Johann Hari: Will it take a Tory to legalise drugs?

Unlike some politicians, David Cameron knows something about the global drugs industry
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The Independent Online

Unlike most politicians, David Cameron knows something about the global drugs industry. When he served on the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2002, he conducted a year-long investigation into it, taking more than 50 hours of evidence and long testimonies from the world's experts. He went in very sceptical of the idea of legalisation: aren't only crazy pro-heroin hippies in favour of ending prohibition? But as the evidence piled up, the committee was honest enough to admit that - in Cameron's words - "about the only thing all our witnesses agreed on was that the Government's strategy was a failure and prohibition of drugs over many decades had not worked". They explained the truth: criminalisation does not kill the drugs industry. It simply hands it over to armed criminal gangs who flood the country with guns, terrorise their neighbourhoods, and drain resources that would be better spent helping and treating addicts.

Cameron found the prohibitionist rhetoric - stamp, stamp, stamp it out - increasingly ludicrous and self-defeating. So he has begun to advocate the only serious alternative: legalisation at the international level through the UN. It sounds drastic, and at the moment Cameron is only offering a generalised commitment without much detail. But his suggestion can be swiftly turned into an attractive prospectus. Take drugs back from the armed gangs, and hand them over to off-licenses, pharmacists and doctors. Instead of doling out tens of billions a year to the police, customs and army to do the impossible job of "eradicating" drugs, give that money to hospitals so they can - in Cameron's phrase - "let one thousand rehab flowers bloom". Stop chasing the utopia of a drugs-free world, and instead focus on reducing the harm drugs can do.

A decade ago, the sight of a senior Tory offering this programme would have seemed like a political acid trip, but British attitudes towards drugs are shifting rapidly. The most detailed survey on the subject - last year's ICM poll - found that 76 per cent of Brits agree with the statement "the war on drugs is being lost". Only 28 per cent believe "drugs should be illegal even if they are controlled by criminals", and 69 per cent believe "their supply should be regulated by the Government or drugs companies". The name for the UN's 10-year drugs strategy championed by the Government - "A Drug-Free World - We Can Do It!" - provokes incredulous laughter.

The only problem uncovered by ICM for Cameron lies in the branding of their argument. When the same people who believe that the Government should regulate and supply drugs were asked if they believe in legalisation - the only accurate description of their own proposals - only 17 per cent agreed. The sting needs to be drawn from the word "legalisation".

It might be that a preppy old Etonian like David Cameron, offering Middle England some soothing conservative-sounding arguments, is the person to do it. There are, after all, plenty of Toryish arguments for drug legalisation (even though I prefer the lefty ones). Here's a possible Cameron script: Are you worried about burglary? There is only one tried and tested policy that slashes burglary rates by 70 per cent: giving heroin to addicts so they do not go out on the rob to feed their ravaging hunger. Just ask the Swiss, where it is one of the most popular government policies ever. Are you worried about high taxes? Prohibition costs £16bn a year as it cascades through the criminal justice system. That's equivalent to four pence on income tax - wait till you see the peace dividend from ending this war.

And yes, of course you don't want your kids to use drugs. But you also don't want them to be shot on the street, as more and more people are because of drug prohibition's Al Capones - so legalise and send the gun-toting gangs out of business. And yes, you don't want little Tarquin using smack - but do you want him lumbered with a criminal record for a night on the town? And wouldn't you like to know that if - God forbid - he does become an addict, there will be free, high-quality rehab waiting for him rather than a dank cell?

As if on cue, the Government is doing something this week that illustrates Cameron's arguments about the weird evidence-free nature of the war on drugs in blood-red Technicolor. Right now, 2,500 British troops are about to be despatched to trash one of the only cash-crops in the poorest country in the world - and they are going to kill anybody who fights back. The 16th Air Assault Brigade is flying into the Afghan province of Helmand, where they have orders to "secure" the fields of dirt-poor farmers growing opium and destroy them. British Army commanders briefed a newspaper that they expect the farmers to stage an uprising when their livelihoods are wrecked and they face starvation. So - strike up "Land of Hope and Glory" - we will then have British forces firing on some of the poorest people on earth after destroying their only source of income. It's as if the Government was dealing with binge-drinking by sending Swat teams into Oddbins and despatching the SAS to commit massacres in rum distilleries in Jamaica.

Although this "operation" might seem very distant from domestic concerns, it is an illustration of the strategy carried out back home in one crucial respect. Whenever politicians order "crackdowns" like this, they have invariably been warned by their experts that it is a waste of time. Tony Blair's Strategy Unit warned him in 2003 that targeting drug-supplying countries squanders blood and money. "Drug crop eradication appears not to limit illicit crops in the long term," it explained dryly. Nor, the experts added, can drug trafficking ever be significantly curtailed: seizure rates of 60-80 per cent would be required to have any serious impact, and nothing greater than 20 per cent has ever been achieved. Yet the Government continues to blindly funnel money into the black hole of prohibition.

For the public, the war on drugs overdosed years ago. Once a smart politician campaigns for a decent burial - once he shows there is a safer, smarter alternative - I suspect the other parties will come round within a decade. So is David Cameron the man to begin digging the grave of prohibition?