Thursday, 2 June 2011

The drug laws don't work, they just make it worse...

The Global Commission on Drug Policy; which includes such noted hippy ne'er-do-wells as Kofi Annan (former UN Secretary General), Ernesto Zedillo (former President of Mexico), Fernando Henrique Cardoso (former President of Brazil), Cesar Gaviria (former President of Colombia), Paul Volker (ex Chairman of the US Federal Reserve), George Papandreou (President of Greece) and Sir Richard Branson (billionaire entrepreneur), has reported that the "War on Drugs" has failed, calling for certain drugs to be decriminalised and for an end to the practice of treating drug users as criminals.

They argue that despite the many billions of dollars spent and countless lives lost on the global fight against the drugs trade, the use of opiates has increased by 35%, cocaine by 27% and cannabis by 8.5% worldwide between 1998 and 2008, claiming that:

"Political leaders and public figures should have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately: that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won,"

With no small amount of irony, the report also marks the 40th anniversary of the United Kingdom's Misuse of Drugs Act (1971), against which the national drugs charity Release have launched a new campaign with an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, published in today's Guardian (02/06/11). The letter, signed by Bob Ainsworth (former Drugs Minister), Paul Whitehouse, Francis Wilkinson and Tom Lloyd (former Chief Constables), Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, and celebrities including Dame Judi Dench, Julie Christie, Mike Leigh and Sting, points out that current drug policy is doing more harm than good and calls for an immediate and transparent review.

Now to me, this was obvious even before I graduated in criminology back in the late 1990s, although as a teenage student at the time my opinions were perhaps more selfishly motivated than they are today.

Put simply, if the point of drugs legislation is to control the supply and prevent the use of mind-altering substances, they have blatantly, incontrovertibly, failed. Drugs have never been more readily available, never been cheaper and more people are taking them than ever before. Demand for them is increasing year on year, as are the negative consequences of their use upon individuals and society at large, and the enormous financial costs of tackling a problem with a policy which clearly does not understand it, and legislation that simply is not fit for the purpose of dealing with it.

First of all, I want you to set aside any questions on the moral rights and wrongs of drug use/abuse, as they are not really that relevant here. Let us deal in practicalities...

If you are anti-drugs, what that normally means is that you are opposed to the negative consequences of drug use upon yourself, your family and the society that you live in. You do not want drug dealers on your streets, trying to sell them to your kids. You do not want people stealing from you to fund their habit. You do not want disease being spread around. You do not want to have to step over the dessicated corpses of overdosed addicts on your way to work in the morning. You do not want to have to spend so much tax-money enforcing laws that are not doing anything to eliminate these negative consequences. You may even have concerns about the effects of western drug use in other countries, the abuse of the peasant farmers who grow them and the poverty they live in, the environmental damage of processing the raw ingredients, the global organised crime syndicates making trillions of pounds on the trade in heroin and cocaine, the brutal and bloody front lines of the war against drugs in countries like Mexico and Afghanistan, where violent conflict between gangs and authorities kills thousands of people every year.

If you are pro-drugs, you also want them to be safer, cleaner, and of better and more consistent quality. You may be perfectly law abiding in every single other respect, and concerned that you run the risk of being imprisoned and labelled as a criminal for life every time you smoke a joint. You may feel that if you become addicted to one substance or another, you should be seen as someone with an illness who needs help and treatment, not as some kind of criminal deviant who needs to be punished. In fact you probably share most of the same concerns about the negative effects of drug use as those in the anti-drugs camp.

In short, whether you are pro-drugs or anti-drugs or anywhere in-between, it should be quite apparent that our current approach to controlling drugs just isn't working. We can not eradicate the demand, essentially because so many different types of people want to take so many different kinds of drugs for such a vast array of different reasons. Taking drugs can be dangerous, just like mountain climbing, playing rugby and riding motorbikes can be dangerous, but people still want to take them. In the UK drug possession can get you a large fine or sent to prison for life, but people still want to take them. In other countries drug possession can get you a death sentence, but people still want to take them. In certain cultures the use of intoxicants will result in your immortal soul being condemned to hell for all eternity, and guess what? People in those cultures STILL want to take drugs. In Britain getting off our collective face, one way or another, is practically our national sport. The rich want to drink, smoke and take drugs, the poor want to drink, smoke and take drugs, they always have, and they always will, so forget any idea that we can magically eradicate the demand for drugs in our society.

In the face of such a demand, there will always be enterprising free market capitalist types who are more than happy to meet it. It is impossible to stop them getting into the country, every high profile seizure represents the tiniest tip of a huge pyramid of drugs entering the country, or being home-grown right here. It has proven impossible even to stop drugs getting into the prison system, which suggests that even if you you enforced the most draconian laws and turned the entire country into a prison, you would STILL have a drug problem.

The alternate proposal is that you decriminalise certain drugs, like cannabis and ecstasy altogether, and decriminalise the possession of hard drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin whilst still prohibiting their sale.

So if you are diagnosed as a crack of heroin addict by your doctor, your doctor will provide you with a clean, measured supply of the substance you are addicted to on prescription, whilst monitoring your health, constantly stressing how bad it is for you and making sure every possible treatment programme to help you overcome your addiction is made available. Levels of petty theft, burglary, shop-lifting and robbery would fall as addicts no longer needed to steal to fund their habits. A properly managed policy of decriminalisation would deprive organised crime of an enormously profitable revenue stream and hopefully put them out of business altogether. Soft drugs such as cannabis, available from properly licensed retailers, could be mass produced, heavily taxed and still be priced to undercut the black-market. You stop wasting police time chasing after and prosecuting drug users, giving them more time to catch illegal suppliers, you also stop imprisoning drug users, at huge expense to the public. Cleaner, safer, standardised weights and measures of drugs would reduce the number of overdoses, and as users could be properly educated on the health risks involved and provided with sterile equipment, the risk of infection with HIV and hepatitis would also be dramatically reduced. The burden and the cost of care on the health service, would therefore also be dramatically reduced.

You may think that this would simply result in drugs being more widely available, and in more people taking them? Well take a look around, even in a rich country with some of the most stringent anti-drug laws in the world, drugs are ALREADY widely available, and ANYONE with the inclination and the money to buy them can already get hold of them very easily indeed. I really do believe that a policy that approaches drug use from a health and human rights perspective, rather than a criminal one, will ultimately result in a society with fewer drug addicts and fewer drug abusers. No matter how radical the proposal may sound, and considering that it is simply a return to the drugs-policy we followed in this country up to the mid 1960s, before the drug-problem exploded onto our streets, it really isn't all that radical, it can not realistically cause more harm that the policy we follow at the moment. It will result in less crime, lower costs for our criminal justice and health services, and in healthier, safer drug users who are more far more able to beat their addictions and reintegrate into society.

Returning to the report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy and the Release campaign, it is interesting to note that practically every politician or public figure who has put their signature to it, is an ex-this or a former-that, presidents, chief constables, government ministers, people who were all once in incredibly influential positions ideally placed to really get something done on the issue, but waited until they retired, or were voted out before they actually said anything about it. Why do you think that is?

I have enthusiastically devoured numerous conspiracy theories on the matter of why drugs are "really" illegal, each only slightly more or less entertainingly ludicrous than the next, but one that seems to have a little more substance is the one that Howard Marks settled on in his book Mr Nice. In Britain, and most particularly in the United States of America, and lets face it between the two of us we consume more illegal drugs than the rest of the planet combined, we are still afflicted by some kind of puritanical throwback to the 17th Century which states we must be punished for every single pleasurable experience we enjoy. They clearly couldn't give two shits about the hardships and degradations that people at home and abroad endure because of the trade in and the abuse of drugs, because our policy seems almost deliberately calculated to exacerbate every single one of them, so it must be about the pleasure people get from drugs instead.

There is a large knee-jerk conservative voting block out there in Western Europe and North America, and whether they be on the right or the left of the political spectrum they all seem to hate nothing more than the idea of someone having a better time than they are. So any politician who offers them a policy that will (a) greatly reduce the harm caused to the individual and to society by the use of hard drugs, (b) reduce the burden on the tax payer by not wasting billions on the counterproductive war on drugs, (c) reduce crime, (d) reduce disease transmission and death from drug abuse BUT will also mean that (e) people can use soft or "recreational" drugs more or less to their hearts content... will quickly find themselves facing the political equivalent of being hung, drawn and quartered.

That, I think, is why no matter how good an idea it is, no currently serving politician will ever put their name to it for fear of it immediately ending their career.

Which, when you get down to it, is a bit of a fucking tragedy.

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