Addicted to foolish legislation on drugs

The message from all three political parties about drugs: step up the war! No slacking here, boys

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The "war on drugs" finally flickered into the election campaign last weekend. You might expect it to be one of the biggest issues, since - along with the United States - our government is the most hawkish drug warrior in the world. Using the institutions of the United Nations as their proxy, they are trying violently to suppress a $500bn-a-year industry that makes up 8 per cent of all global trade. Whole countries - from Afghanistan to Colombia - are being destabilised as they try to "eradicate" drug supply.

The "war on drugs" finally flickered into the election campaign last weekend. You might expect it to be one of the biggest issues, since - along with the United States - our government is the most hawkish drug warrior in the world. Using the institutions of the United Nations as their proxy, they are trying violently to suppress a $500bn-a-year industry that makes up 8 per cent of all global trade. Whole countries - from Afghanistan to Colombia - are being destabilised as they try to "eradicate" drug supply.

But it's all worth it, according to our politicians. Back on the home front, it's VD Day, they declare - Victory over Drugs. But in the real world, drug use has never been higher. Untreated drug users commit half of all burglaries, while billions are squandered to prevent drugs crossing our borders.

The main effect of this war has been to take drugs out of the hands of doctors and pharmacists, and hand them to criminal gangs. Drugs don't go away; they melt into the black economy. That's why, wherever drug prohibition spreads, it brings armed gang warfare as dealers seize the market. As Milton Friedman, guru to the marketeering right, explains: "Al Capone epitomises our earlier attempt at alcohol prohibition; the Crips and Bloods and countless other armed gangs epitomise this one."

So when drugs were finally injected into the bloodstream of the election, were our politicians OD-ing on calls to stop the war? Did a mainstream political party argue for an end to this armed chaos? Did anybody suggest bringing drug use into a controlled, legal context, as we have with those other addictive and deadly substances, alcohol and tobacco?

Not quite. The Tories and the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, have suggested that the one, tiny act of demobbing carried out by this government - the downgrading of cannabis to Grade C - was a mistake. Michael Howard has called for it to be bumped back to Grade B, so the police would begin banging up cannabis users again. Labour have shrieked in fear and asked for a "review" of the cannabis laws, citing recent studies that tell us what we already knew: chronic cannabis use can have terrible consequences on mental health. The Liberal Democrats cower behind a feeble pledge to establish a Royal Commission on cannabis. The mood-music from all three parties? Step up the war! No slacking here, boys.

This is partly just political manoeuvring. Labour and the Lib Dems want to neutralise the Tory charge that they are "soft on drugs" by driving the issue into (if you'll excuse the pun) the long grass. But it is also a sign of how dismal the political leadership is on this issue, and how far we are from ending this 40-year trench war.

Very few people in this country now believe that drug prohibition can work. An ICM poll for the Daily Mirror last year - the most detailed study of attitudes towards prohibition we have - found that 76 per cent of Brits agree with the statement "the war on drugs is lost". Only 28 per cent believe "drugs should be illegal even if they are controlled by criminals", while 61 per cent believe "their supply should be regulated by the government". A majority were still reluctant give their beliefs the name "legalisation", but they do support bringing drugs into the legal economy.

Yet none of our politicians has been brave enough to seize on this inchoate public mood. They prefer to squander tens of billions a year clinging to the fantasy of a drug-free world. Of course cannabis is - as Charles Clarke explained in his call for a review of the law - harmful. Only a fool would say otherwise. Like every other person under 30 in this country, I have seen a small minority of cannabis users - some of them close friends - blend their brains with endless bongs.

But I have also seen a small minority of alcohol users reduced to spewing, shivering wrecks. Are we going to introduce alcohol prohibition too, and hand Malibu and Cointreau to the gangs? Or are we going to admit that once a harmful substance is used by more than 40 per cent of British people, we have no choice but to legalise it, bankrupt the criminals and shift spending from futile border-and-police action to education and rehabilitation?

Decriminalisation of cannabis possession (which the Blair strategy amounts to) leaves in place all the worst aspects of prohibition. The same gangs are selling drugs across Britain, untaxed and tooled-up. Drug supply is still contaminated and artificially expensive - and this pushes up the death and burglary rates.

The solution is not, as our politicians have moodily mooted this week, to reverse decriminalisation. It is fully to legalise - and not just cannabis, but ecstasy, LSD, heroin and cocaine. This is still taboo in political debate, but public opinion is far ahead of the politicians, and hungry for leadership. Besides, ending alcohol prohibition seemed like a wild proposal in the US in 1920. Anybody think it's crazy now?

Some prohibitionists have claimed - using anecdotal evidence - that cannabis use in Britain has increased since the law was relaxed. Surely if we fully legalised, they say, use would sky-rocket? This is a serious worry and deserves a serious answer. The figures are vigorously disputed by the police and by groups working with problematic drug users - but let's suppose, for the sake of argument, they are right.

Addiction to cannabis is as annihilating as alcoholism. But when assessing the drugs war, we cannot simply count the number of drug addicts as the only measurement of success, any more than an assessment of the First World War can focus solely on territory lost or gained.

We need to look instead at the total human cost of the fighting. Under legalisation, there might be more addicts. But that needs to be weighed against the certain peace dividend. The list of gains is long. We would send most of Britain's criminal gangs out of business. (A decade after the end of alcohol prohibition, the number of people working for criminal gangs in Chicago had fallen by 70 per cent).

The police time now dedicated to the drug trade would be freed up to catch burglars, rapists and murderers. The huge sums saved from not chasing drug users would be spent on rehab. The countries devastated by prohibition would begin to heal. In Afghanistan now, the heroin trade - which makes up two-thirds of the economy - is handed to drug-profiteering warlords, guaranteeing they will always be able to outgun the democratically elected government. If Karzai's government could claim the financial fruits of that trade from the warlords, it would be possible to build up the Afghan state. There is a huge peace dividend waiting at the end of this war.

One day soon, a smart politician will see the potential in these arguments. Ending the war on drugs could have appeal across the political spectrum. Many neo-Thatcherites dislike the idea of a market being suppressed. Many middle England mums would happily see heroin being prescribed to addicts if it halved the burglary rate, as it has in Switzerland. Many lefties loathe the impact of prohibition on the poorest people in the world. And addicts - desperate to escape the underworld - dream of a safe, regular prescription and access to rehabilitation.

But for this election, this time, it's back to the old war songs. Switch off your brain, ignore the evidence of your eyes, and sing with me: There'll be no drug smugglers over the white cliffs of Dover tomorrow - just you wait and see.

Our political classes are addicted to prohibition and, boy, are they in denial.

johann@johannhari.com

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