End this war

The legalisation of drugs would be a significant step towards a free society and the only way to win the so-called "War on Drugs"

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The War on Drugs: a failure
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Guy Bentley
On 25 August 2012 16:33

Recently the BBC broadcast a documentary by comedian and former drug addict Russell Brand on the issue of drug rehabilitation. This was preceded by a spot on Newsnight where the issue of drugs was debated between Brand, Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens, David Burrows MP and an academic.

The debate quickly descended into the Peter Hitchens show, displaying his infamous moral outrage and lamenting the fact that Russell Brand had been asked to make a documentary for the BBC and he had not.

Other contributors skirted around the major issue and had little more to offer than “on the one hand, on the other” arguments. Hitchens was clear cut, forceful and took the issue head on.

Hitchens advanced the argument which he has put forth in his new book entitled “The War We Never Fought” that if only we truly punished people for the consumption of drugs and not just the sale we could win the drug war.

This is the familiar cry of prohibitionists, that what we need is harsher punishments and zero tolerance.

It is certainly true that if sufficiently draconian punishments for the consumption and sale of illegal drugs were introduced we could see a major reduction in both sale and use.

If the death penalty was introduced, or we sentenced people to 30 years, for such actions, many people would be deterred. However the truth of the matter is that the British public would not tolerate such obscene measures.

The focus of current debate has been almost exclusively around the best methods to rehabilitate drug addicts. This shows a stunning lack of urgency to a problem that has plagued this country and much of the world for the last forty years.

The British political establishment is in a state of fear and denial about the complete failure of UK drug laws. Our prisons are swollen with people convicted for drug-related offences and successive governments have failed to have a significant impact on organised crime.

In 2009 a Home Office spokesperson said, “we have no intention of either decriminalising or legalising currently controlled drugs… Drugs are controlled for good reason — they are harmful to health. Their control protects individuals and the public from the harms caused by their misuse”.

It is utterly ludicrous to consider illegal drugs as “controlled” – unless of course one views a criminal monopoly as a sensible form of control. This control does not protect the public; it endangers the public to an unacceptable level, just as bathtub-made moonshine did in the US during the prohibition.

Many MPs acknowledge the failure of prohibition but dare not voice their opinions in public. They have witnessed the outrage from the likes of the Daily Mail over, for example, statements made by Dr David Nutt about the reclassification of cannabis.

But Nutt was not alone in his criticism of the Government’s drug policy. David Cameron, in 2005, recognised this dire situation and called for the UN to consider legalising drugs. Sadly, though not unsurprisingly, since he became leader of the Conservative Party, Cameron has shut-up on the issue of drug law reform.

The situation that has been created has been a boon for organised crime. As the great economist Milton Friedman observed: “what more could a monopolist want?”

Meanwhile, in the UK, over £4 billion is spent annually enforcing drug laws related to class A drugs alone. It has been estimated that legalising and licensing drugs would bring a net benefit to the exchequer of between £3.4 and £6.3 billion year. This figure does not include the cost savings from prisons and police forces who could redirect their efforts to criminal activity such as burglary and murder.

It is the policy of prohibition that is leading to the situation we now face. Drugs remain a black market product in which the supplier has the advantage over the customer. This leads to new and worse substances such as crystal meth being brought onto the market largely to satisfy the situation of the supplier, not the consumer.

This should come as no surprise; we have seen it before. Why are people no longer buying unmarked bottles of moonshine in back alleys? Of course, it is because alcohol is legal and the industry is subject to rule of law and competition. Dangerous moonshine has largely died out because the alcohol industry has the incentives to supply a higher quality product for a cheaper price.

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