Thursday, June 03, 2010

Drugs and decriminalisation

[From the Devil's Kitchen Archives: first published 25 July 2009.]

Iain Dale has been fretting about the alleged levels of cocaine use in this country.
I may be very naive but I find it truly shocking that nearly one million people in this country are cocaine users. Seven per cent of 16-24 year olds use the drug.There has been a 375% rise in the number of under 18s being treated in hospital for cocaine use. Ten per cent of adults expect to take cocaine at some point in their lives.

It's worth reading Iain's post for the utterly incomprehensible paragraph on the subject from Jacboots Smith on the "success" of Britain's drug policy. Needless to say, it reads like one long, illiterate lie.

To be fair to Iain, he fully admits that he himself is a "prude" where drugs are concerned—but he also takes a relatively liberal line on them too.
But everyone has to answer for their own actions and their own lifestyle. No one will ever win a war on drugs. All government can do is try to limit supply and educate people about the disastrous consequences of taking all drugs, not just class A substances.

As someone who has taken pretty much the whole range of drugs, I really don't see what these "disastrous" consequences are of "taking all drugs".

Yes, some people choose to become addicts, and that can be disastrous—but it is a choice: there is no drug that gets you hooked the very first time that you try it (no, not even crack. I know, because I am not a crack addict. See?).
There is of course a school of thought that says that all drugs should be legalised and that would lead to a decline in their use. Alan Duncan argued that in his book Saturn's Children. Whatever the merits of that argument I cannot think that any UK political party would ever adopt such a policy.

It is, of course, a central plank of UK Libertarian Party policy* and, like many of our policies, has its roots in observing policies that have worked in other countries: just as our education policy is based on that of Sweden, our drugs policy is based on the tangible success of the EU country with the most liberal drugs policy.

And that country is not the Netherlands.

No, the EU country with the most liberal drugs policy is Portugal.
The correct answer is Portugal, which in 2001 became the first European country to officially abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

At the recommendation of a national commission charged with addressing Portugal's drug problem, jail time was replaced with the offer of therapy. The argument was that the fear of prison drives addicts underground and that incarceration is more expensive than treatment — so why not give drug addicts health services instead? Under Portugal's new regime, people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail.

And how has that policy been working out? Are the streets filled with addicts, the hospitals crowded with overdoses? Er...
The paper, published by Cato in April [2009], found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.

"Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success," says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. "It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does."

Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal's drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. In addition, the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well.

Now, I realise that legalisation is a step further than mere decriminalisation, but it is an important second step to take. Portugal's policy shows that a more lenient drugs policy does not lead to increased use amongst citizens, which is the first part of the argument won.

However, decriminalisation does not address another fundamentally important issue: the fact that drug supply is still in the hands of criminal gangs—something that US policymakers are worried about.
Portugal's case study is of some interest to lawmakers in the U.S., confronted now with the violent overflow of escalating drug gang wars in Mexico. The U.S. has long championed a hard-line drug policy, supporting only international agreements that enforce drug prohibition and imposing on its citizens some of the world's harshest penalties for drug possession and sales. Yet America has the highest rates of cocaine and marijuana use in the world, and while most of the E.U. (including Holland) has more liberal drug laws than the U.S., it also has less drug use.

And that is why we need drug legalisation: we need to take the supply of drugs out of the hands of criminals, and we need to do this for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that, like the US, a large part of Britain's criminal activity—especially gang activity—is associated with the supply of drugs. Remove this trade and you remove a good deal of crime from our streets—or, rather, the motive for the crime. I am fully aware that criminal gangs will probably move onto something else but—given that we have limited law enforcement resources—whatever they move onto may be easier to police than drugs (which are relatively easy to smuggle).

Second, much of the damage done to individuals by drugs are a factor of their illegality. Although some drugs are strong and should be treated with caution (and at least with respect)—I would favour retaining some idea of drug classification to give users an idea of their potency—they are generally speaking short-lasting and put a small strain on the body's resources. However, it is the brick dust with which heroin is often cut that blocks the capillaries and leads to amputations; it is the warfarin with which cocaine is mixed that all to often leads to severe bleeds in the brain (accentuated by cocaine's raising of the heart-rate).

Third, although providing services to addicts is a reasonable thing to do, it is still a strain on the public purse. If drugs were legalised, they could be taxed. This is, by the way, a perfectly free-market policy (and not only because I favour consumption taxes to pay for any state): it is not a "sin tax" but is based on the concept of Pigouvian taxation—that is, you are using tax to reflect the true costs of goods on the market that would not otherwise be reflected in the price (internalising market externalities).

It is entirely obvious that an ever more draconian war on drugs simply doesn't work and if even the US—the country that, against all expert advice, used bribery, blackmail and puritan heckling to drive the international effort to ban all drugs throughout the twentieth century (see the IEA's Prohibitions book [free PDF download] for more on this stupid policy)—is starting to realise this, then it is about time that we started looking for a more sensible, evidence-based solution (Transform's website would be a good place to start, for any politicos reading this).

Decriminalisation of drugs in Britain should be the very least that any government should adopt—we can see from Portugal's efforts that such a policy does not lead to disaster.

But, to gain the full benefits, legalisation—even if it is done by stages—is the only sensible drugs policy to adopt. Anything else is harmful, wasteful, puritanical, expensive and just plain stupid.


Trooper Thompson said...

I'm with you all the way.

The reason that countries decriminalise rather than legalise is because of the UN treaty on the subject, as I understand it.

The billions of dollars from the international drug trade gets laundered through London and New York, and is very much integrated into the global economy, and, as with prohibition, there are powerful interests that wish to keep it illegal.

Roue le Jour said...

Back in the 90s I remember listing to a chief copper on the radio saying he was fed up with having to devote so much resource to petty theft committed by drug users and wouldn't it be cheaper all round if we just give the buggers the stuff?

An interesting point of view and one you won't hear nowadays from the politicised police service.

delcatto said...

You've got my support for this. Sadly, with alcohol very much in the spotlight of the prohibitionists and the few legally held firearms likely to be targeted, I don't think the official stance re illegal drugs will change.

thespecialone said...

So what are all the criminals who currently supply drugs going to do?
Give up crime? Get a job at the tills in Tescos? No, they will find another way to support their 'lifestyle'.
My stepson is an addict. Ok it is not class A but cannabis. He cannot get by one single day without any. He doesnt work because he cannot be bothered/is so out of it all the time. He didnt choose to become an addict. Do alcoholics choose to become alcoholics? I know the dangers of alcohol too as my father died of alcoholism.
So you make cannabis etc legal. What would be next? Child porn? For once I believe that it is the government's job to protect people. If ordinary tobacco was only discovered in very recent times; and the dangers of using it were known from the outset; do you think that it would be banned?
What % of people drink alcohol and become alcoholics compared to those that take drugs on go on to become addicts?

Jerome said...

I totally agree. I met a Magistrate once who told us (myself & my father) that legalisation was the only solution. He was utterly fed up with penalising otherwise perfectly productive members of society by giving them a criminal record for life.

I've tried a few, all (I claim) within the countries where use is legal, and I have never been addicted. Yes, it can damage your life in some ways. That is why you to use judgement. Driving a motorbike is far more risky IMO.

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