The War on Drugs: making a scarecrow of the law

by Stephen Tall on October 19, 2005

I think the time has come for me to confess all. It’s an embarrassing admission, especially for an elected Liberal Democrat, but no matter: I have never taken any illegal drugs. I’ve never passed the dutchie, shot the breeze, or chased the dragon. I’ve never been bombed, caned, fried, gooned, juiced, potted, skunked, toasted or wracked. A promising future political career lies in tatters…

But not David Cameron’s. He is shooting up (the greasy pole, that is), his non-disclosure disclosure that he has dabbled with narcotics proving no impediment to his meteoric rise without trace. I’m still not sure why. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a politician who aspires to be Prime Minister to ‘fess up to any previous. His private life is his private life; but he was not being asked about illicit-but-legal sexual peccadilloes, simply whether he has knowingly broken the law. Is that really out-of-bounds?

And this is an issue that matters: the law against drugs is an ass, desperately in need of reform. If the next leader of the Tory Party is hamstrung because he’s nervous of provoking his socially-authoritarian colleagues, or the tabloid press, then Her Majesty’s Opposition will continue to limp ineffectively alongside her Government, both of them falling further and further behind public opinion.

The Onion summed it up best: “Drugs Win War On Drugs”. Prohibition of drugs in this country has failed, just as prohibition always fails, everywhere. In the last two decades, the number of heroin addicts has increased by 2,000%. Britain now has 200,000 serious hard-drug users. Almost one-quarter of adults under the age of 40 have used cannabis in the last 12 months.

This is not for lack of effort on the part of HM’s Customs and Excise. Seizures of heroin and cocaine have never been more bountiful, yet its officials accept that – for all the time, money and resources devoted to closing off the supply routes – less than one-tenth of the drugs coming into Britain are prevented from reaching our streets. The proof is in the drugs market: the greater the supply, the lower the price. During the 1990s, the cost of heroin and cocaine fell by about 30%; ecstasy was some 60% cheaper by the end of the decade.

All of which brings to mind the words of Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.

Politicians have no excuse for their head-in-the-sand approach to the drugs issue. It is over five years since the Police Foundation’s independent ‘Runciman Report’ urged reform, arguing that the current drugs laws are held in contempt by vast swathes of our society. The Report noted the understandable dislike, especially among the young, of the hypocrisy and cant of those who preach the notion that all drugs are equally bad despite clear medical evidence to the contrary.

Almost one in 100 tobacco-users die each year from their habit; one in 200 alcohol-users go the same way. Yet just one in 500,000 ecstasy-users are killed by their drug of choice: they’d be far more at risk riding a motorbike, or travelling on a civil airline.

The legalisation of drugs is the only sane way to avoid making a ‘scarecrow of the law’. We could at least start with the non-opiates – cannabis and ecstasy – neither of which are addictive, and the adverse health risks of which are acknowledged to be small. This incrementalist approach would allow government to test public readiness to accept a mature, reflective drugs policy, one which eschews the schlock-horror tabloid ‘crusades’ to ban this-that-or-the-other evil.

No-one should pretend this is a panacea. Making available substances which can cause harm to the individual is not something to be done with joy in one’s heart, and a spring in one’s step. But harm to the individual is the individual’s responsibility. The role of law-makers is to ensure individuals know the medical risks they are taking by using drugs, and to ensure that the wider public is reasonably protected from any side-effects of that drug use.

And legalisation of drugs promises three big wins:

1. It would save money. Not only would there be an estimated 10% reduction in the prison population – as drug-users would no longer be felons, and drug-pushers would be squeezed out of their lucrative black market – but the huge costs of the state’s risible attempts to enforce the unenforceable could be spent where it matters most: on treatment for drug abusers. In addition, it is thought that excise tax on a legalised drugs trade could yield up to £1 billion revenue annually.

2. A legalised drug is a safer drug. Many of those who die from their intoxication are killed by unsafe, adulterated substances. If the illegal drugs trade were subject to the same quality control as the legal one, fewer people would die. And fewer people would be tempted into trying hard drugs by their cannabis dealer aiming to ratchet up his margin by luring more customers into the higher-profit world of Class As.

3. It would cut crime. This is not just because an illegal activity is to be made legal, but because much drug crime is spurred by the high prices which prohibition allows dealers to charge, forcing addicts to steal to fund their fix.

The war on drugs is the scarecrow on which organised crime is comfortably perched. We need to face up to the simple fact that the problem in society – especially our addict-laden inner cities – is not drug use, but drug abuse. Abuse of drugs by addicts, whose lives crumble to dust; and abuse of addicts by dealers, whose crimes are earning them rich rewards. Let us wrest control of the drug supply from criminals, and ensure that we use that control to combat the damage drug abuse is wreaking in this country.

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Familiar arguments, but none the worse for that. Hence a familiar rejoinder: Do you recognise a danger that the tax in point (1) could undermine the price reduction hinted at in point (3)? After all, we still have an illegal black market in cigarettes precisely because the excise duty is so high, at least compared to some of our neighbours.

by Paul on October 20, 2005 at 6:28 pm. Reply #

Paul – thanks. It’s nice to know familiarity breeds content…

You’re right, and I hope I deliberately avoided saying legalisation will end all smuggling/pushing. It will, I think, reduce it – but, clearly, there will always be a black market for cheaper/harder substances.

That’s especially so, as I’m suggesting a first stage is to legalise non-opiate drugs, cannabis and ecstasy (the least harmful and addictive) to pilot the impact.

Which would mean, at least initially, cocaine and heroin would still be illegal; so there would still be an inevitable black market for them.

by Stephen Tall on October 20, 2005 at 7:32 pm. Reply #

“I have never taken any illegal drugs.”

Thank goodness, I thought it was only me!

by Bishop Hill on October 23, 2005 at 7:23 pm. Reply #

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