If our politicians were brave enough, or even simply rational, they would follow Uruguay's lead and legalise cannabis

For the criminal underworld, the "war on drugs" is an extraordinary money-spinner

Related Topics

It's a policy that would be a hammer blow to criminal gangs. It would stop criminalising non-violent people, drastically undermine racist policing, be good for people's health and it would save lives. But while a mainstream British politician is more likely to have smoked cannabis than to propose its legalisation, the courageous Uruguayan government has done just that.

Uruguay made a pragmatic choice. It could continue to leave cannabis production and sale in the hands of violent criminal gangs, or the state could take it over and regulate it properly. “A regulated market that is visible has greater oversight than prohibition,” as Diego Canepa, the president of the Uruguay's National Drug Board, has put it. Uruguayans who register on a national database can buy up to 40g of pot from a pharmacy, and adults are now allowed to grow up to eight marijuana plants each.

The gangs of Uruguay must be incandescent with rage. The so-called “war on drugs” has been the ultimate money-spinner for the criminal underworld. In the five decades since its catastrophic inception, more people are using drugs than ever before, and the illegal market is booming. According to the UN, it is now worth $330bn globally a year, which is bigger than most countries' economies. Governments spend $100bn a year supposedly cracking down on it. The US alone has thrown a trillion dollars at it since Richard Nixon unleashed his war. It is a self-destructive waste on an epic scale.

Just look at the fruits of Britain's war on drugs. In 1970, 9,000 people were cautioned or convicted for drug use. Quarter of a century later, the figure had leapt to 94,000, and last year it reached 133,000. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales – with all the caveats of the problems of self-reporting – 36.5 per cent of British adults have tried drugs. What exactly is being served by treating so many millions of Britons using a drug far less dangerous than alcohol as though they are criminals?

As demand for drugs has grown, attacks on its supply have simply driven up the cost. That's not something that only gangs can capitalise on - it helps drive other forms of crime, too. It’s been estimated that around half of property crime in Britain is drugs-related because users steal to fuel their expensive habit.

It has destabilised entire nations, leading to thousands of deaths. Around 60,000 people have died in drugs-related violence in Mexico since 2006, and the violence escalated as then president Felipe Calderon unleashed the might of the state against the cartels. No wonder Uruguay's President José Mujica has declared that “the effects of drug trafficking are worse than those of the drugs themselves”.

People are criminalised for non-violent offences, in some cases ruining lives. It has a frightening racist dimension, too. In the United States, for example, two-thirds of those languishing in prisons for a drug offence are black or Hispanic, even though the odds of them either selling or using drugs is roughly the same as white Americans.

It is a similarly bleak story in this country, too. As pioneering drugs charity Release has found, black people are more than six times likely to be stopped and searched on suspicion of drug possession in London, even though they are actually less likely to use drugs. Disgracefully, a black person found with cannabis on them is five times more likely to be charged than a white person. This is outright racism. But we should simply stop persecuting people for having weed in their pockets. Six out of 10 people being prosecuted for drugs possessions are being done for cannabis. For what? Legalising cannabis would drastically decrease the involvement that ethnic minority people have with an institutionally racist justice system.

When it comes to problematic drug abuse and addiction, a more constructive approach would be to deal with the causes, not the symptoms. All the studies show that problematic drug use is far more common in poorer communities. Let's deal with poverty and leave prisons to the violent, the rapists and the killers.

With cannabis in the hands of the state, we can get rid of bad-quality and more dangerous forms of the drug. We can impose age restrictions. We can separate the market. At the moment, drug gangs can encourage cannabis-users to take other more dangerous drugs. By taking it out of the black market, we can get the lost tax revenues. We can free up time and resources battling cannabis and put it to far better use.

We've had 50 years of the war on drugs, and the results are in: it is an absolutely calamitous failure. Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, which may as well be the slogan of the proponents of this criminal escapade. They are the best friends of the profiteering criminal gangs, who they would leave in monopoly control of drugs. When will British politicians show the farsightedness and courage of Uruguay? Because until they do, money will continue to be wasted, lives will be ruined, and people will keep dying. It is quite a price for stubborn stupidity.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas