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The case for the legalisation of drugs

Alexander Wickham

135852905 286x300 The case for the legalisation of drugsSir Richard Branson is a fascinating figure. His politics are surprisingly convoluted for a billionaire businessman; at times he has resembled a Thatcherite neo-classical and at others he has been a Labour-supporting proponent of humanitarian issues and environmentalism. Last week the Virgin Group boss addressed the home affairs select committee on another issue he has championed down the years, calling on the government to implement a liberalisation of drugs policy. Interestingly, what he had to say made a lot of sense.

Branson began, naturally, with cannabis. He insisted that the decriminalisation, regulation and taxation of the drug libertarians have traditionally seen as a start-point for reform would reap widespread rewards for society as a whole. Responsibility for drugs policy should shift from the Home Office to the Department of Health, he argued, quite compellingly enquiring of his inquisitors whether, upon finding out that their own son or daughter had a drug problem, would they rather seek medical help or be having to deal with the police? Tellingly, they offered no answer. In Portugal, where even heroin addicts are hospitalised rather than arrested, drug use has fallen by 50% as a result of legalisation. Each year some 75,000 young Britons have their futures ruined by receiving criminal records for minor drugs offences. Treating drug users as patients rather than criminals would be an important first step to a more effective drugs policy.

Following decriminalisation, Branson admitted that regulation would inevitably be required. I have previously argued that carefully regulating the legal sale of drugs would do more than anything else to save lives. Last November two young men died after taking a fatally potent form of ecstasy (MDMA) at a London music venue. Due to the covert nature of acquiring drugs they had no way of knowing what they were buying; drug dealers are not thoughtful enough to label their products with an ingredients sticker. At present drug users are clueless about whether they are actually taking what they think they are, the extent to which it has been cut with other noxious substances, or even if they have been given a new and untested form of drug. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out why people are dying. Legalisation and regulation would require sellers – licensed by the state – to only offer a genuine product with clear guidelines for safe usage. It may have saved the lives of the two young men last November, and would save countless more in the future.

If the practical case for a more liberal drugs policy is fairly straightforward, the economic argument is somewhat more complex. Branson convincingly articulated the basics last week. Home Office figures show that £535 million of taxpayers’ money is spent each year on the enforcement of laws relating to the possession or supplying of drugs. Conversely, only 3% of total expenditure on drugs is through health service use, and just 1% on social care. A staggering 20% of all police time is devoted to arresting drug users and sellers. The balance between policing and treatment clearly seems skewed, but in this age of austerity these figures are especially unforgivable. At a time when the Coalition is controversially cutting welfare, why do we accept huge spending on a law and order policy that has failed to reduce the prevalence of drugs in society? As Branson succinctly puts it, the money saved through decriminalisation and taxation would surely be better spent elsewhere: ‘it’s win-win all round’.

Now on to the more technical side of things. While the supply-side economist Milton Friedman is of course celebrated for his writings on neo-liberalism, his less well-known contribution to the debate on drugs was also quite brilliant. Friedman argued that the danger of arrest has incentivised drug producers to grow more potent forms of their products. The creation of crack cocaine and stronger forms of cannabis (and evidently MDMA as shown above) is, he claims, the direct result of criminalisation encouraging producers to strive for a more attractive risk-reward ratio. Moreover, drug prohibition directly causes poverty and violent crime. Supply is suppressed by interdiction and prosecution therefore prices rise. Users are forced by their addictions to pay the going rate, then turn to crime to fund their habit as they are plunged into poverty. Finally, and perversely, the government effectively provides protection for major drug cartels. Producing and selling drugs is a risky and expensive business so only serious organised crime gangs can afford to stay in the game. All the money goes to the top. It is, as Friedman notes, ‘a monopolist’s dream’.

The deleterious and unforeseen economic consequences of criminalisation are, one you get your head round them, pretty persuasive. There is, however, one last point worth considering: the moral perspective. You may hate the idea of drugs, most people do. Yet what right does the state have to tell someone what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their own home? John Stuart Mill, the great liberal philosopher, famously declared that ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant’. The act of taking drugs is an entirely personal choice that affects no one but the individual himself. Can the state therefore justify impinging upon his personal liberty? Mill would say no. This is a question that deserves serious thought.

Sir Richard Branson is a maverick. A week ago most people would have been against a liberalisation of drugs policy. After listening to what Branson had to say many will have changed their minds.

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  • oldmaxski

    it is estimated that 40% of children in the USA are addicted to drugs prescribed by their own doctors.  The pharamaceuital industry spends its life creating drugs to solve all of life’s problems. Where there is money to be made drugs will be provided. 

    In 2010 the UK government announced that virtually all of the over-the-counter children’s remedies were useless and had no effect on the minor illnesses they were used for.  They planned to scrap them and to send directive to the pharmacists to advise people of this.  For some odd reason this idea has vanished into the ether! Perhaps the vested interests of Boots and the likes got that moved off the agenda.  So much for trusting the government to protect the lives of our children as against the profit of multi-national business.

  • MrStraightTalker

    I tried to make a not too dissimilar point by drawing parallels with Britain’s highly profitable, but socially disastrous, binge drinking culture and the use of Class A drugs as a new recreational binge habit. Unfortunately, people are only looking at this from the one-dimensional point of view of shutting down the drug barons, reducing organised crime and saving public money from decriminalising users. They are not looking at, the wider social implications of decriminalisation that could be seen as endorsing or encouraging hard drug use – which would result in a sharp increase in drug addiction, the crimes associated with drug addicts and the public spending to resolve it – or the potential for social exploitation from commercial companies. Ultimately, we would be looking at two evils but I fear that decriminalisation is not necessarily the lesser one.

  • oldmaxski

    Nice to see your comments Mrstraight talker.
    In my work as a youth worker with a special interest in health issues such as drugs I have seen and hear it all from the 4,000 workshops I have run.  That is where I am coming from.  Richard Branston, like many sophisticated, well educated and perhaps wealthy individuals are well placed to be able to make their choices about their drugs of choice.  Unlike the kid in the most deprived of communities with little education, no hope, no access to balloon flights or even holidays, living amongst chronic smokers, drinkers, and daily users of the cheap end of the drug market. What ever crap their dealer can deliver to them.  Believing the myths passed on from generation to generation about how to know good hash or good skunk.  As if they were choosing between a menu of vintage wine.  No they are not they are buying adulterated crap that neither they nor their dealer knows anything about.  The English police managed to persuade the government a few years back to change the classification of cannabis from B to B, because they, the police had concluded that it was by then a harmless drug wasting too much of their police time in chasing up.  Within less than a year the same police were back knocking on the door of the government pleading for a reversal of that re-classification.  Why? Because the game had changed.  Cannabis that was month or years old was no longer on the streets.  In stead we had nice, fresh local stuff that was, they though of extremely high potency.  The government gave in and reclassified again from C to B.  Now three years on the streets are awash with so called skunk that is as variable in potency as the old stuff ever was.  And my point is? That is what the decriminalizers think they can take control of.  But as I stated earlier there are now hundreds of different forms of alcohol supplied by the legally controlled drinks industry and we have far more problems with that than with illicit drugs. Sadly there is no easy solution now accept public education to reduce the demand for all drugs, legal or illicit.  If we were supposed to smoke tobacco we would have been born with a vent or a chimney in our heads to let out the hundreds of gasses contained in these legal drugs.  

  • oldmaxski

    Opps, I have just realised that I missed the link in the original Branston article that made it clear that he was not for legalising all drugs – just cannabis.  Well that opens up another and very different discussion.  There are three main types of drug used and misused in our society, Uppers (the stimulants like tobacco and cocaine) Downers (alcohol, sleeping pills and relaxants) and Hallucinogens ( LSD, Ecstacy sometimes and of course cannabis).

    Our society has been awash with uppers and downers for decades. The two biggies have been tobacco and alcohol.  Both legal and both supplied by multi billion pound businesses across the globe. The harm to society in Scotland alone from these two controlled drugs is around £5billion a year.  The profit to the suppliers is many more billions and our government gains about £15 billion a year in taxes. Not a very equal distribution of the spills. 

    Cannabis is the most used illicit drug and as it is a hallucinogen its effect is that “it alter our perception.  It neither stimulates us nor depresses us, which tobacco and alcohol does. Do we need out perception altered would be my question to the decriminaliers.  If our children and young people were to be exposed to free market suppliers of cannabis would that improve their lives?  I don’t think so.  I have met hundreds of young  people who did their driving tests after using cannabis.  So there they were driving around with altered perception. So the lights may have seen pretty, or interesting or a distraction to them.  They may have thought they were driving fast when in fact they had forgotten to change up the gears. They may have thought they were 60 yards from a car in front when in fact they were 90 yards away or ten yards away.  Altering our perception of reality with drugs, can be fun, can help us to chill out, can make us utterly paranoid or so laid back that we don’t want to participate with others in our life.  The young mum or dad who meet up for a coffee with pals who substitutes the coffee for a hallucinogen like cannabis would be a danger to her child.  Do we really want a society of chilled out parents?  Richard I think it is time we had a wee chat about your new business idea.  Perhaps I could persuade you to use your financial genius to expand your highly profitable leisure centres to a chain of affordable ones in every deprived community in the land, where those deprived of work or recreation can use the power of their undrugged minds to get back to the good old fashioned idea of meeting up with pals, having a laugh, playing games and socialising without having to use Facebook, a large glass of wine or tobacco to pass the time of day.

  • HopeUK

    The problem with the argument that people should be allowed to use drugs because it harms no one else is that it is a false argument.  Drug use most certainly does hurt others, none more than the perfectly legal drug called alcohol.  Drivers under the influence pose a risk to other road users – and pedestrians.  Parents under the influence are, at best, disengaged from their children and, at worst, may positively harm them.  Alcohol and its associated health problems costs the NHS millions.  The only reason why other drugs don’t is because they are not as widely used – because they are illegal.  Tobacco, that other legal drug, also cost society millions in its heyday in terms of health issues and a 114,000 per year death toll.

  • oldmaxski

    HopeUK is right the spin off from the misuse of drugs affects many others. There were over 350 adults and children killed by drug barons in Columbia after their usefulness as drug mules to transport cocaine was over. They delivered the drugs and their reward was a bullet in the head before being dumped in a disused mine shaft. All so we in Scotland can top the league as the biggest cocaine users in the world.


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