Theresa May doesn’t need to defend drug prohibition

Recent figures show the libertarian claim that the ‘war on drugs is being lost’ is becoming less and less credible

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Is UK drug policy working?
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Peter Cannon
On 18 March 2013 10:26

Guy Bentley recently argued on this site that “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”, because she has dismissed the suggestion of a royal commission to consider the legalisation of drugs. This was followed by the familiar claim that the Government is ‘losing the war on drugs’, although I doubt very much that Theresa May or any other government minister does describe government policy as a ‘war’.

Bentley argues that “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.” But look at these figures the other way round: 64 per cent of adults have never used an illegal drug in their lifetime. 91 per cent of adults have not used an illegal drug in the last year. Hardly a failure.

As Bentley himself recognises, heroin and crack cocaine addiction is at a record low, with the number of heroin and crack cocaine users in England below 300,000 for the first time since these records began. Part of the reason for this is that UK drug policy is not simply criminalisation without anything else, or a ‘war’, but has included a major expansion of treatment for drug addiction.

Bentley described this progress as a ‘modest fall’, but if you look at the younger generation, the improvements are even more striking.

According to recent Home Office analysis, the proportion of those aged 16 to 24 that have ever taken illicit drugs has fallen from 54 percent in 1998 to 38 percent in 2012. Among those aged 11 to 15, the figure has fallen from 29 percent to 17 percent. Those aged 16 to 24 who have taken any illegal drug in the last year has fallen from 30 percent in 1996 to 19 percent in 2012. For the use of Class A drugs in the last year, the proportion has fallen from 9 percent to 6 percent.

So much for the argument that prohibition is doomed to fail and that the ‘war on drugs’ is ‘plainly being lost’. These figures are rather inconvenient for the legalisation lobby.

And so much for the argument that ‘everybody tries drugs’ when they are young. Instead, it seems that a combination of education, treatment, deterrence and socioeconomic factors is driving drug use down.

What those who advocate the legalisation of drugs need to explain is how they think legalisation would make the situation any better. They like to use figures to suggest that the ‘war on drugs’ is failing (although the figures no longer fit the argument), but in doing so they seem to implicitly recognise that drug use is a problem.

Advocates need to explain therefore how legalising drugs is the answer. Does anyone honestly think that legalisation would lead to less, rather than more, drug use?

Bentley argues that these reductions in illegal drug use are balanced out by an increase in the use of ‘legal highs’. But legalisation would make all drugs ‘legal highs’, and would be most likely to lead to a substantial increase in their use. Bemoaning the increasing use of legal highs – which are so easily available because they are legal – hardly seems to support the argument that all other drugs should be made legal too.

As mentioned above, treatment for drug addicts has been expanded in recent years, and often works in conjunction with the criminal justice system. If drugs were not illegal, and no one was ever arrested for possession or for drug-dealing, how many fewer of these addicts would be given treatment at all?

Similarly, advocates of legalisation seem to imagine that if drugs were legalised, all the problems associated with their use would magically disappear. And as the author of ConservativeHome’s ‘Deep End’ column recently put it:

“Liberals seem to imagine that, upon a change in the law, thousands of decent, upright citizens will suddenly come forward to serve the community as caring, responsible pimps and drug dealers who pay their taxes, recognise unions and recycle their rubbish. After all, why become a teacher or a doctor when you could be persuading vulnerable young people to sell their bodies or buy your crystal meth?”

Bentley eventually comes on to the libertarian argument for legalisation, which seems to be the real reason he is advocating it, rather than any conviction that the ‘war on drugs’ is failing and that legalisation is somehow a better approach to dealing with drug use as a problem.

But if drugs were made legal as a matter of principle, then would prescription drugs also be made freely available for people to privately buy? Presumably lots of health and safety and consumer protection laws would also have to be scrapped, along with all laws against selling poisons and toxic and dangerous substances. It would now be legal to sell people toxic substances for the purpose of poisoning themselves.

Libertarians who argue that drugs should be legal as a matter of principle should stop hiding behind the claim that they somehow have a better solution to dealing with drugs as a problem, as though their case is based on pragmatism and experience rather than ideology.

The obvious reality is that they would believe drugs should be legalised whether drug use was getting better or worse. And as recent figures show, their claim that the ‘war on drugs is being lost’ is becoming less and less credible.

Peter Cannon is a Conservative councillor in Dartford, Kent

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