime is carried out by addicts feeding their habits. So it just isn’t good enough to say “more of the same”. Those who want to maintain an authoritarian approach need to tell us how they propose to get out of the current impasse. What practical plans do they have? So far, I haven’t seen any answer to this basic question — despite decades of effort.
Then they also need to engage in real debate, because the knee-jerk points they trot out are mere clichés, not rational arguments. “Drugs cause harm”, they say. But we know that. “We want to reduce drug use, not increase it”, they say. Of course we do. These points are surely not in dispute. We all recognise that drug use is harmful, and that it should be reduced. The question is “How?”. Those who argue for liberalisation certainly don’t want to increase use or increase harm.
The tacit assumption of the “War on Drugs” lobby is that liberalisation would increase use and harm. That’s a blindingly obvious assumption — but it’s quite likely to be wrong.
We on the centre-right understand and believe in markets, and there’s a market for drugs — albeit an illegal market. We need to understand the market dynamics. Market players — growers and pushers — are in it for money. Lots of money. There are high margins because of the risk premium, and there’s a risk premium because drugs are illegal. Money drives the promotion of the product.
Generally, Conservatives favour free markets and oppose excessive regulation. But because drugs are indeed harmful, they would need very tight regulation indeed. Suppose that the government took over the supply of drugs, in controlled outlets (say chemists) and in plain packets. Suppose it set prices high enough to discourage pocket-money experimentation, but low enough to ensure that a parallel black market could not exist. Suddenly the marketing pressure — the push, the promotion — would have gone. No one would stand outside school gates with little packets, because there’d be no money in it. And all the glamour and appeal of an illegal product would have gone.
The risks of contaminated product would have gone, too. And a tiny fraction of what we now spend on the “War on Drugs” could pay for substantial information, education and rehabilitation programmes.
These are the arguments for liberalisation. I’m waiting to hear any credible arguments for the status quo.