Leading Article: Addicted to a failed policy

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The Independent Online
IN AN IDEAL world, alcohol would be banned. Even in quite moderate quantities, it can impair work performance, affect driving, make people quarrelsome, maudlin or boring. In larger quantities, it can kill. It can be addictive and so ruin lives. Throughout the past century, most violence in our society - particularly domestic violence - has been alcohol-related. Though millions of people get harmless pleasure from drinking, that is probably not enough, on a strict utilitarian accounting, to outweigh the enormous social and health costs. We accept, however, that we do not live in an ideal world: most of all, we recognise that, even if alcohol were prohibited, as it once was in America, people would continue to sell and buy it, thus drawing vast sections of the population into illegal activity. We take the same attitude towards many other things that have little intrinsic merit and can harm physical or mental health - tobacco, pornography, gambling. Weighing the questions of rights, duties and practicalities that have preoccupied political philosophers down the ages, we elect to control and regulate them but not to ban them.

Yet we adopt an entirely different approach to drugs. Politicians use the word 'drugs' as though to refer to a distinct, single and completely evil entity. In reality, drugs (by which they actually mean those drugs that happen presently to be illegal) vary enormously in their effects and addictive qualities: even the same drug can have quite different results depending on its quantity and its purity, on how it is administered, on who takes it in what circumstances. Yet all but a handful of politicians refuse to countenance anything other than the continuation of a blanket ban, backed by severe penalties for users and suppliers. 'Drugs are harmful,' Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, told a police conference on drugs last week. 'They destroy people; they destroy families; they destroy the very fabric on which our society rests.' This is soundbite politics at its worst. Senior police officers, magistrates, doctors, law lords and drug counselling specialists are among those who support some change in the law. Their arguments deserve a hearing.

To discuss the legalisation of drugs is not a counsel of despair, as Mr Howard and other politicians have argued. Still less is it a denial of the pitiful state to which drugs can reduce people. The 'war against drugs', as it is rather melodramatically called, can perfectly well accompany their legalisation, just as the wars against excessive drinking and cigarette smoking accompany the legal supply of alcohol and tobacco. Indeed, it looks as if those wars are more successful than that against illegal drugs. Tobacco smoking is in decline - partly because, with nicotine on the right side of the law, manufacturers have been allowed to develop and market safe forms of administering it. Use of illegal drugs, by contrast, continues to climb steeply, particularly among the under-16s. The largest black market in history is estimated to be worth pounds 5bn a year in Britain alone, providing huge profits for organised criminals, who compete for market share with gunfire and knives. The chances of ever preventing supply are almost nil: the substances are simply too easy to smuggle and hide, too cheap to grow. Drugs are most freely available in prisons. If authority cannot stop them under its nose, what hope has it on the streets?

Lord Mancroft, a Tory peer, has proposed state-licensed 'drug shops' where registered users would be allowed to buy drugs provided they had regular health checks and counselling. Two questions need to be asked. First, would this help those who are already addicted? Most likely it would. Addicts would get safer and cheaper supplies. They would be more willing to seek treatment if they did not fear prosecution. They would have less need to commit crime to finance their purchases. Second, would more people try drugs? Possibly they would because many are deterred by illegality. But drugs suppliers might disappear from the streets because their potential profits would no longer outweigh the risks. And these suppliers have a vested interest in maximising use and persuading people to try 'harder' drugs.

To repeat: the war against drugs would continue. Selling drugs outside the licensed outlets would remain a criminal offence. Freed from the need to fight on all fronts, the Government could devote more resources to prevention of such sales, as well as to education and treatment. The total war against drugs has failed; politicians of all parties should at least address the arguments for a new strategy, based on more limited aims.