Aside from the humanist element, we also need to examine one of the oft-championed reasons for drug prohibition – crime and the black market. The idea that drugs fund criminal enterprise is real, but it needn’t be. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the act of criminalisation turns a non-crime into a very real and very profitable crime. The irony being that it’s the government which effectively acts as a conduit for the drug gangs to prosper. The illegal drugs trade is estimated at £6bn per year, making it the third largest industry, behind only oil and arms. With up to 30,000% profit margins, the illegality of drugs is an inadvertent gift to organised crime.
Safety is obviously paramount to the topic of narcotics. From the science select committee report of recent years we saw that the classification of drugs was completely skewed in relation to the actual harm they produced. Ecstasy, LSD, and cannabis were all at the lower end of the harm scale, while tobacco and alcohol stood rather alarmingly near the top of the scale. For completeness we must acknowledge that crack and heroin were classified as the two biggest threats of all drugs, but at the same time understand why this is almost a moot point. The scale used was based not only on relative physical damage, but also on societal impact. With increased funding for genuine addicts we would significantly reduce associated crime, ie theft and prostitution.
Indeed, the latest government pilot scheme accounted for a two-thirds drop in the amount of crime committed by those needing to feed their addiction. During the scheme, heroin was provided for addicts and they were allowed to inject on specified government premises. Given the dual use of crack and heroin by many addicts, a similar scheme for the former would surely see crime drop to more tolerable levels. Rather than bury our heads in the sand and dismiss things we don’t like, we should take a more practical approach and seek to find the best solution for our society, based on our knowledge of how humans will act. No amount of legislation will change the fact that a large proportion of people will engage in drug use, as it’s something they feel is their right. Those who suffer from their habit are few and far between, and their choice of drugs is largely limited to the big two of heroin and crack. To lump these drugs in with others is an incredibly large mistake when considering the case for legalisation. A ‘one size fits all’ approach to drugs is the equivalent to treating people with parking fines as you would those who have murdered. We know that certain drugs attract more problems, and even then, those problems can be reduced by proper treatment and education.
We have the theory explaining how manageable such a system would be, but there are also examples of nations who’ve have taken a softer approach to drugs, and haven’t suffered as a result. Let’s take the example of Portugal, which decriminalised drugs in 2001. This has seen a drop in the number of drug users, despite critics’ claims that it would increase usage. It’s also seen a doubling of the numbers being rehabilitated. With no prospect of criminal charges, those who have problems are more likely to come forward for help, and if you combine that with the aforementioned treatment programme being piloted in England, it’s a massive step forward in decreasing the number of addicts, and therefore the number of people needing to turn to crime in order to fund their habit.
With decriminalisation comes reduced rates of imprisonment, which not only creates more space to store genuinely dangerous criminals, but also reduces the burden on the taxpayer. The average cost of keeping somebody behind bars in the UK is £40,000 per annum. At a time when our economy is struggling, and the national debt is spiraling out of control, a significant saving in this department is not to be sniffed at. We could look to avoid public spending cuts if we cut costs in relation to prisons, and also taxed drugs in order to gain an additional, huge revenue stream. Recent figures suggest that tax income from tobacco is worth some £12bn to the government, with an additional £200m being generated from taxing suppliers on their profits. A study conducted by the BBC suggested possible tax revenues from drugs to be £1-4bn per year, with the cost of policing drugs reaching £16bn, which equates to roughly 30% of our education budget.
The Portuguese system shows us the merits of decriminalisation, and when these are added to the taxable benefits of legalisation, the package on offer seems silly to refuse. The usual antidote to such glowing pro-legalisation claims is the fear that we will create a nation of drug abusers. The anti-drugs camp speculate about which of their doomsday predictions will come to pass, when the reality is that places like Portugal show trends heading in the opposite direction.
This is an extract from a longer essay which you can download here.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.