These are dire financial times; large public sector cuts, growing unemployment, and a national GDP around £600billion worse off than just four years ago. Economical problems have led to widespread social problems, including a soaring level of substance abuse. Drug deaths in the UK have recently reached three times higher than the EU average. Clearly prohibition is not working. We need a new drug policy – based on scientific research – especially one that can boost our ailing economy. I propose that the government decriminalises all drugs, and legalises the sale of several low-harm drugs.
Let’s look at a popular legal drug: tobacco. Each year, the British government spends around £3billion on NHS treatment for smokers. However, annual tax revenue from cigarette sales amounts to, on average, over £14billion. Now imagine if possessing and selling fags were to be criminalised worldwide, as most illegal drugs in the UK are, the NHS would still be required to provide healthcare to smokers, but they’d no longer be receiving the revenue provided by the people who had chosen to be in that situation. Instead of being regulated by the government, the tobacco trade is now monopolised by unscrupulous violent gangs who will use any means necessary to maintain their share of the market. Now that there are no official regulation or inspections taking place, the tobacco quality will drop, making smoking even more dangerous for consumers. Meanwhile, unmonitored gang-controlled tobacco farms spring up across China and Latin America, with forced labour and inhumane conditions. Lastly, the smokers, who were previously normal members of society, are now criminals – worthy of joining murderers and rapists in a jail cell.
Cigarettes and alcohol are the combined cause of around 110,000 deaths a year in the UK, while drugs scientifically proven to have no direct link to death, such as LSD and cannabis, remain at Class A and B respectively; possession punishable with up to 7 years in prison. In October 2009 Professor David Nutt, of the Labour government’s advisory committee on the misuse of drugs, concluded after research that the harm to a user, and society as a whole, is far higher with alcohol than “cannabis, LSD [or] ecstasy”. For making this plea for a drug policy based on facts, rather than politics, Professor Nutt was sacked.
A graph illustrating Professor David Nutt’s analysis of the harm caused by various drugs
This non-scientific, politicised approach to drug policy has been advocated by both Labour and Conservative governments continuously since the so-called ‘war on drugs’ began in the early 20th Century. Leaders on both sides choose to avoid discussing drug policy reform, in part, to appease some of our tragically widely-read media tabloids. When a story about a violent attack or some other horrible crime occurs, the Sun, or… ugh, the Mail, love to stick the blame on drugs, and then eventually onto blaming our government for not doing enough to stop people taking drugs. It’s so easy to blame problems in our society on drugs, and to ignore the deep-rooted anger and social inequality that usually leads to these scenarios. The classic Daily Mail headline “Cannabis downgrading blamed for psychotic killer gangs” sums it up really; Blair took a progressive step in 2004 by downgrading cannabis to Class C, though Brown’s government later returned the classification to B. This often used argument, that smoking weed makes people violent and aggressive, again ignores the reason. In a 2001 study, scientists concluded that young men who smoke cannabis are “five times [more] likely to be violent”, but pointed out that this was “not due to any effects of the drug… [but] because users are involved in the illegal drug market”.
The Lib Dems are the only popular party to openly support the decriminalisation of all drugs, and recently backed a motion calling for a scrap of possession penalties, an expansion of clinics for heavy heroin users, and the creation of a regulated cannabis market. The lack of support among Tories, especially the fusty old backbenchers, makes it very difficult for the Coalition to come to a positive consensus on the matter. Meanwhile, Labour follows a similar path. During his brief and tedious spell as prime minister, Gordon Brown made an appearance on GMTV, defending his decision upgrading the classification of marijuana. He stated as a fact that consumption of the plant can be ‘lethal’. That’s right, our prime minister went on TV and told the country that smoking weed can kill you. Interestingly, scientists disagree; “there is no record in the extensive medical literature describing a proven, documented cannabis-induced fatality”. Instead of finding some kind of intelligent debate, progressive thinkers for drug policy change are met with patronising and demeaning remarks. The ex-drugs minister for Labour, Bob Ainsworth, explained that “the war on drugs creates the very conditions that perpetuates the illegal trade”, but he was immediately denounced as “extremely irresponsible” for saying this, and by none other than his own party leader Ed Miliband.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalised all drugs. The government decided drug users would no longer be treated as criminals, but rather as “sick people in need of medical help”. Conservative critics around Europe insisted the nation would endure higher drug deaths, become a substance haven, and would develop increased usage. While In fact, the number of deaths from drug overdoses have decreased dramatically, the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases (from shared needles) has dropped, and the police are now able to focus on the powerful groups controlling the trade, rather than the users.
Legalising cannabis, the most popular illegal drug in the UK, has the potential to create a huge profit for the national economy while improving health. With around 1 in 10 regular users, there is already an immediate and significant consumer base if the government was willing to profit from legalisation and taxation. There are of course reports of psychological danger with the consumption of cannabis, the large amounts earned in tax revenue would help the government conduct further research, publicise the risks, provide therapy, and ensure the quality is safe. Additionally, regulation will diminish the power of criminal gangs as authorised sellers gain market prominence. Even better, jobs will be created as cultivators and distributors enter the trade. Police will be able to focus their attention on real, immoral and destructive crimes while the prison system will become free of non-violent users who are often turned into hardened criminals due to their company in jail.
To see how the legalisation of less-harmful drugs can be positive, financially and medicinally, we can look at the use of ‘medical marijuana’ in the United States. Though rarely given coverage in mainstream media, scientific research has proven that the drug’s derivatives are effective in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, leukaemia and breast cancer, while directly smoking can help multiple sclerosis and insomnia, as well as being vigorous in combatting the adverse effects of chemotherapy. Californian officials, who are currently under strain with a large amount of public service cuts, have considered legalising the outright commercial sale of the drug, with a projected revenue of $1.3billion, “, but they are currently being constrained by federal law. It is simply common sense for a nation under economic strain to gain revenue from a popularly consumed and mostly harmless product.
A US medical marijuana dispensary
My ideal solution to the problems caused by drugs, and by the war on drugs, is this: possession of all drugs decriminalised, legalisation and taxation of cannabis (and potentially other low-harm drugs such as LSD or ‘magic mushrooms’). Laws on these newly legal drugs would be similar to the legislation on alcohol; strict age limit, appropriate health warnings, advice on use, and lastly, restrictions on driving and public intoxication. If caught with decriminalised, but not legal, harder drugs, attending rehabilitation and therapy is strictly enforced. This can involve using replacement drugs in government-controlled institutions; such as the use of methadone for heroin addicts.
Our country’s current drug policies are damaging. Ordinary members of society (recreational low-harm users), and some people who are mentally and physically ill (high-harm addicts) are turned into criminals. While the true criminals, the gangsters and drug-lords who oppress workers around the world, violently do away with competition, and cost the taxpayers countless pounds every year in policing, are rewarded with wealth and power – endowed upon them by an anarchic and unregulated system. US economist Milton Friedman hit the nail on the head, “if the purpose of drug policy is to make toxic substances available to anyone who wants them in a flourishing market economy controlled by murderous criminal gangs, the current arrangements are working well”.