Source: The Observer (UK)
Sunday 8 August 2010
Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg are perfectly placed to launch a national debate
on whether we should try legalisation
If the purpose of drug policy is to make toxic substances available to
anyone who wants them in a flourishing market economy controlled by
murderous criminal gangs, the current arrangements are working well.
If, however, the goal is to reduce the amount of drugs being consumed and
limit the harm associated with addiction, it is surely time to tear up the
current policy. It has failed.
This is not a partial failure. For as long as courts and jails have been
the tools for controlling drugs, their use has increased. Police are
powerless to control the flow. One recent estimate calculated that around
1% of the total supply to the UK is intercepted.
Attempts to crack down have little impact, except perhaps in siphoning
vulnerable young people into jails where they can mature into hardened
When a more heavyweight player is taken out, a gap opens up in the supply
chain which is promptly filled by violent competition between or within
gangs. Business as usual resumes.
The same story is told around the world, the only difference being in the
scale of violence. Writing in today’s Observer, retired judge Maria Lucia
Karam describes the grim consequences of a failed war on drugs in the
cities of Brazil: thousands of young people murdered every year by rival
dealers and police.
Few nations are untouched by what is, after all, a multibillion pound
global industry. Importing countries, such as Britain, must cope with the
social effects of addiction and end up squandering the state’s resources
on a Sisyphean policing task.
But that suffering is mild compared to the destructive forces unleashed on
Mexico, from where cartels supply a range of drugs to lucrative US
markets, has paid an extraordinary price for the illicit appetites of its
rich neighbour. The border region has become a militarised zone with
violence at the level of a guerrilla insurgency.
The more the authorities try to impose their writ, the more ruthless and
ostentatiously cruel the drug cartels become in asserting their control.
Decapitated and mutilated corpses are used to signal who is in charge to
the local population. Civil society is withering away.
President Felipe Calderón, who has generally adhered to the standard US
policy idiom of a “war on drugs”, last week called for a debate on
legalisation. That is a rare departure for an incumbent head of state,
although last year three former Latin American presidents – César Gaviria
of Colombia, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Mexico’s Ernesto
Zedillo – all called for marijuana to be legalised to cut off revenue to
The unthinkable is creeping into the realm of the plausible. In the US,
several states have relaxed cannabis law, a trend driven by a loose
coalition of hard right libertarians and soft left baby-boomers. American
society is slowly coming to terms with the fact that drugs are part of its
everyday reality and that control might be more effective if use was
allowed within the law, not forced outside it.
That debate must be opened in Britain and the recent change of government
provides a rare opportunity.
Politicians have generally shown little courage in confronting
inconvenient truths about drugs. And the longer a government is in office,
the more it feels bound to defend the status quo; to do otherwise would be
admitting complicity in an expensive failure.
So the lazy rhetoric of popular moralism continues to shape our national
conversation: drugs are a scourge and they must be rooted out of our
It seems intuitive, up to a point, that if the consumption of certain
substances is causing harm, those circumstances ought to be banned. We
make exceptions for alcohol and tobacco, of course, out of deference to
their embedded status in mainstream culture. Any other intoxicant that
gains popularity – and notoriety – is swiftly proscribed.
Prohibition entails a double dishonesty. First, there is the pretence that
the supply and demand can be managed by force. But anyone who has
experienced addiction knows that banning a substance restricts neither
access nor desire. Usually, it makes matters worse, bringing otherwise
law-abiding people into contact with professional criminals. Most addicts,
meanwhile, say their problems start with the need to annihilate feelings
of despair or memories of trauma. Prosecuting them for those problems
The second pretence of prohibition is that drugs can be addressed within
single national jurisdictions. Plainly, they cannot. The UK hosts a retail
market for products that are cultivated and processed around the world.
Around 90% of the heroin on British streets starts out as poppies in
Afghanistan. So revenue from UK drug use funds corrupt officials, warlords
and the Taliban, undermining Nato’s military operation. Rarely is the
connection made in public.
Honesty about drugs requires a clear-sighted appraisal of what policy can
and should aim to achieve. Broadly, there is consensus that addicts need
help quitting and should be prevented from committing crimes to fund their
habits. But allowing doctors to prescribe heroin, as was the situation
until the 1970s, might achieve that goal faster than heavy-handed
By its very nature as a coalition, encompassing a broad spectrum of
political views, the new government is well placed to inaugurate a
free-thinking national debate on an issue that has been constrained by
Neither David Cameron nor Nick Clegg seems much in awe of political
taboos. Both men, in fact, seem to take pleasure in breaking them. But
their ability to do so with impunity lasts for as long as there is
goodwill towards their project.
This is a moment in which a political leader could steer the drugs debate
out of its current dead-end track and towards something more meaningful
and more likely to deliver what the public ultimately wants: safer,
healthier, happier communities.
It is far from certain that decriminalisation, regulation or legalisation
would work. But they should be examined as options, for it is absolutely
certain that prohibition has failed.