End the war on drugs
Yet another report showing the harm done by anti-drug laws, writes Eddie Ford - and therefore destined to be ignored
Announcing his resignation from the government on November 3, Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat crime prevention minister with responsibility for drugs policy, complained that support for “rational, evidence-based policy” was in short supply in the home office. He told The Independent that working with Theresa May and her minions had been like “walking through mud”, and he was now off (November 3).
Now, it may possibly be the case that Baker has some odd views.1 But he is clearly right to say that the government’s approach is totally irrational - and has been for over four decades. The futile ‘war on drugs’ fought by successive governments has been a catastrophic disaster, merely further enriching the global drugs cartels and needlessly criminalising entire generations of people - each year more than 40,000 are convicted for possession, a fact that that will damage their prospects of future employability and reduce their earnings capacity. Young people are not being protected by the anti-drugs laws, but rather actively harmed by them.
We were reminded of this yet again last week by the publication of a government-commissioned report on the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, which saw the introduction of drugs prohibition; and by a three-hour debate in the House of Commons instigated by the Green MP, Caroline Lucas - earlier in the year she secured over 130,000 signatures to a petition calling upon the government to carry out an independent, “cost-benefit” analysis and “impact assessment” of the 1971 act and its legacy. During the debate, Lucas implored the government to review the “failing” and “often counterproductive” laws that can see offenders jailed for up to seven years for possessing class A drugs and potentially jailed for life for producing or supplying them. She went on to urge the government to consider “all the alternatives” to the current dysfunctional drug laws and to learn from countries that have adopted a “more evidence-based approach” - Labour’s Paul Flynn more or less summed it up by saying drugs policy since 1971 had been “evidence-free and prejudice-rich”.
Then on October 30 we had the publication of the 60-page home office study, Drugs: international comparators. More than plausibly, Baker accused Downing Street of suppressing the report for months because it did not like the contents, and Nick Clegg too said there had been a lot of “foot dragging” over publication - he had called a few months ago for radical reform of the “utterly senseless” drug laws and pledged to abolish prison sentences for drugs possession for “personal use”, including class A substances such as heroin and cocaine.2
You could see why the Tories would want to sit on the report. Predictably, just like every other serious report/study on the subject, it argued that there is no “apparent correlation” between ‘tough’ or punitive anti-drugs laws and the “prevalence” (or not) of drug use - the use of illegal substances is influenced by factors “more complex and nuanced” than “legislation and enforcement alone”. Then we read in the very last paragraph: “Achieving better health outcomes for drug users cannot be shown to be a direct result of the enforcement approach”.
The report was based on an in-depth study of drug laws in 11 countries, ranging from ‘zero-tolerance’ in Japan to partial legalisation in Uruguay - which last December became the first country in the world to make it entirely legal for over-18s to grow, sell and consume up to 40g of marijuana a month.3 In particular, the report examines in detail the experience of Portugal, where personal use was decriminalised nearly 11 years ago and those arrested for drugs possession are given the ‘choice’ of going before a health “dissuasion commission” or facing a criminal justice process - what would you do? According to the report, trend data from Portugal shows that, although levels of drug use rose between 2001 and 2007, they have subsequently fallen - “it is clear”, states the report, that there has not been a “lasting and significant” increase in drug use in Portugal since decriminalisation. However, at the same time, the study notes that there have been “significant reductions” in the number of drug users diagnosed with HIV/Aids, while drugs-related deaths have “remained stable” - although it pointed out that it is difficult to disentangle the impact of decriminalisation from “wider improvements” in drug treatment and harm reduction over the same period.
Reading the report, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the home office civil servants who wrote it seem to be far more sympathetic to the evidence-cum-health-based approach rather than the current criminal justice-based one. There is no doubt that the report is quite different in tone from the normal ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric we get from most mainstream politicians. For example, it says the experiments in decriminalisation now under way in Uruguay, Washington and Colorado should be “watched with interest” - it is almost impossible to imagine Theresa May or David Cameron saying such a thing. Of course, two years ago Washington and Colorado became the first states to decriminalise the sale of “recreational cannabis” to adults - anyone aged over 21 in Colorado can buy up to an ounce of marijuana in specialist retail stores, which must be sold in ‘child-resistant’ packages that clearly labels the potency or strength. Now Oregon seems to be going in the same direction, with proposals to legalise possession of a small amount of marijuana - a campaign that has the backing of the multi-billionaire, George Soros (meaning, of course, that the pro-legalisation advertising campaign has great reach). At the time of writing, with just over half the estimated state-wide vote counted, a ballot held on November 4 showed that the proposal had 56.1% support.4
Another report on drugs is also due, this time on legal highs such as ‘clockwork orange’, ‘bliss’, ‘Mary Jane’, etc that are sold in ‘head shops’ and, of course, on the internet - there are now at least 23 distinct online operators on the dark web covering about 250 products, representing a market that has doubled in size over the past year alone. Before he resigned, Baker said the government was thinking of a blanket ban à la Ireland on new compounds of psychoactive drugs that focused on dealers and the ‘head shops’ rather than harassing users, citing evidence that some cannabinoids synthesised in chemical labs are 100 times more powerful than traditional strains. Under the new plans, Baker remarked, the ‘head shops’ could be left with nothing to sell but Rizla papers. At the moment, suspected legal highs are banned on a temporary 12-month basis, as each new substance arrives on the market (ie, on a case-by-case basis). It is widely expected that the expert-written report will recommend a threshold for substances to be outlawed, so that those with supposedly minimal psychoactive effects like alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee, etc would not be caught up by the new blanket ban.
We do know for sure whether this report will firmly reject a New Zealand-style approach of regulating head shops and other sales outlets for legal highs. Baker did not have a coherent strategy. On the one hand, he wanted to decriminalise certain drugs that are now illegal. On the other, he seemed enthusiastic about banning drugs that are currently legal.
When Drugs: international comparators was published, Baker said the “days of robotic, mindless rhetoric are over”. Proving him totally wrong, Cameron robotically responded with a little lecture about how, as a parent with three children, he did not want to “send out a message that somehow taking these drugs is OK or safe” - thanks for your contribution, Dave.
A mindless statement from No10 denounced the Lib Dems for wanting to see “drug dealers getting off scot-free” and a home office spokesperson told us that the government has “absolutely no intention” of decriminalising drugs because its drugs strategy is “working” - there is a “long-term downward trend” in drug misuse in the UK. Something reiterated by the Conservative chair of the health select committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston, who pointed to figures from the Office for National Statistics showing the level of class A drug use among young people (aged 16 to 24) has dropped by nearly a half from 9.2% in 1996 to 4.8% in 2012-13.
Baker replied by saying that wider societal factors, like a more “risk-averse” generation of young people, have contributed to the general downward trend in drug use. There may be some truth to this, though obviously trying to get an accurate picture about the nature and frequency of drug use is extremely difficult - though it does seem the case that it has been broadly declining since a 2002 peak. According to the British Crime Survey published in 2012, which by definition has to be treated with a large grain of salt, in 1996 just over 11% of adults had used an illegal drug in the past year and by 2002 that proportion had reached almost 12% - coming to sit at just under 9% by 2012. The prime reason for this downward movement is cannabis, which was reclassified from class C to class B in October 2009. In 2012 6.9% used it, as opposed to 10.9% a decade earlier, so you could say it is a drug which seems to be going relatively out of fashion - arguably because the cannabis market has become saturated by more potent strains of skunk or legal high substitutes. However, this is part of a European-wide trend that has been going on for more than a decade, not a case of British exceptionalism. Drug use here is higher than it was in 1990 and also higher than in the rest of Europe.
But one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that if there has been a fall in use or addiction levels amongst some sections of the population it has nothing to do with the government’s policy of prohibition - it happened despite the drugs laws. Yet there is a much broader point to be made, at least for communists. Human beings have always taken drugs for stimulation or relaxation, whether for positive or negative reasons - whether to feel happy or dull the pain. The evidence for this is overwhelming. Therefore from the larger historical perspective, drug-taking of various sorts is not some abnormal or deviant activity - quite the opposite. To one degree or another, psychoactive substances have always held an appeal. There is absolutely no reason to believe that human nature will fundamentally change in the foreseeable future, including the communist future.
In which case, the only logical conclusion is to call for the legalisation of all drugs - not just marijuana. Not because we naively believe that legalisation is some sort of universal panacea that will immediately create a perfect society of happy, well-adjusted, non-alienated individuals. Communists fully recognise the potential danger of drugs, including those that are presently legal. After all, why do some people drink so much booze that it threatens their health? It has something to do with the grossly unequal and profoundly alienated society we live in, a set-up that generates misery and escapism. Hence our call for legalisation is principally motivated by the desire not to make a bad situation worse, not starry-eyed hippy idealism. For us it is unacceptable, rationally and morally, that swathes of the population are criminalised by the current prohibitive laws. All serious evidence and research, strongly hinted at in the home office report, shows us that the legalisation of drugs would be far less harmful than the present regime.
Legalisation, of course, would have the instant practical advantage of allowing for quality control, in the same way that it does for drink - you would not be daft enough to buy alcohol in unmarked bottles in some dark alley: it could be adulterated with anything. Yet, when it comes to drugs, that is precisely what we have been doing for the last 40 years or more. We now have the mad situation where one particular drug (ie, alcohol) is tolerated, whilst another - which by any scientific or objective analysis is a far less dangerous substance (ie, cannabis) - is criminalised. Instead, we should abolish the policy of bans - it failed in relation to alcohol during the dark days of prohibition in the US (1920-33) and it is equally failing now in relation to drugs. Look at the corpses still mounting up in Mexico. Far from “getting off scot-free”, the gangsters’ fantastically lucrative businesses would be wiped out it in a single stroke. A win-win scenario for anyone but a government minister.
For us, the crucial struggle is for the socialisation of drug-taking, whether it be alcohol, cannabis, ecstasy, magic mushrooms - whatever your preference. Just as you can ‘drink responsibly’, which at times means testing the boundaries, so you can smoke cannabis or ingest Ecstasy responsibly: if you know exactly what you are taking and feel at ease with the company and environment you find yourself in. Without legalisation that is not possible, or if certain drugs are only grudgingly tolerated in ‘officially’ designated areas - inevitably a stigma will still be attached. Which is why communists do not think that the Portuguese policy of forcing drug-users to appear before a health “dissuasion commission” is especially enlightened, as the assumption seems to be that they pose some sort of inherent danger - either to themselves or society as a whole. But taking drugs need not be any more risky than drinking a pint of beer.
At the end of the day, the ‘war on drugs’ - a war that can never be won - is a means of social control aimed at those below. The real ‘Mr Bigs’, meanwhile, continue to rake in the profits untouched.
1. In his book, The strange death of David Kelly, he comes to the conclusion that the scientist was murdered. He has asked parliamentary questions about the government’s UFO “project”.