The War on Drugs

A Colombian soldier advances in a field of coca, while a plane sprays deadly defoliant (Getty Images)

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.


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8 Responses to The War on Drugs

  1. Pingback: Roger Helmer: What’s the credible argument for existing drugs policy? « Joshua Lachkovic's Blog

  2. Jake says:

    You won’t hear any arguments for the status quo. Instead what you will hear is scaremongering, spurious figures and ‘morality’. You will hear ‘we do not believe’ or ‘that view is wrong’ but no arguments that stand the test of peer-reviewed science. If you look at the drug war globally there is a wide range policy decisions taken within the ‘prohibition’ model. On one side you have decriminalisation in places such as Portugal, Holland and some parts of Australia. Crime, overdose and drug harm generally goes down whilst treatment and addiction support goes up. You will hear calls that we aren’t fighting drugs enough, that they are more or less decriminalised in this country (tell that to someone with a criminal record for using a different drug to those the UN believes aren’t “evil”), but take a look where the ‘crackdowns’ happen. China, Iran, Thailand etc. etc. have forced labour, or ‘treatment’ camps. They execute hundreds of people each year as a deterrent.. and guess what.. people still buy, use and distribute illicit drugs.

    So, ask yourself, why do Human Beings use drugs? Is it a moral failing or is it just part of our history? . We use drugs to wake up (Coffee), loosen up social situations (Alcohol) or calm down (Tobacco).. some people just happen to also enjoy the effects of other drugs, so instead of saying letting the government(s) control them so they are safe as can be and the users have real, valid and useful information, we tuck them under the carpet, call it a moral failing and segregate huge proportions of societies because they make a different lifestyle choice to others, one that in the majority of cases causes no harm to others. If it does cause harm, as with e.g. Alcohol, we have laws to deal with that.

    Don’t be frightened by all the doom-sayers or ‘think of the children’, because if you really think about it, the best thing we can do for them is let them grow up in a world where they aren’t pushed drugs by gangsters but rationally informed about the risks and told that if they still want to try they can wait til they are 18. Taxes earned from the drugs can go into treatment and education, and the huge reductions in the waste of tax pounds via the cost of law enforcement and prisons can be pumped back into more productive areas of society.

    Prohibition doesn’t work. It has never worked for inelastic commodities. The true role of government is to control those commodities so they are as safe and cause as least harm as possible. Right now, governments have abdicated that responsibility to organised crime and I am not surprised by the result..

  3. Derek says:

    Not an argument for the status quo I’m afraid because as far as I’m concerned there isn’t one. But it’s worth pointing out that legalisation isn’t liberalisation, decriminalisation might be, but legalisation isn’t.

    The present system is close to anarchy and you can’t get much more liberal than anarchy! The present law is simply ignored by millions of people and a law which is held in such contempt by so many cannot be regarded as a strong law.

    Strong laws are workable laws, laws which actually achieve what they set out to do. The aim of drug control is surely to control drugs, therefore a strong drug control law should control drugs strongly.

    Prohibition is not drug control, it doesn’t even try to control drugs – I think you understand that argument.

    Therefore legalisation would therefore replace a weak, ineffective law with a strong, workable one. At the very least, that would be an interesting use of the word “liberalisation”.

  4. Derek says:

    “Suppose it set prices high enough to discourage pocket-money experimentation, but low enough to ensure that a parallel black market could not exist.” My fear is that legalisation of drugs is such a potentially dangerous experiment that we dare not take the risk. I fear that we would be sending out the message that these drugs are no worse than alcohol.

    My preference would be to keep to the present policy, but with mandatory treatment to get users clean. Drugs destroy lives. Is there an example of any country that has legalised drugs?

    • Jake says:

      “Mandatory treatment” is just another phrase for forced labour camps and torture. It doesn’t work, is brutal and inhumane. They do this in South East Asia At these ‘treatment centres’ inmates are raped, abused and degraded.. but they can often still get hold of drugs.

      Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001 to great success – lower rates of use, overdose, death and disease and higher uptake of treatment No where has fully ‘legalised’ since prohibition began because the UN single convention forbids it. It is a self-perpetuating policy that doesn’t really allow any experimentation into more effective policy as its “unintended consequences” get worse and worse every year. That is why we urgently need a rethink about global policy. What we have doesn’t work, it never has and never will. It is time for rational adults to take control of the conversation over the screaming, rhetoric-spewing tabloids and prohibitionists who lack hard peer-reviewed evidence for their position.

      • Derek says:

        I don’t agree that because some treatment centres in South East Asia are brutal and inhumane that it follows that we could not set up good ones in our country. The situation you describe in Portugal is very interesting and I would like the government to look at it and produce a report. What we need is a system which keeps drugs in limited supply while ensuring that addicts are forced to get treatment.

  5. Derek says:

    Is there an example of any country that has legalised drugs?
    Yes – the whole world prior to the introduction of prohibition. It is prohibition that is the experiment, not legalisation.

    Alcohol is one of the most dangerous, destructive drugs there is incidentally – much as I like beer. Was it safer and less dangerous when Al Capone supplied it as bath tub gin?

  6. McD says:

    “Suppose it set prices high enough to discourage pocket-money experimentation, but low enough to ensure that a parallel black market could not exist.”

    This, actually, is one of the real, as opposed to fabricated, problems with legalisation: it is impossible to legalise cannabis and make money on it. Anyone with any more than half a dozen brain cells to bang together at any one given time and a modicum of patience and tenacity is able to produce enough cannabis for personal consumption of family and friends within a single growing season. It will never be profitable to tax, because no-one will ever pay more than the pennies it costs to produce. They’ll just ask a friend for some when they run out. If you don’t have a lot of friends, some greedy person will sell you some for a fraction of the cost you’d have to pay for the taxed stuff from a chemist’s.

    Cannabis is God’s gift to man.

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