…up in a puff of smoke

It probably came as a surprise to most to see that The Economist’s ‘Country of the Year’ for 2013 was Uruguay.  Their decision was in no small part down to the nation’s recent move to regulate the production, sale and consumption of cannabis.

“Prohibition”, observed the late American economist Milton Friedman, “is an attempted cure that makes matters worse—for both the addict and the rest of us.”  It’s time for the industry to be decriminalised and regulated, not because drug taking is acceptable, but because drugs create a problem too complicated to leave to the black market.

Think of a friend who desperately wants to use cannabis but who doesn’t use it because it’s illegal.  Stumped?  That’s no surprise.  Whether they’re prohibited or regulated, those who want to take drugs will.  All we do by banning cannabis is shove them into the open arms of dealers, and hamstring society’s ability to persuade them not to bother.

Organised criminals can sell whatever product they like, using whatever methods work, charging as much as they can get away with.  The result: adulterated drugs, potential for violence, and hugely inflated prices.  Prohibition simply fattens the criminal underbelly.  What’s more, cannabis becomes a ‘gateway’ drug as soon as the dealer pushes his customer to try something stronger.

Just because we legalise a substance doesn’t mean we endorse it.  Anyone over eighteen can down a bottle of vodka every day until they die.  The fact that it’s legal doesn’t make it socially acceptable; but it does remove the taboos that stand in the way of open, honest discussion about substance abuse and its consequences.  In a decriminalised Britain, advertising campaigns and accurate statistics (on drug-driving, for example) would stand a good chance of deterring many cannabis users from harming themselves and others.

Decriminalisation, then, doesn’t solely benefit the user.  It would save taxpayers money, for one thing—up to £1.25bn in total, according to the Institute for Social and Economic Research, and it’s not like we couldn’t use that at the moment.  Prisons wouldn’t be so strained; acquisitive crime would tumble; and guns, ninety-five per cent of which are linked to drug gangs in Britain, would hold less sway on the streets.  The more drugs we decriminalise and regulate, the greater these impacts.

Further afield, it’s even harder to justify prohibition.  In Mexico, drug-related violence has claimed the lives of over 60,000 people since 2006.  Topple one kingpin, and another tries to fill the void—it’s a never-ending merry-go-round of violence.  Perhaps more relevant to Britain, though, is the case of Afghanistan.  Taleban fighters only strengthen their influence through the drugs trade, as farmers grow the crops that make the most money: marijuana plants and, much more extensively, opium poppies.

The basic model isn’t that complicated—and it’s viable.  Portugal decriminalised way back in 2001 and has seen positive outcomes; Uruguay and two American states have followed suit with new strategies.  In a legal marketplace, production, preparation and purchases can be carefully controlled.  Rather than concentrating on punishment, efforts can be channelled into prevention instead.

Like it or not, people take drugs, always have, and always will.  Relying on criminal gangs to supply them is like flipping a weighted coin: heads they win, tails you lose.  A new year calls for a new approach, and cannabis should be top of the list.

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