Ask Louise Mensch MP: Is "Give Drugs a Chance" a sell out, or is it realism?

No-one thinks this is an easy issue. Do we use that as an excuse not to confront it?

Don't do the thing's I've done, says Louise Mensch MP
David Atherton
On 9 July 2012 13:24

Give drugs a chance?

For this week's article, which was next on my list of scribblings, I have been handed some very topical information. Louise Mensch the Conservative MP for Corby was on the BBC’s flagship politics debating show Question Time, saying that class A drugs should remain illegal.

With  admirable  honesty, she conceded that when she worked for EMI, she and Nigel Kennedy, the violinist, not only danced badly but she, for sure, was in receipt of ‘performance enhancing’ chemicals.

Ms. Mensch said that the drugs made her ‘anxious’ and they had a long term impact on her mental health. By contrast John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten, remember?), a sprightly 55 year old seems to imply he too has had his share but takes the libertarian viewpoint that, through education, people should be allowed to make their own informed choices.

Meanwhile Kenneth Clarke the Justice Minister waves a white flag and says Britain is "plainly losing the war on drugs."

Humankind has from its dawn always looked to enhance its state of consciousness. Ten thousand years ago in North America, Native American Shamans produced, in the Chumash and Yokuts region of California, cave art thought to have been painted under the influence of hallucinogens.

The discovery of alcohol too is traced back to ten thousand years ago, and Jesus was kind enough to convert water into wine. Cocaine allegedly has been found in the hair of Egyptian mummies from that time too. Nothing can be disinvented.

I can heartily recommend Chris Snowdon’s book “The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition Since 1800.” The chapters include the worldwide ban on opium, and the beginning of the war on drugs, American prohibition of alcohol, Ecstasy and the rise of designer drugs.

After reading it, not only is it particularly well written but you are left with a sense of hopelessness at how ineffective drug polices have been, but also that those state-enhanced- unintended-consequences exacerbate a bad situation and make it worse.

The illegalisation of opiates only began in 1912 at the Hague International Opium Convention, and cocaine was only banned (bought from your local chemist or greengrocers) in the UK in 1917 after it was thought that the beastly Germans had poisoned our supply. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes is depicted as a habitual cocaine and morphine user. Before 1918 was there a drug problem in the UK?

Mexico is the major supplier of narcotics to the USA, especially cocaine. But during the Second World War the Americans encouraged Mexicans engaged in poppy growing to supply their drugs to the government to be turned into morphine for combatants. A nod and a wink from border customs in 1941 to 1945 would be in stark contrast to a 30 year jail sentence today.

This now brings us to President Richard Nixon who, on June 17 1971, named drug abuse as "public enemy number one in the United States." The war on drugs begins in earnest.

Even with the benefit of hindsight it is best summed up by this article: “After 40 years, the United States' war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.”

Mr. Gil Kerlikowske the current Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, (Drug Tsar), concedes the strategy hasn't worked. "In the grand scheme, it has not been successful.”Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."

In a remarkable article in the New York Times profiling Joaquín Guzmán, who is the CEO of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, one learns of how one buys a kilo of cocaine in Columbia or Peru for $2,000 and eventually has a street value of $100,000. The American Justice Department estimates that cartels reap “$18 billion to $39 billion from drug sales in the United States each year.” The violence to control this trade is appalling: bodies decapitated and left in the street with 50,000 murders since 2006; open defiance of the law, with police and judiciary either bribed into compliance or shot dead.

They have no fear. Such open contempt and disregard for the law is a grave worry.

In March 2011, the International Journal of Drug policy published this paper: “Effect of drug law enforcement on drug market violence: A systematic review.”

Its conclusions were: “Fourteen (93% of) studies reported an adverse impact of drug law enforcement on levels of violence. Ten of the 11 (91% of) studies employing longitudinal qualitative analyses found a significant association between drug law enforcement and drug market violence: "Our findings suggest that increasing drug law enforcement is unlikely to reduce drug market violence"

Instead, the existing evidence base suggests that gun violence and high homicide rates may be an inevitable consequence of drug prohibition and that disrupting drug markets can paradoxically increase violence. In this context, and since drug prohibition has not meaningfully reduced drug supply, alternative regulatory models will be required if drug supply and drug market violence are to be meaningfully reduced.”

The conclusion? That the more taxpayer’s resources we throw at the problem the worse the problem becomes. Moralising does not solve the drug markets.

Has legalisation or decriminalisation been tried? Yes, in Portugal where possession is not an offence, although they still go after the dealers.

On July 1, 2001, the dirty deed was done. The naysayers were warning of drug tourism, and increased use. Certainly, outside the extreme Right, no one is asking for the act to be repealed. Portugal remains one of the lowest user countries in the European Union (EU). HIV infection from shared needles has declined and deaths from consumption of the drugs too.

As the Cato Institute neatly summarises: “The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success. Within this success lie self-evident lessons that should guide drug policy debates around the world.”

It also appears that, 10 years later, drug use is down by 50 percent as users receive treatment rather than jail sentences. As Joao Goulao, President of the Institute of Drugs and Drugs Addiction commented: “This development can not only be attributed to decriminalisation but to a confluence of treatment and risk reduction policies.”

Full legalisation would allow the proper processing of drugs for purity and quality assurance by responsible pharmaceutical and tobacco companies, for example. It could be lightly taxed and the proceeds spent on treatment. Even if I believe that there cannot be less consumption, there should be safer consumption. 

Prohibition has failed shall we give drugs a chance?

David Atherton is Chairman of Freedom2Choose, which seeks to protect the informed choices of consenting adults on the issues of smoking

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