When will governments learn that it’s foolish to declare war on vague concepts? Unlike traditional armies, abstract concepts are notoriously difficult to fight, largely because they aren’t real. The War on Terror hasn’t seen many notable battles, aside from that time George Bush went mental and started attacking the word ‘terror’ in every dictionary he could lay his hands on. The War on Drugs in the UK hasn’t resulted in Heroin limping gingerly from the battlefield, holding a bloodied, lifeless Cocaine in its arms and screaming ‘MEDIC!!!’ to nobody in particular. Maybe politicians ought to be clearer. The War on Terror could be renamed The War on People Who Don’t Agree With US, The War on Drugs might be more accurate as The War on Mainly Poor People Who Indulge in Substances Loads of Us Have Blatantly Taken and The People Who Sell It to Them Because We Won’t Face the Issue.
Less catchy, more fitting.
Anyway, on the subject of the War on Drugs, yet another person whose job it was to come up with policy on drugs in Britain has come up with a proposal which is increasingly common among such folk, namely to legalise all drugs. You’d think that in a modern, reasoning society, that when people who are paid to really find out everything about drugs and how to deal with them start telling the government the best way to deal with them they’d be listened to. The mainstream political response, however, has been to stick collective fingers in ears and scream loudly until these people go away.
It’s getting beyond a joke now. The refusal to engage with any strategy other than blanket criminalisation, flying in the face of expert opinion and practical evidence, is costing lives, wasting money and making organised criminals rich.
Current policy is simply not working. NHS statistics show a steady rise in drug deaths over the last decade, and drugs, as most of us have probably discovered in clubs, bars or even walking down the street, are not exactly in short supply. Drugs are in demand and will always be in demand, we live in a free market economy so it’s inherently difficult to halt the supply. The current approach is having precisely no effect, and the amount of money spent to achieve this distinguished level of failure is eye-watering. The UK taxpayer shells out/pisses away over £1.5bn a year on this farcical ‘war’, <insert obligatory reference to tough economic climate>, and it’s an utter waste.
Legalising drugs is the only sensible option, on so many levels. Mainly it’s simple economics. The current drugs trade is comprised of multiple disparate, warring dealers who have to undercut each other by selling an increasingly shitty product. Said increasingly shitty product is then sold to unwitting/desperate people whom the law have decided are criminals. The extra additives in their shitty product, spiced up by a dash of brick dust or powered glass, make users die at an increasingly impressive rate, as opposed to, say, pure heroin which is more difficult to overdose on than paracetamol and was used by dentists up until the 1960s.
Treating addicts, dealing with the crimes they commit to get the shitty product, and trying to stem the unstoppable flood of drugs = more money than the national product of a small country. Meanwhile drug barons take home a collective £7bn a year, tax free of course.
If production and distribution was brought into the legal realm, i.e. under government control, it’d be a whole different ball game. Government spending clout means they could buy the raw product at a much reduced price, easily undercutting even the big-time kingpins. They then have control over how the final product is made so they can ensure no crap gets put into the drug. Even with a healthy fix of VAT and a slice of profit, government controlled supply could be sold at a much better price for a guaranteed pure product. The guy who stands on street corners or outside clubs now finds himself fairly light on business.
There are other perks here. Licensed vendors of drugs could double up as shooting galleries for hard drug users; under proper supervision this should largely eliminate needle sharing and the illnesses spread by dirty or shared needles. With standardised dosages we could reduce overdosing drastically as users would have a much clearer idea of what could be considered ‘safe’. On the same line, with decent official guidance on using other substances many drug fatalities could be avoided; of the few people who die each year as a result of ecstasy use, most drown themselves by taking the ‘drink lots of water’ advice too literally.
At a time when the government is, in official parlance, “skint”, the several billion in tax revenue that legalised narcotics would bring would be of great use to HM Treasury. The government could use at least some of this revenue to offer help to drug addicts, viewing them as victims rather than criminals. By removing the stigma around drug addiction, addicts are likely to seek help as opposed to sinking further into trouble, as evidenced by developments in Portugal. There, full decriminalisation has led to a huge drop in addiction, more than 50% down; addicts ask for help instead of spiralling downwards. On the flip side, murder rates have increased by 40% in that period, although the cause is easy to see. By decriminalising as opposed to legalising and regulating, Portugal has not gone far enough. Now that it is not illegal to possess drugs, dealers fight harder and bloodier to sell to people. If the state was the only provider of substances or licenses to sell substances, this would not be an issue, dealers would be effectively out of business.
Drugs shouldn’t be actively encouraged, the contrary in fact, but they should be available legally. They’re widely available illegally anyway, so the illegality is a hindrance to progress instead of a protective or effective measure. Drugs should be treated in the same way as alcohol or tobacco (not a big leap as booze and fags are both drugs), i.e. no selling to minors, huge punishments for those who do. And just like vendors of unlicensed tobacco and moonshine, the law should come down on illegal drug peddlers like the proverbial ton of fucking bricks. There probably wouldn’t be much of a market anyway, but for those stupid enough to try and sell outside of the law, 20 years in prison should be enough to realise it may not have been a good plan. (More on prison another time…)
James Brokenshire, the minister currently in charge of this kind of thing, has called such an approach too simplistic for such a complex problem. As if a zero tolerance approach isn’t an even more simplistic solution. He also stated that “Drugs are harmful and ruin lives”, probably before going home to three glasses of totally harmless and utterly non-ruinous glasses of Shiraz. Labour have also managed to shoot themselves in the foot by claiming that Ainsworth, their former minister who represented the views of the Labour party on drugs, in no way represented the views of the Labour party on drugs. Slick.
The general perception is that if drugs were legalised today we’d all be shooting up in primary schools by Friday. I wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. Do you know anyone who would immediately turn to hard drugs if they were legal? Well over a third of people admit to trying drugs, which would probably double if you counted the people who didn’t admit it. Many of us have taken a pill or snorted a line at some point, in much the same way that most of us have taken a drag on a cigarette and never gone back. Legalisation wouldn’t make me or the majority more likely to take them, but would afford more protection and less risk for those that do.
So when people like Bob Ainsworth and David Nutt, people who have spent careers looking into these issues and who know a hell of a lot about it, start saying we should legalise drugs, isn’t it about time the government, the media and the public started to listen?
On a completely unrelated note, I almost died laughing when I watched this.