Legalise all drugs

The state?s ?war on drugs? continues unabated. Napalm, which US forces dropped in Vietnam on National Liberation Front-controlled villages a generation ago, is now used to destroy poppy fields in Afghanistan and Bolivia. Thousands of the cells in Britain?s overcrowded prisons are occupied by traders in the finished product or those forced to turn to crime as a result of its very illegality.

It is no coincidence that the chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, has now added his voice to calls for the decriminalisation of cannabis. The stark reality of penal regimes often leads such figures to become outspoken critics of government policy on a range of issues. But Ramsbotham?s call - making the usual sharp, but highly illogical distinction between marijuana and ?hard? drugs - was all the more newsworthy in view of the fact that an increasing number of bourgeois politicians, journals and institutions are advocating legalisation, decriminalisation or at least the admission that there may be ?room for an adult, intelligent debate? - as David Blunkett put it, with the cowardly equivocation typical of bourgeois politicians.

Perhaps surprisingly for those who associate radical reforms with leftwing views, sections of the Tory Party may well actually edge ahead of Labour in moves towards legalisation. Tories looking for vote-winning causes realise that, while New Labour seeks to marginalise them by increasingly colonising the centre ground, they might be able to gain ground by counterposing Conservative libertarianism to Labour authoritarianism. Former social security secretary Peter Lilley argued that cannabis should be available to adults through licensed outlets, and that ?support for decriminalisation would be a clear reaffirmation of the Tory belief in freedom and personal responsibility?.

He was putting forward the traditional rightwing case against interference by the state in questions of its citizens? personal morality and private behaviour. The Conservative Party is a battleground between this libertarian philosophy and the repressive ethos, often inspired by christianity, which acts as a cover for social control, and which was articulated by Ann Widdecombe when she opposed legalisation of cannabis on grounds of ?public order? (The Times July 11).

Former Tory leadership contender Michael Portillo also wrote a lot about freedom in an article in The Daily Telegraph, but he admitted that his implied support for cannabis decriminalisation was more about attempting to attract the vote of youth (and more radical sections of the electorate) when he wrote: ?Our supporters want a Conservative Party that can win them back? (July 12). Apart from electoral considerations, three other arguments might persuade a government, present or future, to take the huge step of legalisation.

First, advocacy of social integration and multiculturalism. Cannabis is the recreational drug of choice of many black British, and the current law automatically makes them criminals. Cannabis is a class B drug and possession can lead to a five-year prison sentence, and 14 years for ?intent to supply?. Abolishing this law would not only reduce the prison population: it would also make it less disproportionately black compared to society as a whole. The current experiment in Lambeth, of police issuing only a verbal warning for possession for personal use, demonstrates the recognition by the state that drugs laws contribute to social tensions in the inner cities.

Secondly, the attempts to enforce laws which are widely disregarded reduces public respect for the law as a whole. Boris Johnson wittily linked cannabis usage and exceeding the motorway speed limit as laws that are widely ignored and should be reformed, because, ?We pay the police to enforce the law, not to engage in a game of bluff with the motorist and the cannabis-user, in which the policeman?s bluff is almost always called.? He concluded: ?It?s time for a rethink and the Tory Party - the funkiest, most jiving party on earth - is where it?s happening? (The Daily Telegraph July 12).

Finally, a persuasive argument for any government would be the opportunity presented by legalisation to raise additional income by taxing legal drugs, as is the case with tobacco and alcohol. Tobacco companies do not rule out the possibility of mass producing cannabis, should it be made legal to do so. They need new customers to replace the ones being killed off by their current products.

For politicians the main argument against legalisation is its perceived unpopularity among many voters and among the tabloids that influence public opinion.

It is possible that Portillo?s comments on the subject may have lost him the Tory leadership - perhaps he erred in speaking up before the crucial vote of Conservative MPs on July 17. Irrational fears of ?drug-pushers targeting our kids? and reducing them to addicts, criminals and outcasts still holds sway - ignoring the fact that legalisation would drive the pushers out of business.

Opponents of legalisation point to the alleged health risks of cannabis. According to Dr Thomas Stuttaford a joint produces four times as much carcinogenic tar as an ordinary cigarette, and he also warned of psychotic reactions similar to schizophrenia that can be induced by tetrahydrocannabinol (The Times July 12).

Logically, however, even if this were true, it would be an argument for restraint in use, not for illegality. Thus Clive Bates, chairman of the anti-smoking group Ash, joined in the growing consensus that there is a ?credible and persuasive case for considering? legalisation. He suggested reducing the health risk by consuming the drug in the form of tablets or patches, rather than via smoking, just as nicotine patches and gum provide a safer alternative for nicotine addicts.

As we have always argued, health risks are multiplied several fold by illegality, which not only means the absence of any kind of control over quality, but forces up prices way beyond value and is the major indirect cause of drug-related crime. Legalisation, with its concomitant socialisation, of all drugs - soft or hard - would eliminate several social ills almost at a stroke. Most of all it would remove a raft of state excuses for repressive measures against the population.

Unlike sections of the left - still lagging behind the libertarian right - communists oppose the state?s right to dictate what we can or cannot eat, drink, smoke or otherwise consume. Legal bans on drug use have never been about protecting the health of the working class, but about social control, including the need to ensure that we are fit and ready for work. That is why the state never bothered to ban tobacco, a dangerous and addictive drug that happens not to impede users? ability to do their job

Alcohol causes more lost working days than cannabis, as well as more accidents and acts of violence, but it is so well established the British government (unlike the US) never dared try to ban it for fear of  provoking severe unrest. During World War I the government constantly complained about drunk munitions workers hindering the war effort. It introduced licensing hours (which were to remain in place unchanged for 70 years), and even legal bans on buying rounds.

Licensing laws, although never revoked, have now been relaxed. We can now buy drink from shops (except between 11pm and 8am, obliging determined boozers to employ a tiny amount of preplanning) and since May 1988 pubs have been allowed to stay open all afternoon. Before the June 7 election Blair hinted that he might abolish licensing hours completely, but has not yet shown any sign of putting that into practice.

The official attitude towards alcohol - when abused, probably more dangerous than any class A drug - exposes bourgeois hypocrisy over the whole question.

Mary Godwin