There are some debates you feel a little nervous about. You enter into them because you genuinely believe in what you're saying, but you're aware, in the back of your mind, that there are damaging counter-arguments to your position which could severely weaken your position.
Not so with the argument for drug legalisation. It's a unique pleasure to argue for a radical liberalisation of drug laws because the case is so watertight. On every conceivable front, the legalisation of drugs presents itself as the most sensible, compassionate and logical conclusion. With government ministers from around the world currently meeting in Vienna to discuss the next decade of drug policy, this argument urgently needs to be considered.
Our first concern with issues such as these is reducing harm. All sides of the debate are united on this front. We wish, as a society, to prevent as many deaths as possible from drug use. In this respect, the decision to make drugs illegal is perhaps the most damaging and blatantly irresponsible position to adopt.
Take heroin. The vast majority of deaths from heroin use are the result of criminalisation. Dealers operating in the black market cut the substance with pollutants, and users injecting the drug outside of monitored settings are prone to using dirty, unsterilised needles. The drug itself is relatively benign. As Dr Richard Brotman noted in a 1965 study: "Medical knowledge has long since laid to rest the myth that opiates observably harm the body." Legalising drugs, and thereby monitoring their contents and use, would reduce drug-related deaths.
There is an entirely separate harm which derives from drugs however – that of crime. The link between drug addiction and criminal behaviour is very well established. Official government estimates indicate that the relatively small section of the UK population which uses heroin or cocaine is now responsible for 54 per cent of robberies and 85 per cent of shopliftings.
Most drugs are addictive. Crack, probably the most vicious and damaging of all known narcotics, can addict from the first hit. Heroin, despite its harmlessness to the body, can be extremely addictive. Even non-addictive drugs, such as cannabis, can create very strong dependency in the user. In fact, one of the dangers of cannabis which is not addressed half as much as it should be is its habit of sucking out all the ambition and get-up-and-go from those users who have the psychological disposition to let it do that to them. Addiction makes people behave in ways they would not otherwise contemplate, such as theft or prostitution.
But criminalisation dramatically worsens the causal link between drugs and crime. Where hard drugs such as heroin are medically prescribed, the costs are hammered down and the need to turn to crime is reduced. Home Office orders for psychiatrists to stop giving heroin prescriptions in the 1970's directly correlate with a burgeoning black market in the drug – and all the increased crime which came with that market.
In a wider sense, handing the drug trade to the black market has a marked impact on a wide variety of society's horrors. The international drug trade is currently worth around $320 billion (£233 billion). The vast majority of this currently goes to criminal gangs. It is, in fact, the second largest source of income for organised crime. The proceeds are spent on a wealth of different disasters, from people trafficking to identity fraud. With a coordinated legalisation programme we could cut off this funding stream in one swoop.
And then there are the geopolitical implications. When Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), admitted to the failure of current drugs policy he mentioned the 'balloon effect', where enforcement serves to merely shift trafficking routes and production from one location to another. The effects of this are currently being felt in Mexico. Recently, experts have been pointing to the 6,000+ annual drug-connected killings there as evidence of it becoming a failing state.
From the US-sponsored destruction of coca fields in Boliva, which deprives poor farmers of their primary source of income, to poppy-production in Afganistan, the money of which rapidly finds its way into Taleban coffers, to the Farc rebel group's use of drug money in its war against the Columbian government – drug prohibition is the antithesis of a workable international political strategy. The relationship between western interests and drug prohibition is analogous to our dependence on oil: it funds our enemies, it destabilises allies and it drastically complicates efforts to secure western objectives overseas.
Drug use will not go away. It has been around as long as humans have. As the serenity prayer goes: "God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference." There could be no better rule for political thought. It will not go away. But we can mediate its effect on society by minimising its health implications and reducing its causal link with crime, terrorism and poverty.
Many people in government are already convinced of the case for reform. There are murmurs of David Cameron's liberal beliefs on the matter. The Tory leader voted, when he was a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, for the UN body on drugs policy to look at whether to legalise and regulate the drugs trade. Whether he maintains this stance as prime minister (if he becomes prime minister) is another matter entirely.
Similarly, Julian Critchley, the former director of the Cabinet Office's anti-drugs unit, once had an epiphany. Entering his post, he clamed to have no opinion on drug policy. By the time he left he was a committed advocate for regulation of the industry, adding that the "overwhelming majority" of professionals, including police, health service workers and members of the government, were of the same opinion.
Whatever the obvious benefits of a rapid sea-change in our policy, it would take considerable courage for the government to alter its current thinking on drug enforcement. The tabloids would explode in condemnations and, quite frankly, there are no votes in it. Also, courage is not one of the attributes this government is renowned for. But the evidence from countries which have gone down a more liberal root shows that public opinion turns sharply if it is shown to be well-regulated. Switzerland, for instance, has implemented a legally regulated heroin system for 1,400 addicts in clinics with a psychosocial support structure. The majority of the population support the policy. As Baroness Meacher said in the House of Lords earlier this year: "Once you can prove that you can do it, the population will come behind you."
If you're still not convinced, there is one final - relatively unimportant - argument to mention: the moral argument. It follows from a question which is very simple, but seems somehow weirdly extravagant. What right does the government have to tell you what to do with your own body? The answer is: absolutely none.
By Ian Dunt
March 11, 2009
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