November 10, 2008

Originally by Nicholas Harman

If I were a politician (and thank the Lord I’m not, Sir) I too would probably say I was in favour of a stupid policy on drugs, meaning going on as we are now. Perhaps, if I were daring, I might admit that change may be possible in the future. But I would be crazy to argue in favour of the reform that our drug laws so badly need. It would lose me a lot of votes, and the only television programmes it would get me on would be the ones about freaks.

Ordinary voters are scared of drugs and dislike drug users. Changing the present policy of drug prohibition is easily misrepresented by demagogues as going ‘soft on drugs’. The very idea of lifting the drugs ban calls up instant resistance from the moral guardians in the churches and so on. And the one change worth making is counterintuitive, involving intricate and painful explanation. So here goes.

The only sound policy for mind-altering drugs is to bring the trade in them within the laaw, so that they can be taxed, controlled and discouraged. Moreover (whisper it) the drugs problem in Britain is really rather small, compared to say the alcohol problem or the smoking problem; the main beneficiaries of reform would be foreigners. So our politicians find other fish to fry, leaving the mess to be wiped up by doctors, policemen and Home Office boffins – many of whom privately know just how badly reform is needed.

But first, like the people who sell cigarettes, I must print a warning to consumers of this article. If you are a ‘libertarian’, and the word means what I think it does, I hope we disagree. I do not want the drugs trade freed. I want it controlled by law, which it can’t be as long as it is outlawed.

In particular, I am revolted by those ‘libertarian’ right-wing Americans who enlist John Stewart Mill to back their argument that drugs should be freed up. What they often seem to want is more drugs, so that even more black people will kill each other over crack. These same moral idiots want more guns, to raise the general death rate; and oppose state power, while wanting the state to be so powerful that it employs civil servants to kill their fellow-citizens.

In Britain the drugs trade is less dramatic, but still very profitable. The tax-free entrepreneurs who run it are deploying more and more weapons and enforcement teams to guard their market shares against competitors. The police and customs think they catch about one-tenth of the drugs intended for the British market. So the Government’s policy of prohibition is about 90 per cent a failure.

Drug prohibition doesn’t work. The Americans in the 1920s found it didn’t work for drink. In Britain, we were never so foolish as to try to ban our favourite mind-altering drug. Instead, over a couple of centuries, we have evolved ways of keeping alcohol under some sort of control by taxation, licensing, breath tests and so on.

Those drink controls have two broad objectives. They limit consumption, mainly by taxation to raise the retail price and also by licensing to restrict the retail outlets. Second, they control strength and quality to guarantee that strong drink is not poisonous, and only as intoxicating as it says on the bottle. Similar measures would probably work for drugs too. But if a commodity is illegal you can’t tax it, licence it or control its quality. Legalisation would increase government power, which is now ineffectual.

Maybe governments should not try to protect their citizens against self-poisoning. But they do try (rightly, I think) to make road travel less dangerous for example by rules on seat-belts and crash-helmets. Regulating the sale of drugs would have exactly the same purpose. Private enterprise cannot do the job. A friendly ‘libertarian’ professor at Liverpool once advised me that the tobacco companies could be trusted to sell drugs responsibly. I rest my case.

A quick word about drugs and drug users. Cannabis is obviously not very bad for you, and is addictive only when smoked with tobacco. British potheads mostly smoke it mixed with tobacco, because clean grass is too bulky to import without getting caught. That is one example of how illegality harms people.

Cocaine too is not chemically addictive. But it can harm the weak as badly as alcohol does, especially in its quick-acting form, as crack. Yet most cocaine is a party luxury, like (and as harmful as) champagne; people have their snort and take no more until the next party. But illegality means that the party-goers’ fun enriches criminals, a bad thing.

Heroin is a private drug, and some peopie go on calmly using it for years. Its effect on the mind is very powerful and its derivatives (codeine, morphine, and so on) are irreplaceable in medicine. But it tips many of those who try it into hopeless inactivity. Heroin and its opiate relatives should be regulated just like other powerful medical drugs, especially as to strength and purity; when heroin kills, it is usually because crooks don’t care about the quality of what they sell.


  1. rob Says:

    From a Libertarian standpoint, I think that a person is not allowed to do harm to another. Also, People are free to do what they want, even if others consider it harmful, so long as it is only they who are getting harmed.

    The main problem with most har drugs is the other crap that they get mixed with and the fact that doses of stuff like Heroin can be all over the place and lead to inadvertant overdosing.

    If someone wants to drink themselves to death, I say let them. It’s a more mature approach than the bleeding-heart, excuse laden system we have now. It is also their right to do so.

  2. rob Says:

    And as for the seat-belt law, a Student in the US who fought for his right not to wear one was…

    …Killed in a Car accident. The other belted-up passengers survived.

    You makes your choice.
    You takes your chances.

  3. Adam Says:

    There is one reason and one reason only that the government UK/USA will not legalise drugs and it has nothing to do with “concern” over people’s health. Remember Cannabis smokers claims that “Alcohol is a drug” was mocked by politicians (politicians are financially backed by their respective breweries no less).
    The real reason is

    Its the “awareness” side effect.

    As well as altering “states of mind” it can also alter political views in even the most “patriotic” of people, in a heartbeat. For evidence see every anti establishment rock band/hip hop act post Vietnam.

    Technically drugs are legal in the sense the governments of the world want people to “get sick” to “learn their lesson” in dodgy dealings.
    I mean what’s the use if people becoming “aware” but lose their Minds, Bodies and Will to have any impact on society?

    In fact I’m not a huge fan of conspiracy theorists, but the parralels between Criminal Mastermind’s and Politicians are not too disimiliar. Some theorists claim that Drugs are just one part of “dumbing” down the nation….

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