In a sense it is misleading to refer to a ‘liberalisation’ of drugs policy. If anything, what is proposed is the complete opposite. Anyone who thinks otherwise will falter at the question: what could be less regulated than a black market?
The illegal drug market has no checks for adulteration or purity; products do not come with information on dosage, usage, and risks. The trade is associated with untold human misery, inflicted by cartels and traffickers. Europol estimates the annual value of the world drugs trade at $435bn; how wonderful for those involved that this is overwhelmingly tax-free. It is the main source of revenue for organised crime (50%), funding other more damaging criminal activity. In other words, for a criminal, prohibition is a wonderfully liberal state of affairs.
To start with, why has our prohibitionary policy failed to manage the supply of drugs? The hope that lay at the heart of Prohibition in the United States was that no one could drink if there were nothing to drink. The issue was that alcohol, as with other recreational drugs, is not only heavily demanded, but it is demanded inelastically: the quantity demanded is not in step with the price (hence why anyone is willing to buy a five pound pint in London!). In short, unless you actually succeed in wiping drugs off the face of the planet, an absurd hope, attacking supply will only make the drug trade more lucrative.
Clamping down on supply also provides a market incentive to concentrate the product: the more active chemical per unit smuggled, the better the business. The result is 75% alcohol moonshine, 15% THC skunk, 220mg MDMA pills, more harm, and more hospitalisations. Why have we failed to control demand for drugs, on the other hand? In many ways this is similar to trying to reduce the prevalence of STDs by telling people not to have sex. Demand for drugs is a fact. Despite wide reaching campaigns such as Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ of the 80s and 90s, and thorough attempts in PSHE lessons, the allure of drugs persists. A recent survey of 8000 university students found that an average of 70% had tried illegal drugs. This tells us exactly how effective school anti-drug education is, failing to deter even half of students as soon after school as university.
The difficulty for the prohibitionists is that accurate and unslanted information about recreational drugs isn’t nearly deterring enough for their purposes. The subtext of any substantive harm reduction information is that safe usage is possible. This is why the government drug agency FRANK, for instance, is not permitted to give any specific information regarding usage, and why educators are forced to resort to anecdotal horror stories.
Or, infamously, it is why Professor David Nutt was dismissed as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in 2009 for the publication of scientific information regarding the relative social and individual harms of recreational drugs.
His pamphlet identified alcohol as the overall most harmful recreational drug by an aggregate of harm to users and harm to society. Tobacco was ranked at sixth, only one point below cocaine, and one would have to go right to the other end of the scale to find ecstasy, LSD, and psychedelic mushrooms, with near negligible harm to users in moderation.
In a similar vein, Professor Nutt had previously had got in trouble for pointing out that horse riding is a more risky activity than MDMA usage: 1 serious adverse event per 350 exposures compared to 1 serious adverse event per 10,000 exposures. The notion that all risks are equivalent, and drugs are not ‘just different’ was intolerable to the then Home Secretary.
Even if a prohibitionist were forced to recognise the failure of attempts to control the supply and demand for illegal drugs, it still seems intuitive that a liberalised policy would result in increased usage and increased harm.
So it is likely baffling for a prohibitionist to learn that a country can introduce wholesale decriminalisation and see a reduction in use, addiction, harm, disease transmission, and death. This is exactly what has occurred in Portugal since their decriminalisation measure in 2001. Compare Portugal’s 3 overdose deaths per million in 2014 to Britain’s 44.6, for instance.
It would be an oversimplification to entirely attribute these promising statistics to Portugal’s liberal policy. The key point, however, is that prohibitionary policy is so hopelessly impotent at reducing drug supply that liberalisation has next to no effect on it, and therefore reform does not entail an increase in usage.
Failed policies should have no place on the British statute book. Drugs have never been more accessible; only under a liberalised system can adequate controls be imposed. Drugs are a fact; it is time to bring them under the rule of law.
Edmund Flett is a member of Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.