Decriminalise all drugs now, but don’t celebrate them

You can’t send truncheon-wielding cops to tackle a culture in which some people prefer to ‘get off their heads’ rather than engage with reality.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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A new report by the UK Drugs Policy Commission (UKDPC), splashed across the news headlines this morning, says that expensive and time-consuming police raids are doing little to reduce supply and demand in the drugs world. That is hardly surprising – for two reasons.

First, you cannot stop people from experimenting with substances by banning or demonising them. If anything, such censure only increases their attraction for youthful and disaffected sections of society. All drugs should be decriminalised and people should be free to choose what they ingest.

Second, the real ‘drugs problem’ – which springs from a culture in which people feel their lives have little purpose, and thus they are tempted to withdraw from reality – is not something that can be tackled by a policeman with a truncheon.

The UKDPC, an independent charity launched in 2007 to examine British drugs policy, launched a review to explore the nature and extent of Britain’s drugs problem and how it is being tackled by the authorities. Its final report, Tackling Drug Networks and Distribution Networks in the UK, criticises the effectiveness of Britain’s anti-drug strategies, noting in particular that the trade is ‘extremely resilient’ both to police crackdowns and shortfalls in supply.

The press has been duly panicked by these findings. ‘Police losing fight against drugs trade despite billions spent’, declares the Daily Telegraph. ‘Drug swoops have little impact’, says the BBC.

The UKDPC report says that, in order to make a serious dent in drug activity, police seizures would need to sweep up around 60 to 80 per cent of drug supply. Currently, the police seize nothing like that amount. ‘The market share (volume) of heroin and cocaine (including crack) seized is estimated to be 12 and nine per cent respectively’, the report says.

The vast majority of individual seizures are for less than one gram of a drug. The report estimates that the total UK market for illegal drugs is currently £5.3billion, and concludes: ‘The drug networks are highly fluid, adapting effectively to law enforcement interventions.’

The resilience of the ‘drugs industry’ in Britain is all the more remarkable when you consider that Britain has utterly draconian laws on the possession and supply of drugs. Yes, in 2004 the criminal penalties relating to cannabis were reduced – yet in May 2008, home secretary Jacqui Smith recommended that even this policy be reversed. So for ‘class B’ drugs, which currently include amphetamines and may include cannabis again early next year, simple possession can, in theory, earn you a prison sentence of five years. The maximum penalty for supply is 14 years.

For ‘class A’ drugs, like Ecstasy, heroin and cocaine, the maximum penalty for possession is seven years and/or an unlimited fine – with a possibility of a life sentence if you supply such drugs.

Not only is the ‘war on drugs’, as the UKDPC report shows us, an enormous waste of billions of pounds of public money – it also utterly fails to prevent the harms associated with drugs, and indeed creates many more new harms.

No one, except perhaps Pete Doherty, would suggest that a long-term drug habit is a good thing. But the harm caused by pure, pharmaceutical-quality heroin or cocaine is relatively small; certainly, regular use of such substances is likely to cause less long-term harm than regular heavy boozing, for example. Yet as a result of criminalisation, and the authorities’ ceaseless ‘war on drugs’, users don’t get these substances in a pure form, of predictable concentration. And this makes overdosing, or being injured by a dangerous substance ‘cut’ with the drug, more likely. Criminalising drugs makes drugs potentially more dangerous.

There is also the serious problem of diseases – such as HIV and hepatitis – spreading as a result of drug users sharing hyperdermic needles as they necessarily get their ‘drug kick’ in secret. Criminalising drugs has created the foundations for criminal empires, whose products – cocaine, heroin, smack and the rest – are made valuable by criminalisation, and whose operations are built on threats of coercion and violence. In turn, many habitual drug users, having to pay high prices for illegal substances, turn to crime or prostitution in order to feed their habits.

Alongside ineffective and damaging law enforcement measures, the ‘war on drugs’ involves a variety of coercive and interventionist treatment programmes, run by the health authorities, which frequently increase rather than tackle people’s dependence on alternative substances (such as methadone). At an international level, lethal military interventions have been launched, too. There have been ‘anti-drug’ bombing raids everywhere from Colombia to Afghanistan. Of course, such destruction of farms, poppy fields and local communities has done little to stymie the demand for drugs at home, but a great deal to intensify instability overseas.

All of these harms spring from the authorities’ determination to stop adults from choosing to get out of their heads on the drug of their choice. A cool-headed analysis would surely conclude that any harm that might come from decriminalising these substances would be far less than the damage that has been done by governments’ illiberal, bankrupt anti-drugs policies.

Yet even if the harm caused by decriminalisation were on a par with the devastation caused by the futile ‘war on drugs’, there would still be a strong argument for saying that adults should be free to engage in any activity they choose, so long as it does not hurt others. It is not for the state to tell us we shouldn’t drink, smoke, inject heroin or – if you’re Max Mosley – dress up in silly costumes and allow yourself to be spanked. These activities may offend some people’s sensibilities, but that doesn’t mean they should be criminalised. Freedom must mean having the right to make the wrong choices.

Sadly, even in the wake of the UKDPC report, it is highly unlikely that the British government will do anything to liberalise the law on drugs. So desperate is the political class to find issues on which it can ‘draw a line’ that acting tough on crime, and on drugs in particular, has become one of its favourite fallback options. The ‘war on drugs’ continues today, not because there is any evidence that it is fruitful or beneficial, but because for a political elite bereft of original or inspiring ideas, and shot through with an illiberal mistrust of the masses, Tackling Drugs is a safe and easy bet.

Yet at the same as the government clings for dear life to its ‘war on drugs’, the authorities also send mixed messages about drug use. Today’s heavy-handed policing coexists with elite uncertainty about whether drugs are good or bad. Even posh Tories like David Cameron now talk openly about their experimentation with dodgy substances, as do celebrities like Amy Winehouse. Chattering-class newspaper editors lead campaigns for the decriminalisation of cannabis on the basis that it is a ‘relaxing drug’ that is preferable to booze.

As a consequence of both the ‘war on drugs’ (which unwittingly glamorises drug use) and the mixed messages about drug-taking (which suggest drugs are a good way to ‘chill out’), some are now elevating drugs as a kind of liberating or enlightening force. Getting wasted on one drug or another can be an enjoyable experience, yes, but many of these illegal drugs seem to be used in ways that generate purely masturbatory, inward-looking experiences. As often as drug-use promotes social interaction, it seems just as likely to be used to crush meaningful thought or sensation.

And that is the real ‘drugs problem’ today: the fact that they are so widely used in order to ‘get wasted’ indicates that there is increasingly little going on in society that might inspire individuals to engage with the people around them rather than cut themselves off.

The growth of a ‘drug culture’ since the 1960s captures the lowered horizons and diminished expectations of contemporary Western societies. Some people, it seems, are trying to compensate for the deficiencies and seeming emptiness of modern life by giving in to the artificial thrill provided by drugs instead. Today in particular, in our era of the ‘politics of fear’, drugs no doubt look more tempting than ever before. When our rulers no longer seek to inspire us but rather to terrify us – using scares over crime, health, terrorism and the environment as the organising principle of society – it is little wonder many choose the fake world of a heroin high over the real world of doom and gloom. Drugs offer a refuge from the zeitgeist, which is a mixture of a fear of the future and a sense of pointlessness about the present.

No amount of tough legislation or army of truncheon-wielding police can tackle this problematic culture – that must be done through free, open and rigorous debate. And a good place to start would be to decriminalise all drugs, question why the ‘drugs culture’ is flourishing, and ask (in a non-junkie fashion): ‘What is the meaning of life today?’

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Johnston criticised Labour’s schizo drug policy. Neil Davenport called cannabis the political class’ drug of choice. He also asked why everyone loves ‘Dopey’ David Cameron. Jamie Douglass looked at Charles Clarke’s bad trip and drug use in schools. Josie Appleton looked at how morality is being injected into the drugs debate. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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