The War on Drugs

I’m a libertarian. That means I believe in freedom of choice is for the individual and not the state. With that principle underlying most of my political beliefs, I find a dilemma with drugs. Cannabis should be legalised from a personal freedom point of view, and there is no need to go through the arguments. It’s “hard drugs” which pose the greatest problem for society and lawmakers.

Being addictive, especially the opiates and the highly refined chemical drugs, can freedom of choice really be said to be exercised by the individual? Does the state have a duty to protect the British subject from substances that remove freedom by encouraging addiction? That is the principal argument behind the “war on drugs”.

The state, I believe does have a duty of care, and therefore should act to limit drug use, but the prohibition of sale and interdiction of supply are doomed to failure, especially in a free society. THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A BUSINESS AS PROFITABLE AS ILLEGAL DRUGS. This morning, the Government spokesman on the subject Paul Goggins boasted about an increase in seizures of drugs at ports. Well that’s more likely to reflect greater flow than greater success in stopping the trade. Even if the supply were temporarily interrupted, the price in the market would rise, and so would the rewards to potential traffickers. In any case 60% interdiction is necessary to seriously disrupt the supply chain instead of the 20% stopped now.

The drug lords therefore operate in a Government guaranteed oligopoly, but do not have to provide any welfare for their staff or customers. Indeed the cutting of drugs with less than savoury mixers to increase profits leads to many of the health problems associated with drug use. Furthermore, there have been cases of a wave of overdoses if a batch unusually pure heroin for example hits the street. All these are symptoms of the drugs’ illigality, not the drug itself.

The crime associated with drug use is also, in part, a symptom of government policy. The policy of interdiction keeps the price artificially high, and once hooked, an addict will find it harder to get help than he otherwise would were drugs legal. Because the price is high, theft is easier than work to fund a habit. The surest way to fund a drugs habit, though, is to become a dealer yourself, and this guarantees an efficient pyramid marketing scheme that creates more users. It also puts layers in the supply chain, each further insulating the organised criminals who run the business from the law. People who like, for example a bit of pot to pass round with their friends, or a tab of MDMA for a party get exposed to this criminal marketing scheme. This is dangerous.

Drugs are bad for you. Nothing will change that, but prohibition makes the situation worse. Instead the resources (huge resources) that are currently tackling the supply should instead be directed at limiting demand through education of the dangers and rehabilitation of addicts. At present, the government is treating heroin addicts with methadone, even more addictive, which is just crass. Instead a rehabilitation program using the real thing, as has been successfully used in Switzerland would be more successful.

By removing the extreme sanctions against drug use, users would be more inclined to seek help before they lose their jobs and lives. Habits would be easier to sustain from within normal society, so the effects of a habit would be mitigated.

A state sanctioned supply of all drugs would break the criminal hold on the industry. The highly efficient pyramid marketing scheme would collapse. The price would fall and habits would become cheaper to sustain. The drugs themselves would become purer and less harmful to health. Demand for some of the really harmful drugs would recede. Why take crack or crystal meth when cocaine or heroin is freely and cheaply available?

This issue is one where a 180 degree change in policy is needed, but one where the “daily mail”* viewpoint would mean that the best solution: total legalisation of everything combined with vigorous anti-drugs propaganda and massive increase in resources for rehabilitation, would be political suicide. The daily mail arguments against such a policy “Government says drugs OK”, “Kids free to be hooked on drugs” can be safely ignored, but there are real risks to such a policy.

Arguments about the increased availability of drugs undser a legalised regime are reasonable. You are never more than a short bus ride away from your next hit, even in the leafy suburbs, but a legal supply is easier than an illegal one. It is likely however that, in the short term at least drug use will increse as people experiment. Just as with Tobacco, this will receed with time and education. Organised crime, denied its most lucrative business, will find something else to do, and that won’t be pleasant. Someone is going to make a legitimate profit from the sale of drugs, and that is difficult to stomach. It will be hard to legalise something so clearly harmful, but I feel it is the least bad option.

Whatever the objections, it is clear the current policy is failing everyone except organised crime. It is time for a radical rethink. I would really like to hear anyone’s opinion on this, so comment away!

*for American readers, the Daily Mail is a nastly little right-wing authoritarian rag with pretentions to seriousness, parodied in the BBC’s Yes Minister as “the paper read by the wives of the people who run the country”. If there is anything wrong with the Tory Party, it is the Daily Mail’s opinion that is at fault. The only paper I hate more is The Guardian, a tedious left-wing rag for sanctimonious, pretentious sociology students and Islington polenta-eaters that represents everyhig about the smug left that I loathe.

4 replies
  1. Momentary Academic
    Momentary Academic says:

    Oh, no. I suppose there’s a bit of problem. I read The Gaurdian online and when I am in England. But then again, I think I rather like being a pseudo-sociologist.

    (Plus it often lists academic jobs that I can apply for. So there’s that too.)

    Anyway, the legalization of hard drugs is a tricky thing, isn’t it? I tend to be a libertarian as well (on social issues), and I agree with a good deal of what you write. However, there are so many people involved in the drug trade, that I can’t imagine that it would be easy to make drugs, as well as the people involved, legal and legitimate.

    I suppose if governments set up a competing narcotic market, it would drive the price of drugs down a bit and the dealers would lose money; this might cause many associates of drug dealers, including bodyguards, girlfriends, record labels, to lose money as well. However, I don’t think that the dealers (at least here in the States–I won’t speak for Canada or South America) won’t go out without a hell of a fight. And the prospects of a drug war scare me a great deal. Washington D.C. was hell in the 1980s (from what I understand) and I don’t want to return to that.

  2. Bag
    Bag says:

    A reasoned arguement and one that makes sense.

    Unfortunatlely our useless bunch of politicians are all about chasing votes and not actually doing anything that is logical, sensible and may lose them votes.

    I think we will have to do this the slow way one at a time by reclassification of each and then dropping them off one at a time.

    If our government had any guts it would make a study similar to your but it must be over 4000 pages and publish it. Then say it was legalising the bottom set.

    Personally I think we should legalise the lot. People will always experiment and while there is a market our crime lords will try and pull in as many as possible same as they do now. Free samples etc. It would just create another market. On the other hand it would reduce the backlash that momentary academic comments on.

    The War on Drugs is being lost. That means a bunch of out of it drug users is winning against our efficient and drug free government forces even when they have weapons, planes, spend billions on fighting it. Unfortunatlely, unlike Iraq they can hide the waste and so it goes on.

  3. Richard Jones
    Richard Jones says:

    From my own experience I can say that despite being illegal drugs are freely available in my home town. Not only this they are relatively inexpensive compared to say buying a round of drinks in a nightclub. 1g of MDMA costs about £30. I have never seen anyone who takes these drugs with anything worse than a bad hangover.

    I 100% agree that the cheapest way to fund a habit is to become a supplier yourself which I know to be very true. I don't use drugs because I find them to be too expensive relative to their value to me in the same way I don't smoke or hardly drink. I wish they would make me more attractive to the opposite sex but i'm doubtful.

    Drugs have been illegal for a long time now and had alcohol just been invented I'm sure that would be too.I don't see any effect the law has on stopping drug use.


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