“It’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war on personal freedom is what it is, OK? Keep that in mind at all times. Thank you. They lump all drugs together. It’s not going to work…” – Bill Hicks, 1990
Hicks had a point, you know. But, then again, he frequently did. On that showing, and if he were still alive, I’d probably be lobbying for him to replace Professor David Nutt, the scientific advisor to the British government on the subject of illegal substances, who was unfairly sacked by the Home Secretary Alan Johnson at the end of last week (two of Nutt’s colleagues have since resigned in support of his stance).
And why was Nutt sacked? Simply because he dared to take a stand on the relative dangers of drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy that actually took into consideration the scientific evidence, rather than simply toeing the government policy line on the assumed risks associated with such substances.
Final proof, if any were needed, that drug policy in this country bears no resemblance to scientific fact and has everything to do with the assumptions and prejudices of politicians; many of whom seem to be stuck in the 1950s in their attitudes towards drugs anyway – Gordon Brown’s public pronouncement in April 2008 that cannabis is a ‘lethal’ drug being but one example of how out of touch this government is on the matter.
The drug issue has always been a complex and emotive one. There are and will always be risks associated with drug use, risks which cannot be underestimated or ignored – but the vast majority of illegal drug users in this country (and there are many) have positive and enjoyable experiences on their substances of choice, much like those who enjoy a social and legal pint or two in the pub of a weekend.
And therein lies the problem. The legal status of various commonly-used drugs seems arbitrary at best. Back in 2007, David Nutt and his colleagues drew up a list of the most dangerous drugs commonly used in Britain, which showed that at least 8,274 people died in 2007 as a result of the use of alcohol, a legal drug. And, according to the same survey, another legal drug, tobacco, contributes to the deaths of thousands more people every year.
Yet ecstasy, currently a Class A drug which can get a user up to seven years in jail for possession, is wholly or partially responsible for less than a hundred deaths every year. It is difficult to judge the number of deaths in which cannabis played a part, as other drugs are usually involved in such cases, but it appears to be physically impossible for the human body to ingest the amount of cannabis alone needed to produce a fatal overdose.
The (lack of) logic behind the legal status of these drugs seems mindboggling when you look at such statistics – until you realise the economic rationale behind it. Despite the fact that they are clearly more dangerous than ecstasy or cannabis, alcohol and tobacco are legal because of the huge profits the government can make from them via taxes and duties – and these profits are enormous, particularly from tobacco.
You just have to look at the thriving British black market in cigarettes and rolling tobacco, purchased at considerably lower prices from other European countries, to understand the amount of money the government makes from those who perfectly legally use tobacco – so much so that smokers seeks alternative sources for their legal drug.
You see, that’s where the logic really falls down, in my opinion. The ideal situation in the long term would be the complete legalisation and liberalisation of drugs, particularly cannabis, but – realistically – that won’t ever happen in this country, for both ‘moral’ and economic reasons. The next best option would be regulation, using the Dutch example as a model – because the net results of that would be advantageous to both the state and to drug users, for a number of reasons.
Seeing as now-illegal drugs like ecstasy and cannabis are comparatively less dangerous than legal substances like tobacco and alcohol, wouldn’t it make more sense to legalise, regulate and tax them – just like tobacco and alcohol? Get the balance of taxes and duties right on such drugs (on any legal or legalised drugs – see above) and the black market should all but disappear, for a start.
And with the number of people who use cannabis and ecstasy on a regular basis in Britain, the government could still make a fair whack from fairly imposed taxes and duties on them, the quality of what is sold would likely improve under such regulation, and other problems associated with the current legal status of such drugs could at least be partially resolved.
Those who seek to prohibit drugs often cite two major and often connected issues as supporting their cause – that of drug-related crime and the link between drug production/distribution and organised crime of various kinds. However, as the notorious example of Prohibition in 1920s America so vividly shows, these undeniable issues come about not as a result of the mere existence and use of such substances, as some would suggest, but as a result of them being made illegal in the first place.
For example, it is doubtful that the likes of Al Capone would have made millions of dollars out of the movement and distribution of alcohol had the booze not been illegal at the time. The simple fact of criminalising drugs also criminalises both supply and users – crime is not a cause of drug prohibition but an effect. A more rational approach to legalisation or regulation would cut crime rates – there would obviously be no more convictions for possession or supply, and there would be far fewer crimes committed in order to obtain drugs if such a regulated supply was freely available.
There could be other societal benefits from changing the law on drugs – a legal, regulated supply should mean standardised quality, reducing the numbers of people who fall ill (and worse) as a result of adulterated substances, and thus reducing the subsequent burden on the health service from those who have to be treated because of their drug use.
All of this could seem highly illogical when so many of us have had the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ theory repeatedly forced upon us; a theory which argues that all drugs are bad by definition, mmmkay, and that any form of legalisation, decriminalisation or sensible regulation would instantly cause society to implode and every child to instantly become a raving junkie.
But none of that has happened yet in Portugal, which abolished all legal penalties for the personal possession of drugs in 2001. In fact, since this change in policy, teenage drug use and the rate of new drug-related HIV infections have actually declined. Neither has Dutch society collapsed as a result of their tolerance of cannabis use in coffee shops, despite the number of ‘drug tourists’ visiting Amsterdam.
Historically, what are now perceived as ‘hard’ drugs (such as the opium-based tincture known as laudanum) were freely and legally available across Europe and the United States during the 19th century, and were widely prescribed for almost any medical ailment you can think of.
Victorian society didn’t fall apart as a result, although addiction was relatively common and little understood – in fact, the use of drugs such as laudanum actually inspired some of the most influential creative minds of the period, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas de Quincey.
So why should we then expect the universe to collapse if drug policy is actually informed by sane and rational facts instead of hysterical and ill-informed politics? Drugs have been around for millennia. People have been taking drugs for millennia. People are always going to take drugs. Whatever you try to do, you’ll never change that.
Is it too much to ask, as Professor Nutt and his colleagues did, for a bit of joined-up political thinking when it comes to drug policy? Is it too much to ask to expect an evidence-based drug policy rather than one still stuck in the out-dated and just plain unsuccessful idea of the ‘War on Drugs’? I don’t think it is, but clearly Gordon Brown and Alan Johnson still need some convincing.