The chairman of the Bar Council is right to say we should consider decriminalising drugs
Nicholas Green QC, the chairman of the Bar Council for England and Wales, has suggested we should consider “decriminalising personal drug use”. He seems to have in mind the billions of pounds the economy would save and the freeing up of police time as well the improvements in public health. And, to be sure, these are all perfectly good reasons to stop arresting otherwise law-abiding folk who use certain drugs to relax and unwind in their spare time.
Just look at Portugal, and in fact any country that has liberalised drugs laws. The evidence from studies suggests the experiment has resulted in improvements. It certainly has not lead to what the opponents of legalisation predicted, which is that problem drug use would immediately shoot up. So Portugal has been more radical in decriminalising personal use of drugs than anyone else I can think of, and yet their results are positive. They were facing serious problems, which is why they took radical action. Some harmful use of drugs has actually gone down since they changed their laws.
It’s true, casual use may have gone up, but that doesn’t automatically mean lots more addicts, since there is a basic fact about drugs which is often ignored in public discourse, but which most people know in their hearts, if they’re honest: drugs are not inevitably harmful, nor are they inevitably addictive. After all, nearly all adults regularly use one of the most toxic drugs there is – alcohol – without coming to much harm. Quite the opposite, in fact: alcohol users will tell you they experience great benefits in relaxation, elevation of mood, lubricating social contact and so on. More often, the problem is the people who take drugs, and what’s wrong with society that makes people abuse substances in a destructive way.
Ask your colleagues at work: I bet you’ll find a significant portion of them have used one illicit drug or another at some time in their lives, especially if they were born from the 1960s onwards, when drugs have been widely used in society. Some of them may still take drugs in their time off. It may be Valium or cannabis or cocaine or ecstasy, it may be an opioid painkiller – whatever it was, they haven’t dropped dead, they remain responsible citizens, they haven’t gone mad or lost their moral fibre.
Some individuals are more vulnerable to becoming dependent on drugs than others, just as some people will become problem gamblers and others will grow obese from compulsive over-eating. But the fact remains that millions of people drink or take other drugs without harm and with many subjective benefits and to penalise those people, even to lock them up, just with some idea of protecting the minority, seems crazy. If you take the societal problems that are routinely associated with drug use one by one, pretty well each of them can be shown to be the consequence of the prohibition of drugs and the “war on drugs” and not the actual drugs themselves.
For most of human history, drugs were not illegal. Our massive drug problem and the vast multi-billion dollar criminal enterprises that are funded by the illegal drug trade are direct results of prohibition. These are objective evils that prohibition has caused. Those who defend prohibition must ask themselves how they can justify these horrid by-products – the terrible havoc the war on drugs has wreaked in the developing world, for instance. The trouble is, prohibition has spawned its own lucrative industry for its enforcement, and those well-funded agencies will fight tooth and nail to protect their interests.
I think a sense of perspective is important, to talk about things as they actually are. There are cultural and political reasons why some drugs are legal and some are not. But drugs, including alcohol, all do the same thing: they change our mood for us, without us having to do anything. What moral difference is there between them – except that some involve breaking the law. I simply don’t see that getting completely plastered on alcohol, as plenty of respectable people do, including policemen, judges and lawmakers, is somehow morally more creditable than the ageing hippy who relaxes with a marijuana joint.
And yet the ageing hippy could have his liberty taken away. In some states of the USA the prisons are heaving with drug users who have never hurt anybody – poor drug users at least, I don’t mean the children of wealthy senators who get busted with cocaine, they don’t go to jail. Putting people like that in prison is wrong, and a waste of human life.
By the way I have no personal axe to grind here. The bottom line is I do not argue that legalising drugs (and what one means by “legalising” is a whole other issue) will lead to utopia, but I doubt things could get worse. And one can watch with interest the developments in California, where there are said to be more medical marijuana shops than Starbucks.
Source: Daily Telegraph
Article by Andrew M Brown 20/07/2010