The evidence against the 'war on drugs' is so overwhelming it cannot be ignored

We wouldn’t ask an organised crime syndicate to control the supply of our tobacco or alcohol, so why heroin and cocaine?


Thursday 16 June 2016 14:42 BST
The global black market for drugs such as cocaine and heroin has not been tackled by 'tough' government policies
The global black market for drugs such as cocaine and heroin has not been tackled by 'tough' government policies (Reuters)

In the final editorial of our print edition in March, this column pointed out that over the lifetime of the newspaper, we had made friends of heresies and watched with glee as they became common sense. Perhaps no issue has moved in this direction so far, and so fast, as the debate around the legal status of drugs.

Yesterday, two of the most august public health bodies in Britain added their considerable weight to the growing body of opinion in this country that accepts the catastrophic, murderous stupidity of the so-called “war on drugs” must be reversed.

In a historic intervention, the Royal Society for Public Health and the Faculty of Public Health have made explicit their view that the law as it presently stands is a grim litany of failure. The first British medical bodies to publicly favour radical reform in this way, they argue that drug use should be regarded as a health matter, like consumption of tobacco and alcohol, rather than a crime.

No lefty, liberal conspiracy this: both organisations have looked hard at the evidence, and seen the horror caused by our current laws. They favour decriminalisation of consumption, but not – yet – supply, arguing that it would lead to lower incarceration rates.

Prison is the worst possible way, they note, to address drug use: the widespread availability of drugs in prison increases consumption and endangers addicts; the vast cost of keeping prisoners behind bars diverts precious funds to unproductive, counter-effective uses; and the devastating impact of prison – which damages morale, destroys families, and is antithetical to career and educational opportunities – is the very last thing that addicts need.

The Independent has long argued that the case for drug reform combines the philosophical with the practical. In principle, it is wrong that the state should interfere with an individual’s choice to consume whatever substance they wish – unless, in so doing, they are preventing harm to other citizens.

This harm principle, best articulated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, illustrates precisely why our drug laws are so absurd: at present they vastly increase the harm caused to other citizens. The principal effect of drug laws is to inflate the salaries of the nastiest barons and gangsters on earth, funding organised crime and corruption, and fuelling the self-immolation of whole nations, from Mexico to Albania and Afghanistan.

That is why we would go further than these two bodies, in arguing for full legalisation. This differs from decriminalisation in the essential respect that the latter still leaves control of supply in the hands of organised crime syndicates. We wouldn’t ask them to control the supply of our tobacco or alcohol, so why heroin and cocaine?

What prompts these two health bodies to intervene now, however, is the undeniable evidence from countries that have adopted a more liberal approach. These reforms have been astonishingly effective.

Counterintuitively, the evidence is emphatic that drug use has actually come down in Portugal since that country decriminalised hard drugs in 2001. And, amazingly, drug-related deaths have fallen by 80 per cent – yes, 80 per cent – over the same period, while HIV infection rates have also fallen.

In any other area of policy, such remarkably impressive results from radical reform would be seen as a blueprint for the rest of the world to follow.

For the Royal Society of Public Health and the Faculty of Public Health – bodies whose members proceed by a calm appraisal of the evidence available, rather than in accordance with moral fervour or ideology – it is blatantly obvious that current drug laws are so stupid they could have been devised by a bunch of addled smack addicts. Obviously our political class it too stuffed with cowards and prisoners of religious and superstitious thinking for such reform to happen in the short term.

But if enough people keep making forceful arguments based on the available evidence, the heresy of reformed drug laws will graduate not just to common sense but prevailing wisdom soon enough.

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