Not if we get our way...
In the same month that Obama renewed his commitment to the War on Drugs in Latin America, the British establishment is starting to openly question the winability of such a war.
On 21 March it was reported that “leading peers – including prominent Tories – say that despite governments worldwide drawing up tough laws against dealers and users over the past 50 years, illegal drugs have become more accessible.” And this isn’t just some crank MPs in the Palace of Westminster looking for an eye-catching crusade. These MPs and members of the House of Lords include former heads of MI5 and the Crown Prosecution Service.
They are part of the formed All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform and these unlikely advocates of Freak Power are calling for new policies to be drawn up on the basis of scientific evidence.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to some readers that this writer might have an opinion on the drugs question...
Now, former altar-boy that he is, the Croppy has no truck personally with this kind of degenerate behaviour but can’t help nevertheless, approaching this dilemma through the application of simple first principles.
Of course, for all the people who see themselves as right-thinking, but who don’t enquire too deeply once their Daily Mail dogma takes hold, the knee-jerk response seems to be that ‘Drugs are bad so they should be illegal’.
Are drunks somehow more deserving of the law's protection than stoners or ravers?
There are two fundamental truths that remain to be grasped and until they are, there will never be a rational drugs policy.
The first being; drugs are indeed bad, it's true. But it's equally true that their use and abuse, in one form or another, has been a constant feature of human culture since prehistory. In our own culture, we have an irrational attachment to one particular substance which, if it came to the market now as a new drug, under current rules it would immediately be labelled a Class A controlled substance and listed as a poison...but then we all know what happened when the US tried to outlaw alcohol.
This senseless, almost arbitrary categorisation of mind-altering substances into degrees of legality is based on the flimsiest of rationales. Withnail & I’s Danny critiques it much more eloquently: ‘Why trust one drug and not another?’
So, without going too far into primitivist anthropology, we can probably take it as a given that the use of mind-altering substances has long been with us and that doesn’t look set to change any time soon.
If that is the case, is criminalising the behaviour of millions the right way to deal with what is effectively a species trait? Ordinary people, going about their daily lives, are being labelled criminals by virtue of nothing more than the mere possession of a substance which happens, by random cultural happenstance, to be censured.
Apart from a perceived modicum of social respectability, why should alcohol be legal but marijuana or ecstasy illegal? Are drunks somehow more deserving of the law's protection than stoners or ravers? I know which I'd prefer to meet in a gang on a Friday night.
It should also perhaps be submitted that even with the deterrent of criminalisation, it is clear that significant sections of the population are prepared to take that risk in the search for kicks. This is clearly an issue in society from top to bottom; the very money in our pockets is 80-90% likely to be contaminated with cocaine.
Criminalisation simply doesn’t work. The second point to take on board is that not only does criminalisation not work, it’s actually what feeds the 'war on drugs' in the first place. By ever allowing such a hugely lucrative trade fall into the hands of criminals, the stage has been set for a 'war' that can never be won. Unlike of course The Opium Wars which were won, but then, they were wars for drugs and the right to sell them.
It’s like the American Prohibition era never happened. Were any lessons learned from the meteoric rise of organised crime? The American experiment only proved one thing; you ban something people want, it won’t stop the market for this product, it merely takes legitimate players out of the market and replaces them with real Darwinian capitalists for whom car-bombs and political assassinations are nothing more than business tactics.
You ban something people want, it won’t stop the market for this product, it merely takes legitimate players out of the market and replaces them with real Darwinian capitalists for whom car-bombs and political assassinations are nothing more than business tactics.
One of the corollaries of legalisation is that the criminal monopoly of the drug trade and its revenues could be taken away from the criminal class for whom it has been an almost endless source of (tax-free) cash. Again citing the US precedent however; it would be realistic to be prepared for the emergence of a whole new class of ‘Joe Kennedys' ie. recently-turned legitimate and cash-rich entrepreneurs of the new repeal.
There is of course the argument that legalisation would cause a massive increase in consumption but there is little real evidence to suggest that would be true. Doubtless, there would be a very brief spike of increased use but figures would normalise again in the mid to long-term, probably following a similar trajectory to that we might find with alcohol following Prohibition’s repeal.
The reality of the situation is that, irrespective of legality, some behaviour is not considered socially acceptable and most forms of drug use (legal or illegal) outside specific social circumstances are generally censured; the mere changing of a substance's legal status is very unlikely to transform that social norm. Or put another way: even if it was legal, crystal meth would not be acceptable in polite society.
From a health and safety perspective, there are also real benefits to a more informed legalisation policy. For one thing, drugs could be sold to a strict health department standard, with no uncertainty of quality or source and therefore less risk in consumption.
Nobody's advocating an overnight licencing of crackhouses. There should nevertheless be a more reasonable response to calls to revisit the issue. When it is raised, legalisation should, at least on available evidence, merit serious and grown-up debate about the contingencies of such an approach, not just the same old 'drugs are bad' mantra.
Surely it's the conditions which make people seek oblivion that are bad. After all, if we really wanted to fight a war on drugs, I'm guessing we'd be a lot more serious about the war on poverty.
We already pay for the damage that drug use causes in our society through our health and welfare systems (as well we should), all I’m saying is, why don’t we try and claw some of that back through customs and excise instead of giving it all to the Escobar estate? Surely a market-led society can appreciate that?
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