Why do people take drugs? It’s a straightforward enough question. If you ask a politician you will probably get a fairly lengthy answer which will meander around subjects like poverty, joblessness and educational underachievement. In so doing they are, of course, putting the cart before the horse (or the App before the ipad, if you will). People take drugs primarily because they make you feel terrific. Depending on the sort of drug, this feeling might last a few minutes or a few hours and it will range in intensity from a mild soothing of your furrowed brow to an atomic orgasm. You pays your money, you takes your choice.
But this story is not about drugs, it’s about markets; it just happens to be the market for drugs.
For years now I have been applying some of my limited cranial resources to the issue of illegal drug use. Like most people of my generation who grew up in a big city in the 1980′s, I knew all about drugs from an early age. If it wasn’t the government telling you every five minutes that the merest wiff of hash would cause you brain damage, your parents were on hand to remind you, adding, helpfully, that being caught ‘in possession’ would be a fate worse than death. So all in all you got the picture that these things must be pretty lethal. Yet, more or less every day your mates were popping pills, skinning up and generally acting like…well like their parents did in the 60′s and to the untrained eye they seemed to be avoiding death and the various fates worse than. So pretty soon you stopped believing everything you were told, which in the case of politicians turned out to be a reasonable shout but it wasn’t a terribly healthy state of affairs.
Some time later I found myself in court. No, it’s not what you think. I was practising law in the courts of London and spent an inordinate and rather depressing amount of time representing very screwed up young people. Most of them were up for theft of rather pathetic items from high street stores, all of them were feeding a habit. It is at this part of the story that the politician’s views about joblessness, educational underachievement and poverty start to look a bit more relevant. Indeed these were frequent themes. However, the one thing that politicians tend to focus less on is the role of the illegality of the drugs in the first place. They may well gloss over this, because it is the one thing for which they are directly responsible. The illegality of drugs plays a couple of roles in this particular production: that of the cool kid who lives by nobody’s rules but his own (let’s call him Bart Simpson) and, of course, the villain who, for no other reason than I like his attire, I shall call 'Hamburglar' (below). Simpson is an attractive character because he is edgy, he doesn’t give a f**k about authority and nobody is going to tell him what to do. As pretty much any teenager will attest (other than perhaps those in the AV club), this is achingly cool. Pushing back against authority is what teenagers are hard wired to do, all the boys want to be Bart and all the girls want to…hang on, this is getting out of hand. Anyway, Simpson is cool.
[A 14-year-old] thought all of his Christmases had come at once. In fact, he was dead within a year
Hamburglar on the other hand is not cool. He has gone off the boil since his heyday when he had that lucrative endorsement deal with the golden arches. Nowadays his stripey jumper hangs loose on his emaciated frame, his sunken eyes no longer hidden by the black mask betray a lifetime of anguish. HB (as he is known to his very small, self-interested group of ‘friends’) is a dealer. It’s not what he had dreamed of as a kid but needs must and he has a very unhealthy habit to feed and some very unpleasant ‘friends’ up the road to keep happy. HB knows all the best places to hang out and he has learnt to dress up his wares in the clothes of Bart Simpson, indeed some of his best pills feature the spikey haired fella’s face. Exploiting the desire to be cool and knowing that his products should (as long as his dealer’s dealer’s dealer went easy on the strychnine) deliver a killer party at the weekend, he thinks he is on easy street. Come to think of it, so what if it is a real ‘killer’ party? HB doesn’t give receipts and he is not ISO9001 accredited. He plans to be long gone by the weekend.
The other thing HB has been known to do is offer easy credit facilities to those temporarily embarrassed by financial pressures. In fact, for the first couple of bags, he will pretty much insist on it, but he will keep a careful note of the debt. Moreover, because he is a generous sort, he will probably ensure that you get more than your money’s worth. A 14 year old I once represented was delighted when his dealer, from whom he was buying cannabis, offered a free rock of crack to sweeten the deal. He thought all of his Christmases had come at once. In fact, he was dead within a year.
So, what is the point of this? I hear you ask and when are you going to get on with the bit about markets? I am picking the kids up in an hour…well you will be thrilled and delighted to hear that your long wait is over.
If anyone can point me to a single medical study that shows that either [cannabis or ecstasy do] more harm than alcohol on either a physical or a societal level, please do so.
I have thought very long and very hard about why governments all over the world hand over the market for certain (by no means all) drugs to criminal gangs. For the life of me I cannot come up with an answer. There seems to me to be no logic whatsoever behind this decision. There are so many arguments in favour of regulation and control and against the prohibition of these products that it is hard to know where to start (apologies if I leave out your favourite, if it helps you now know how it feels to be Dimitar Berbatov).
The Argument For Decriminalisation
OK, deep breath, starters for 10; quite a few of the drugs that are prohibited by law are no more harmful than others that are perfectly legal. These should be easy to deal with, I am thinking of cannabis and ecstasy mostly but there are others. If anyone can point me to a single medical study that shows that either of these drugs does more harm than alcohol on either a physical or a societal level, please do so. Ah, but what about the hard stuff? I hear you say. Heroin, crack cocaine (although not normal cocaine, that seems to be just fine and where would the traders of the City of London be without it!) that sort of thing. Now, I should like to clarify, I do not encourage the use of hard drugs, quite the opposite. They do indeed screw you up just like the posters say. I have seen more junkies than I care to remember and I would not wish serious drug addiction on my worst enemy; that is really not my point. My point (hussah!) is that such people need help and treatment and that the trade in these drugs is far too sensitive, far too important to be left to criminals (here comes the bit about markets).
For anyone who missed the 1980′s, here’s a quick recap; the private sector does pretty much everything better than the government. It does so because of the profit motive, because people working for themselves will work harder than they will when working for others, especially if that ‘other’ happens to be a faceless government department. So, we can fully expect the private sector to do a good job of distributing drugs because there is an awful lot of money to be made in drugs. Why is that? Well, partly it is because of supply and demand: there is a consistently high demand and a reliable but necessarily slightly restricted supply, thanks to the best efforts of the boys in blue. It is also because it is totally unregulated and this is a problem. When you are visiting your friendly local drug dealer in (say) Hackney he is most unlikely to have on display his certificates from New College Oxford demonstrating his proficiency in chemistry. He is, more than likely, an illiterate scrote whose only interest is to make as much money from you as possible. This will probably involve cutting your drug of choice with something else. Sometimes that will be reasonably benign (talcum powder, say) but sometimes it will rat poison or horse tranquilliser. Neither of these are likely to help you on your way on a Friday night.
By their own admission, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars that are annually ploughed into the fight to stop drugs reaching their buyers, governments succeed in intercepting less than 10% of the traded supply of drugs globally
So we have highly motivated, unscrupulous, unregulated, irresponsible and desperate people controlling the sharp end of the supply chain (I say the sharp end because the other end – the handle? – is actually controlled by some very clever people indeed). It is to these people that we are sending our addicts. These people whose own desperation to make a sale and keep themselves in junk will drive them to do almost anything. Why? Why does the government allow this to happen? You might say that it doesn’t, that the trade in drugs is illegal and that the government is doing all it can to stamp it out. You would have a point, but only up to a point. The fact is that the ‘war on drugs’ is completely unwinnable. By their own admission, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars that are annually ploughed into the fight to stop drugs reaching their buyers, governments succeed in intercepting less than 10% of the traded supply of drugs globally. If every penny of every country’s GDP was spent on the eradication of the drugs trade, it would still get nowhere near stopping it completely. There comes a point when you have to realise that the medicine you are taking is actually doing you more harm than good. In the UK, the use of hard drugs has exploded since the introduction of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. That Act is the cornerstone of the UK’s ‘war on drugs’. Before 1971 the UK had a small, manageable drug problem, which was dealt with by health professionals. Now, we have an epidemic and a trade controlled by some of the worst people in the world. It is within the gift of governments to stop this madness overnight, but for reasons that escape me they refuse to do so. Their refusal condemns millions of people to a life of desperation, inflicts wholly unnecessary burdens on already stretched taxpayers and is the root cause of most of the crime that so blights our lives.
Addiction is something that should be treated, not penalised. We don’t jail alcoholics or binge eaters, we feel sorry for them and hope that they find their way back, perhaps after a spell in the Priory. Not so for drug addicts. We force them to buy their wares in dark and dangerous places, we insist that they should not know or be able to check what is in the filthy little package they have just been handed in an alleyway. We make them take these risks because it makes us feel morally superior and we all pretend that the police have it under control.
There was an experiment in Portsmouth about 10 years ago, when all heroin addicts in the city were invited to obtain free drugs and clean needles. In return they were asked to start treatment for their addiction. During the period of the experiment, the burglary rate dropped by 80%. Of course, this was just a trial and when it ended, the problems returned. However, if such a simple experiment can have such an incredible impact on crime in such a short space of time, should this not give us food for thought? You might ask, where would governments get the money from to buy the drugs? Well, there are two answers to that: firstly, the cost of drug-fuelled crime (police, courts, insurance costs, general fear of crime) is actually a good deal higher than the cost of supplying every addict in the land, and secondly, we could spend a fraction of the money we spend trying to destroy the poppy crop in Afghanistan on actually buying it. This would more than sufficiently supply the domestic market (they currently supply 90% of the world’s heroin) and there would be plenty left over to solve the acute medicinal morphine shortage that exists in sub-Saharan Africa. It would also, at a stroke, cut off the supply to Hamburglar and his mates as well as intercepting the number one source of terrorist financing. I am not for a minute suggesting this would be easy or that it would be a perfect solution but it may just be better than the current shambles.
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