Theresa May fails to defend drug prohibition

Theresa May has shown a lack of courage and integrity by denying the British people the chance to have an open debate on drugs based on evidence

Has pushing drug use 'underground' worked?
Guy Bentley
On 8 March 2013 08:26

Yesterday the Home Secretary Theresa May rejected the suggestion of the Home Affairs Committee that a Royal Commission should be established to examine the UK's current drugs policy and whether there was scope for reform.

The blasé nature with which May shrugged off this incredibly modest proposal is something to behold considering her cabinet colleague Ken Clarke has stated that the war on drugs was 'plainly being lost'. May claimed that there was “no case” for such a commission and that a wider debate on the issue was “unnecessary”. In addition to this it is claimed the government has been making significant progress in fighting the war on drugs.

But the numbers don’t quite add up: the number of heroin and crack users in the UK is currently in the region of 299,000; figures from the Home Office show that around 2.2 million people between the ages of 16-59 years old used cannabis in the year 2011/12; 36 percent of adults had used an illegal drug in their lifetime; and nine percent of adults used illegal drugs in the last year.

Hardly a success. May will no doubt take encouragement from the National Treatment Agency’s conclusion that heroin and crack use is 'plummeting'. It is true that heroin and crack use is at its lowest level for twelve years, however this disguises the fact that use of drugs is still high and that there has been a dramatic surge in the use of so called ‘legal highs’.

One of the many errors that drug prohibitionists commit is that they underestimate switching effects. This includes, for instance, punishing the use of one substance which can lead to the increase in availability and consumption of others.

And, on cue, whilst there has been a modest fall in the consumption of currently illegal drugs, there has been an explosion of demand for legal highs. A UN study found that there had been an 'unprecedented' increase in these substances; whereas around five had appeared per year between 2000 and 2005 there was close to one a week being produced in 2011.

In fact, the International Narcotics Control Board has found that there has been a 300 percent increase in internet sites providing these substances to Europe in just two years. A fifth of these sites are hosted on servers based in the UK. This has not been without its consequences. In 2008 there was eight recorded deaths from these substances; the very next year that figure had increased fivefold to 44.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction stated that: “Although it is impossible to know the exact number of new psychoactive substances on the market experts have advanced estimates running well into the thousands”.

It is clear that the drug warriors have been incomparably outclassed when it comes to limiting the number of psychoactive substances available to the population.

There is also the drug Ketamine. The tranquillizer, which can come in a powder or tablet form, has experienced a dramatic rise in use in the UK. The Independant Scientific Committee on Drugs found that in 2009, 68 percent cent of club goers had used the drug compared to 25 percent in 2001. Between the years 2006/07 to 2008/09 the number of users rose from 85,000 to 113,000. What is more, the price per gram fell between 2005 and 2008 from £30 to £20.

The increase in the use of ketamine and the proliferation of new drugs on a rolling basis is a symptom of a war that has long since been lost. No sooner do the authorities claim some minor victory such as a small reduction in heroin use than they are presented with increases in the use of mephedrone and ketamine.

If a modest fall in the use of some illegal drugs is considered to be a success then prohibition America is not in fact a model of failure but one of victory considering that in its first few years alcohol consumption fell to around 30 percent of its pre-prohibition level. But, of course, it was in the following years, when alcohol consumption rose to 60 and 70 percent of its pre-prohibition levels, that the true measure of the model was taken.

For all the protestations of progress, these are the straws to which prohibitionists clutch in a desperate attempt to convince the public that soon we will be able to bring the troops home from the drug war. Few, however, will be convinced of these claims after decades of supposed successes which never seem to change the everyday reality of prohibition.

Opinion on this issue is changing slowly but it is changing in one direction. When polled only 11 percent of the public believed that the UK's drug policies were effective. This sentiment was on full show during this week's episode of Free Speech on BBC 3 where Sam Bowman, the research director at the Adam Smith Institute, received significant support from the live audience and online for the position that the UK should legalise all drugs. A poll in 2012 found that 75 percent of MPs believed that our drug policies were not working.

Theresa May has shown a lack of courage and integrity by denying the British people the chance to have an open debate based on evidence. Abandoning the possibility for a change in policy that could save both billions of pounds and thousands of lives is not to be applauded.

If Theresa May believes it is justified to use agents of the state to enforce a government claim on your body she should at the very least argue her case to the people whose lives she believes she is entitled to control.

Experience, evidence, and a basic respect for the dignity and freedom of each individual should lead us to one conclusion which should never stop being demanded: legalise drugs. 

Guy Bentley is a Libertarian blogger and a former editorial assistant at the Commentator

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