“Prohibition is an attempted cure that makes matters worse – for both the addict and the rest of us.” Thus, the late Milton Friedman outlined the scourge of a generation: how we deal with the drug problem. It has become the misguided moral crusade of major global superpowers to act as noble warriors in the so-called “War on Drugs”, fighting the “good” fight in lands far and wide, myopically neglecting to respond to the bitter consequences and consistent failures. World leaders must wake up and smell the coffee; the criminalisation of drugs merely acts as the worst possible palliative. And we’re hooked.
The prohibition experiment’s time is up. Quite frankly, it’s failed on every count. 280,000 heroin addicts in Britain alone, almost £500 million per year spent on keeping UK prisoners in the clink for drug charges, and countless homicide victims despondently cry out for an alternative approach. Outside of the UK, with an estimated average of 10,000 homicides in the USA each year caused by the policy; and 28,000 drug-related murders in Mexico since the incumbent president took office in 2006, it’s about time we hopped off this merry-go-round of anguish. After all, there’s no violence associated with the legal tobacco or alcohol markets. The Prohibitionist Warrior is a drug dealer’s best pal, keeping prices high and business prosperous; they’re also the killer of innocent victims across the world.
We have only to look at the facts. The prohibitionist argument is specious, riddled with flaws concealed beneath a mask of moral precedent that is based on fantasy rather than evidence. The evidence tells us that regulated legalisation of drugs would cripple the organised crime industry and bankrupt drug gangs worldwide. The evidence tells us that drug addicts would be better off in a society where their problems are dealt with through treatment. Plus the evidence tells us that regulated legalisation would bring in extra government revenue (and it’s not like we couldn’t use that at the moment). It’s simply absurd in the face of stark evidence that between $35 billion and $50 billion was flushed away on a feeble effort to enforce the policy in the US in 1998.
It’s not even as if regulated legalisation would suddenly spawn a Merry Pranksters society. Human beings have always been willing to pay for drugs that give pleasure, and the people who want to use drugs use them now and will use them in the future, regardless of whether they are transgressing legal codes. There simply aren’t throngs of people who desperately want to use heroin but shy away from the substance because it’s illegal. Prohibition or legalisation, drugs remain.
But wouldn’t it be better to live in a world where the tragedy of addiction didn’t imbue the global community with the putrid stench of bloodshed? How I pine for a world in which living, breathing human beings are placed above outdated moral principles that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Why can’t we accept that the violence and crime that accompany prohibition must be eradicated?
When we make the transition, we will reap the rewards. The only beneficiaries of the current policy are the armed gangs who engulf the globe in the sinister furls of their intimidation. This lucrative industry lurks in the shadows, holding governments to ransom, filling countries with guns (95 per cent of Britain’s guns are linked to drug gangs according to Scotland Yard), and exploiting marginalised individuals. The industry must be legalised and regulated not because drugs are acceptable, but because as soon as the trade falls into the wrong hands, chaos ensues.
Prohibition simply fattens the criminal underbelly. Governments who criminalise drugs are actually protecting the cartel by making it difficult for competitors to enter the market whilst allowing prices to remain high. What more could a monopolist ask for? Yet even when police operations shut down highly powerful drug dealers in an area, it’s futile. Others clamour to fill the money-spinning vacuum, violence being the sole outcome. They’re fighting a losing battle.
Either way, drug addiction is a tragedy for those who are hooked. But addicts won’t kick the habit under lock and key; they desperately need a helping hand instead of the hand of “justice”. If the prohibitionists were really out to stem danger, they would ban the two deadliest drugs in the world, alcohol and tobacco, responsible for 30,000 and 120,000 deaths every year respectively. Legalisation allows room for hope to dapple the lives of addicts, offering the prospect of treatment and protection. Currently, whether it’s at the hands of the law or the drug gangs, addicts are given an unjust deal. Heads I win, tails you lose.
And, of course, these drug users have to find a way of financing their habit. The inflated prices of drugs due to the risks of trafficking lead directly to acquisitive crime: burglaries, muggings, prostitution. Heroin addicts spend roughly £50 per day just to get their fix. The Home Office calculated in 2004 that between 80 and 95 per cent of sex workers in the UK were in the industry to satiate an involuntary appetite for drugs.
So it’s indisputable that legalisation would benefit the user. It would significantly reduce rates of HIV and hepatitis (B and C) infection amongst intravenous drug users, as sterile needles could be provided through Needle Exchange Programs, which would not only help the user, but would ease the effects on society by reducing the cost of healthcare for victims of such diseases. Surely it’s a no-brainer.
Not only this, but lives can be saved. It’s bizarre that we’re stuck in a situation in which a putative moral stance actually causes death. And we’ll continue counting this priceless cost of prohibition until we make the transition. Life is sacrosanct, not principles. Father John Clifton Marquis of Baltimore put it best when he said that “moral leaders have…to choose between authentic morality, which produces good, and cosmetic morality, which merely looks good.” Providing safe rooms for drug users to get their fix in a supervised environment makes addicts less likely to overdose, and more likely to survive; similar schemes have worked in Australia, Canada, Germany and Switzerland – sounds like authentic morality to me.
It’s plain to see that the Prohibitionist Warriors need a reality check; they don’t occupy the moral high ground. We have a drug problem. Hiding it within a mist of obfuscation and denial isn’t going to make it any better. Removing the stain of taboo from the topic will allow drugs to become a social issue, generating an open forum from which honest information can be disseminated among users and non-users alike. Society as a whole will be wrenched out of the prohibition quagmire and its perpetual Sisyphean strife. History alone compels us to act.
The best illustration of the pitfalls of prohibition comes from the USA and its ban on alcohol in the 1920s and early 1930s. And what happened? You guessed it. The average crime rate soared, increasing twofold as homicides rocketed by 78 per cent. Al Capone and his criminal cronies delivered the USA into the chokehold of armed gangs, dousing the nation with violence and intimidation. The alcohol became hugely adulterated and poisonous, causing a spike in alcohol-related deaths. People still drank as much as ever, it’s just they had to get their alcohol “fix” from gangsters.
On alcohol prohibition’s repeal in 1933, the landscape of the USA transformed. The murder rate plummeted and continued to drop in subsequent years. Criminals were put out of business: no product, no profit, no incentive. Crime rates fell and deaths from alcohol poisoning returned to low levels. And this isn’t the only example.
A set of laws in Japan passed between 1948 and 1957 against amphetamines produced the same effect. Illicit channels developed to fill the void left by prohibiting the drug. Addicts still bought it, in spite of what the bigwigs in government decreed. It’s the same old story; the examples go on and on and on into an abyss of absurdity.
Perhaps, though, it’s the more recent data that are the most telling. Portugal took the lead in deciding to decriminalise possession of all drugs in July 2001; it’s the pilot scheme we should look to follow. Drug use has, in fact, fallen a little since then. Glenn Greenwald of the Cato Institute discovered that 16-year olds are six per cent less likely to try drugs. The findings go on: the number of addicts who have registered for treatment is up by almost 150 per cent, and heroin use has fallen by around 50 per cent. It beggars belief that the moral war on drugs can continue to triumph over consistent rational assessment.
Yet somehow the Prohibitionist Warriors manage to find enough room between the facts to squeeze an excuse. They’re adrift in a perilous sea of warped morality. Just because we legalise and regulate a substance does not mean we approve usage. Anyone over the legal age limit can down a bottle of vodka every day until they die, but the fact that it’s licit doesn’t make it any more acceptable. And in the same way, the legalisation of drugs wouldn’t mean we were suddenly telling people they should use them. It’s not the job of the law to discourage nefarious activities; that’s down to parents and role models.
So what’s the solution? First, we have to stop living in a fantasy; we have to put an end to the shamelessly harmful current system, swatting away the vested interests of prohibitionists; we have to get a grip of the facts. A policy of regulated legalisation would work most effectively if adopted ubiquitously, across the world. There would, of course, have to be caveats: drug-driving, sales of drugs to minors, sales without a license, and advertising would all still be forbidden by law.
So let’s enter for a moment into the world of regulation. With governments in charge of importing pure, unadulterated drugs in sensible quantities (not so much that surplus is sold on the black market, not so little that the drug cartels are kept in business), supply and demand can be controlled better. Sales of drugs are limited to strictly regulated licensed safe houses, in which supervisors oversee the administration of some narcotics (heroin, cocaine and the like). Quality control is performed, and the impurities currently found in most substances disappear. Addicts have a supply they could rely on, and they could obtain clean needles and syringes. The drugs are sold at lower prices, cutting off the gangs’ life support.
The basic model is not that complicated – and it’s viable. Society benefits in that acquisitive crime nose-dives alongside a large proportion of global organised crime. The strain on prisons is eased and costs tumble, resulting in millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money being saved per year. Whole inner city areas are given a lifeline, a chance to regenerate and develop. What’s more, governments derive extra revenue from taxes imposed on drugs; in the UK, £10.5 billion is raised each year from tobacco taxes. Equal tax revenue for drugs would more than cancel out the coalition’s latest cuts on welfare spending. All in all, conservative estimates from the Transform Drugs Policy Foundation in 2009 suggests that up to £14 billion could be saved through legalisation without considering the enormous law enforcement costs, global prohibition costs, tax revenue and priceless social improvements.
The profits for the addicts cannot be enumerated though. Rather than being treated as enemies, they get a newfound status as victims, allowing them to seek the help they so urgently need. Far more addicts are referred to specialists to deal with their problems in a secure environment. Not only are users sure of the quality of the drugs they purchase, but new users of hard drugs fall; without the gangs there to force sales of their most addictive, moneymaking substances, driving people from mild to strong drugs, use of “problem” drugs would drop considerably.
This should have been done a long time ago. But now we stand at a crossroads. As Mexicans get brutally slaughtered, as addicts die preventable deaths, as societies are thrust into the hands of drug barons, the grisly realities of prohibition reveal themselves. The moral quandary is not that drugs aren’t acceptable – that misses the point entirely. The ethical issue is that living, feeling, breathing human beings are suffering precisely because of this absurd system. The Prohibitionist Warriors’ addiction to their moral postures is delusional; the blood is well and truly on their hands.
A re-evaluation is desperately needed. Prohibition is a cliff, and we are its stampeding lemmings. At the foot of the cliff are strewn the victims of its bloody regime. Their endless wailing settles like a sediment of sorrow on the earth. So the wise African proverb goes: “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”