Our futile war on drugs

This is the fuller version of an article I submitted to Broad Left Blogging on Channel 4’s Our Drugs War.

I used to think that making certain drugs illegal was a good idea. This film is about why I’ve changed my mind. Because it doesn’t work.

That’s how every one of the three parts of Angus MacQueen’s Our Drugs War opened. I recommended it a few weeks ago, and it has now come to an end. In a sense, MacQueen was preaching to the converted as I watched this film. I’ve already said that I don’t like banning things, and Our Drugs War compiled a great deal of evidence that suggests our drug policy isn’t working.

The first episode, which is the strongest, looked at this policy in more detail. Britain spends £1.5bn every year fighting drugs, and in America the figure is a staggering $40bn a year. Given that an academic interviewed by MacQueen (and a police officer also interviewed said this guy knows what he’s talking about) estimated that 99% of smuggled heroin into Scotland successfully goes through this money could be far, far better. I can definitely think of one example. As a senior police officer admits, we could never have enough police officers to stop all drugs coming into the country.

Criminalising drugs does not stop people taking drugs. Instead, it stigmatises drug takers as criminals, making it harder for them to go and seek help or treatment for addiction. As MacQueen argues, legalising drugs would make fighting drugs a health and social issue, rather than one of crime.

As the now-notorious Professor David Nutt has argued, and does argue in Our Drugs War, if the regulation of drugs was “merely” all about health, we would have a different misuse of drugs act. It is only for moral reasons that we ban certain drugs, such as cannabis, but cigarettes and alcohol remain legal.

Anyone who has read their Mill should appreciate that the state cannot legislate on moral matters. It’s the same for prostitution and abortion, for instance, which one cannot ban no matter what you think about the morality of either activity.

These laws also do not apply equally to everyone. This is highlighted nicely by the second slightly disjointed, but very powerful at times, programme in the series. MacQueen argues that America’s drug laws are racist. All sections of society use and supply drugs. Bankers on Wall Street take cocaine, and white dealers supply drugs in posh neighbourhoods. The reality is that 90% of those in prison for drugs-related offences are black and Latino.

The second episode was so disjointed because part of it was a travelogue. MacQueen followed Thomas Winston who had recently been released from prison for drugs-related offences. He was stabbed to death in December last year. Winston received no rehabilitation in prison  – no help to prepare him for life outside the prison walls. And when he was released from prison, he had a choice. Should he go straight and take a minimum wage job which, after 24% of his income is taken for child support, would leave him with $110 a week? Or does he want to go back to selling drugs, and earn %15,000 a week? Do the math(s). It would take a lot of willpower to remain law-abiding in those circumstances.

Another side-effect of criminalising drugs is that the major groups that produce and sell drugs are, well, criminals. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the poorer countries which produce drugs before importing it to Britain. MacQueen’s travelled to Afghanistan for his third programme, where he argues that UK involvement in the war on terror have helped fuel the growth of a narco-state. Bear in mind that half of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from the drugs trade and corruption, and that the country also provides Britain with 90% of the heroin that ends up on its streets.

Essentially MacQueen’s logic runs something like this:

a) The US and UK are expending lots of cash and soldiers on supporting lots of cash and soldiers on supporting the Afghan government.

b) Many government officials are corrected to the drugs trade. Officials which tried to prosecute drugs offenders often found they would receive death threats. MacQueen interviewed someone who was sacked by Karzai for asking too many questions about the drugs trade. There seemed to be “a sophisticated netweok able to drive straight through police checkpoints because the drugs trade had agents inside the police and the government”.

c) Consequently, propping up the Afghan government is also propping up the agents connected to the drugs trade. So “The War on Drugs is undermining the War on Terror”.

America’s main action on poppies in Afghanistan was to destroy the poppy yields, as they were thought to be the Taliban’s main source of income. 60% of the Taliban’s income is estimated to come from the drugs trade. This action did no damage to the Taliban whatsoever, but did alienate many farmers who depended on poppy yields for income. After spending hundreds of millions of pounds, the scheme has now been scrapped. Many are now of the view that some sort of controlled legalisation is definitely worth trying.

Current drugs policy is not working. The prohibition of drugs in most Western countries has not caused drug consumption to fall. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 200m people – 5% of the world’s adult population – take illegal drugs, which is the same proportion as a decade ago (Economist March 7th, 2009). Furthermore, the production of cocaine and opium is the same as ten years ago, and cannabis production has actually increased.

Some form of drugs legalisation is the least worst option. MacQueen argues that money spent trying to stop drug use, and in penalising criminals (in America, 40% of prisoners are inside for drug-related offences) would be better spent on a public education programme about the dangers of drugs, not to incarcerate drugs users. MacQueen devotes little time to dealing with how he could legalise drugs, which is the main flaw I have with the problem. But then, he is a film-maker not a politician, so we can forgive him for not having a decent plan.

Instead, I’m going to quote the Economist I referenced earlier, which has one suggestion of how legalisation can be managed:

Governments would tax and regulate the drug trade, and use the funds raised (and the billions saved on law-enforcement) to educate the public about the risks of drug-taking  and to treat addiction. The sale of drugs to minors should remain banned. Different drugs would command different levels of taxation and regulation. This system would be fiddly and imperfect, requiring constant monitoring and hard-to-measure trade-offs. Post-tax prices should be set at a level that would strike a balance between damping down use on the one hand, and discouraging a black market and the desperate acts of theft and prostitution to which addicts now resort to feed their habits.

Selling even this flawed system to people in producer countries, where organised crime in the central  political issue, is fairly easy. The tough part comes in the consumer countries, where addiction is the main political battle.

Drugs taking may well rise in the event of legalisation, as the Economist admits. Yet it still argues that drugs should still be legalised for two reasons. The first is on liberal principle:

Most consumers of illegal drugs, including cocaine and even heroin, take them only occasionally. They do so because they derive enjoyment from them (as they do from whisky or a Marlboro Light). It is not the state’s job to stop them from doing so.

Secondly, legalisation has to means governments can deal with addiction properly.

By providing honest information about the health risks of different drugs, and pricing them accordingly, governments could steer consumers towards the least harmful ones. Prohibition has failed to prevent the proliferation of designers drugs, dreamed up in laboratories. Legalisation might encourage legitimate drug companies to try to improve the stuff that people take.

In summary, Our Drugs War was a thought-provoking argument for a more sensible drugs policy. Anyone interested in society generally should ensure they try and watch it.

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2 Responses to Our futile war on drugs

  1. Hannah says:

    I have a slightly different take. Drugs- any drugs, legal or otherwise- should be prescribed by doctors, if it has been scientifically demonstrated that the benefits for a particular indication outway the risks. Conversely, I don’t think it should be legal for any company or individual to sell to the public whatever rubbish they can cook up in a laboratory, just because people want to get high off it. On the other hand I would support decriminalisation of possession and consumption of drugs as opposed to full legalisation. This would take the treatment of addiction out of the criminal justice system (except when other crimes had been committed, in which case I would advocate mandatory residential treatment) and placing it in the medical system allowing it to be more evidence based.

    The danger with full legalisation is that unless every country did it at once, which is never going to happen, all you would be doing would be legitimising a trade that involves a huge amount of violence and exploitation- the cocaine trade being a case in point. Even if you could get an international agreement too legalise recreational drugs, the criminal cartels aren’t going to suddenly pack up and go home or stop behaving like violent thugs, particularly in developing countries and those with weak rule of law, they’re just going to be able to carry on doing what they do unfettered by the law. That would mean a drop in prices, which alongside greater legitimacy could potentially lead to more widespread use, and increased competition from legal providers, which could potentially get very ugly.

    Similarly, I think that the Economist’s comments are fairly naive. Pricing the drugs according to their harm would leave room for a black market undercutting those prices, and I doubt that the legalised drugs companies would “improve the stuff that people take” so much as do what the tobacco companies do and produce “light” versions, without real evidence of reduced risk of harm, to mislead consumers into believing that they aren’t damaging their health as much.

    • The problem with partially decriminalising drug taking etc is that you’ll end up with the same kind of useless halfway-house that you have for, say, prostitution. You might think that prostitution and drug taking are immoral, but you can’t ban them merely because you think they’re immoral. Legalisation is the lesser of two evils in both these cases. The fact that it’s not actually illegal to pay for sex etc doesn’t help combat any of the problems involved with prostitution (sex trafficking, crime against prostitutes etc) and I imagine a similar scenario would happen with partial decriminalisation of drug taking.

      To answer your second point, regulation would be the key here. You couldn’t have a free-for-all, but would need a tough regulator. Part of this system would be to ensure that the drugs consumed legally in Britain were not produced by gangsters and criminals. It’s not a case of “legitimising” it at all, just a realisation that governments cannot stop people doing what they may think is morally wrong. Also, despite decades of tough law enforcement (both here and abroad) and anti-drug taking ads, the level of drug taking has not decreased. Roughly 5% of the world’s adult population take drugs, according to the UN office on crime and drugs,w hich is about the same proportion as a decade ago. It’s time to realise that the war on drugs doesn’t work, as Colombia’s president has argued. You probably would need some sort of international agreement though.

      Thirdly, many drugs that are illegal here are not as harmful as tobacco or alcohol anyway, which is the point that David Nutt was making, and has made for a while. It’s not as if legalisation of drugs will lead to an explosion of people taking arsenic, but it would stop, to use the cliche, drug gangs putting rat poison in the cocaine to make it go a bit further. Again, regulation would play its part here.

      Thanks for that PDF, I’ll have a look at that – there’s definitely more legs in this argument. I guess the argument is not so much whether we decriminalise drug taking, but about how we do it.

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