I had an interesting conversation the other day on token Telegraph lefty Tom Chivers’ blog in response to his post on legalising drugs. I put a question:
Hi. You put the case in favour of decriminalisation very well. For me the most persuasive aspect of it is to take the whole thing out of criminal hands — and, in the case of heroin users for instance, to reduce the possibilities of overdose, HIV infection, etc. These are all compelling arguments — but I still have a few quibbles before I can be entirely convinced…
Firstly, there’s a story on the BBC News website today reporting that drug use among under-15s in Scotland has halved in the last decade. You point to evidence of similar declines in Portugal since decriminalisation — but doesn’t the fact that this has happened here anyway, without legalisation, suggest that it would be wrong to say there’s a direct link between legalisation and declining use? Mightn’t Portugal’s decline have happened anyway, as it did here?
Secondly, the great George Monbiot wrote a piece a while ago which pointed out that “At present the trade in class A drugs is concentrated in the rich nations. If it were legalised, we could cope. The use of drugs is likely to rise, but governments could use the extra taxes to help people tackle addiction. But because the wholesale price would collapse with legalisation, these drugs would for the first time become widely available in poorer nations, which are easier for companies to exploit (as tobacco and alcohol firms have found) and which are less able to regulate, raise taxes or pick up the pieces. The widespread use of cocaine or heroin in the poor world could cause serious social problems.” How do you respond to the possibility (and it is just a possibility — I think Monbiot on the whole favours decriminalisation) that legalising drugs here might actually increase harm elsewhere?
Thirdly, as far as I can see, all of the evidence cited in favour of legalisation seems to come from countries with similar, broadly liberal systems of crime and punishment to ours. However, anyone who’s been to, say, Singapore or Japan will see that their drugs laws are far, far harsher than ours — and as far as I can see they also have lower levels of drug use than we do. I worry, then, that our evidence base is too narrow — that we are in danger of policybased evidencemaking, rather than the other way round. In this context it seems parochial to describe Britain’s drug laws as “fearsome”, given the possibility of far lengthier imprisonment or even execution for drug use in other countries.
As I say, I’m openminded on the matter, but I’d be grateful if you could address these points that are still troubling me. Thanks.
Interesting points. The third seems to be dealt with by the WHO’s claim that there isn’t a statistical relationship between the harshness of drug laws and the level of drug use. The Portugal example may not show that drug use will go down, but it certainly shows that drug use hasn’t gone up, and I think we need good reasons to make things illegal, not the other way around. Also, there are the public health benefits.
Monbiot’s argument is the worrying one, and I do seriously take it on board. My suspicion, and it’s only a suspicion, is that more good will come from destroying the drug lords and failed states than harm will come from exploitation by drug companies. But I can’t back that up, and I do acknowledge that that is a serious concern.
I responded thusly:
I’m glad you point me in the direction of the WHO, because I really was looking for a study of the whole world, not just of likeminded Western democracies. I’ll have a proper look at it over the weekend. If their conclusion is as you say it is, that would go a long way towards answering my concerns.
I suspect you’re right about Monbiot’s point — and given the state of some parts of West Africa and Latin America, his worst case scenario could hardly be any worse than the status quo. As you say, though, we would need a further study to look into this. All of which goes to say that the evidence may well be supportive, but not conclusive — and neither could it be, given the amount of variables in such a huge and complicated question of social policy.
I should add that I can’t accept the Delingpolist libertarian argument for drug legalisation — I don’t believe Mill’s otherwise very useful ‘do what you want unless it harms other people’ applies, because the harm caused is too often not confined solely to the user, which would remain the case even under legalisation. Think of the increased capacity for aggression by cocaine users, or the misery caused to families of heroin addicts — it would be childish to argue that these users are only harming themselves, just as no-one argues that alcohol abuse only harms the drinker. In this regard illegal drugs are much more like alcohol than tobacco. You might say everyone should ‘do what they like’, presumably at least so long as they don’t harm others, but in this case the activity intrinsically raises the risk of harming others. Or do you hold that the right not to be harmed by others is outweighed by the infringement of the right to harm oneself? Anyway, while rejecting what seems a selfish and irresponsible libertarian argument, I can however, with these reservations, just about accept the utilitarian one. We should agree that taking drugs is intrinsically harmful, and not something we should view with neutrality — thus we should want to reduce that harm, and if legalisation can help with that, we should support it.
As well as correcting my sloppy, interchangeable use of decriminalisation and legalisation, I would now go further and say I find the libertarian position (on everything) ridiculous. Anyone who pressgangs Mill, who was arguing against genuine political and religious tyranny, into service to justify acts of hedonism that are such a reliable source of harm needs to go back and read his On Liberty. Nonetheless, I still find myself somewhere between the utilitarian and authoritarian positions, or as we might call them the realistic and romantic positions, unable to quite make up my dope-addled mind. I’m much more convinced that cannabis, E, acid and mushrooms (which are class A, but whose only danger is from users self-defenestrating) should be legal, and that junkies should get their fix on the NHS rather than rob or whore, than I am that we should sell cocaine over the counter. Perhaps the wisest policy would be to accept the least harmful drugs, make them less harmful still, and concentrate on trying one way or the other to reduce use of the most harmful ones: but imperfect outcomes for users are a price worth paying for reducing harm to others, which is why I’m all for methadone programmes and needle exchanges if they cut crime and disease transmission.
Note that I don’t say ‘rather than have to rob or whore’. One aspect of the drugs debate I really can’t stand is the attempt to remove any possibility of individual autonomy from users. We are all human—we are all capable of free will, of rational thought and reasonable behaviour—we all always have a choice not to harm ourselves or others, even if many of us fail to exercise it. But moralising will get us nowhere: we have to accept that many, many people — the Delingpoles of this world — are selfish and will happily buy cocaine for fun of a weekend, even in the knowledge it causes death somewhere else in the world to some poor, anonymous black or brown person whose fate they couldn’t care less about. We have to accept that and build policy around it.
I also think liberalisers should be a bit more honest about the current non-existence of the war on drugs, at least in Britain. Go to Camden High St on a Friday night and watch the police drive up and down, ignoring crack deals in the hope of confining them to that neighbourhood. As wars go, it’s not exactly Laurent Nkunda v the Interahamwe. In many ways we are already nearer de facto decriminalisation than a war.
Of course, no discussion of drugs can now take place without the talk turning to alcohol, the drug to which we are almost all addicted, which brings me neatly onto the imminent Scottish election. If you agree, as I do, with Elish Angiolini that cheap booze is at the root of many of our problems with health, crime and the economy (and, er, to a lesser extent education, though I fondly remember one or two pisshead teachers), and if you accept the simple fact that people adjust their behaviour in response to price incentives, then you will also agree that minimum pricing of alcohol is an overdue policy, and one which ought to be weighed when deciding how to vote. The SNP tried to bring this in, and have said they will try again. Naturally Labour are against it, probably only so that they can bring it in themselves in a bid to repeat the success of the smoking ban, which was about the only worthwhile thing they managed in office. I’ve generally had quite a lot of time for Annabel Goldie — her support for the budget in return for policies like extra police officers was how opposition parties should behave, rather than opposing everything for the hell of it — but the Tories’ failure to support this move was very disappointing, and confirmed the charge that they will always be more on the side of big business than of the working class (also true of Labour). Annabel may have a point about the other parties’ auctioneering of unaffordable policies, but as my mole in the SNP points out, ‘all of her supporters are rich anyway’, and she’s not immune to giveaways either. For instance, I’m concerned about the removal of prescription charges — have a look at what’s happened to antibiotics to see why — but then, I can’t remember the last time I had to get a prescription, and would have been perfectly able to afford it anyway, so I accept that epidemiological worries are a luxury when medical and financial ones aren’t. In a wider sense, I fail to see why the upwards transfer of wealth from overtaxed poor Scots to better-off pensioners and graduates is still classed as solidarity and social justice: but that is another abstract complaint, and there are some very quotidian matters to settle first. Weighing the parties in the balance then, we find that they are all wanting, but that some are wanting more than others.
Which brings me not very neatly onto the AV referendum. I’m a bit more excited about this than I am about the election, though I’m still at a loss as to why the voters should be considered too stupid to manage both on the same day: either they’re too stupid full stop, in which case we might as well pick a dictator and hope for the best, or they’re not. Growing up in a city which at one point returned 71 Labour councillors to 79 seats, I was never much of a cheerleader for FPTP. The oft-heard idea that it lets us ‘kick the bastards out’ is rubbish too: can you remember the last time we removed one party with a working majority at a general election and brought in the other with a working majority? It hasn’t happened in my lifetime: in fact it happened only once in the 20th century (when Heath beat Wilson in 1970). AV isn’t PR (my preference is for multi-member STV, which has given us a far fairer balance on the council), but it’s probably still an improvement, and a necessary first step if we are to break the stranglehold of the rotten two or three big parties. Even with all this in mind I was swithering, until I read that Ken Clarke and John Prescott are against it and Nigel Farage, Phillip Blond and Caroline Lucas are for it.
It’s also more fun to rank candidates in order than to put a tick in a box. It benefits not just those who support smaller parties, but those of us (most of us, now) who aren’t partisan. Most of all, it benefits those of us who know which parties we hate more than we know which parties we like. And if you’re still not sure, you can always hedge your bets and put a 1 next to yes and a 2 next to no.
So tell me, dear readers: do either of you have a strong opinion on drugs, the Scottish election or AV you’d like to share…?
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