The harm caused to a minority of users by illegal drugs is not a good reason to relax the lawby Alexander Linklater / November 1, 2010 / Leave a comment
Going to pot? Californian campaigners won the battle to allow medical use of marijuana; now they want to legalise it for everyone
The Prospect debate: Should we decriminalise marijuana?
Alexander Linklater debates the pros and cons of decriminalising marijuana with Amanda Feilding of the Beckley Foundation
[audio: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/Should_we _decriminalise _marijuana.mp3]
Consider the following scenario. A pharmaceutical giant spends millions developing and bringing to market a new antidepressant. It is popular among doctors and their patients. However, reports begin to emerge that for a few patients—particularly younger ones—the drug produces side-effects that include addiction, delusions and chronic mental illness.
Papers begin to appear in medical journals. The resulting headlines are dramatic. Moreover, it turns out the company covered up evidence of the side-effects. It claims this is of no great significance because the victims belong to a minority—an acceptable price to pay for the benefit of a majority. There is outrage, the families of victims sue and the company is forced to withdraw the drug. A victory for truth and justice in the fight against big pharma.
That’s a fiction, of course. For one thing, drug companies never talk publicly about acute illness among a minority being an acceptable cost. Yet when it comes to debate over the legalisation of recreational drugs, those who argue in favour of a “regulated market” expect governments to do precisely that.
Almost nobody disputes that the use of heroin, cocaine or cannabis can result, to varying degrees, in addiction, family breakdown or madness. Yet it’s the campaigners for decriminalisation who argue that these “side-effects” may be an acceptable price to pay for what they believe would be the benefit of a majority.
There are many variations of the legalisation argument expressed by, among others, scientists like ex-government adviser David Nutt, private research organisations, lobby groups, libertarian commentators, former Latin American presidents and newspapers such as the Observer. And this November, California goes to the polls to decide whether to make cannabis legal for retail sale in the state. Is some version of the legalisation argument about to become reality?
It depends which one. The California vote is not concerned with any of the pro-legalisation arguments being aired in Latin America and Europe. With marijuana already available for medical use in the state, advocates for Proposition 19 argue that taxing and regulating more widespread legal use might raise as much as $1.4bn for the cash-strapped state. There is little talk about scientific measurement of harm, nor much about personal freedom, and certainly none about the drugs war in Latin America. Meanwhile, at the federal level, there is no similar move of any kind.
So what are British campaigners advocating? They are a broad group with disparate aims, but their arguments tend to fall into three main categories.
The first and most thrillingly radical is the libertarian and free-market proposal. In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins has enthusiastically endorsed Brazilian ex-president Fernando Cardoso’s view that “the only way to reduce violence in Mexico, Brazil or anywhere else is to legalise the production, supply and consumption of all drugs.” This approach is aimed chiefly at reducing the power of the Latin American cartels and other traffickers by attacking their profit margins. In no sense is it a public health argument. While it seeks to tackle problems of criminality, it wouldn’t reduce consumption. There are three things that determine how much a drug is used: fashion, availability and price. You can’t predict the first, but in an open market availability would increase and prices fall.
Jenkins has an unlikely ally in the political philosopher John Gray, though Gray concedes that with the legalisation of all drugs, the overall harms caused to individual users would increase. This, however, may be a price worth paying if it could indeed reduce bloodletting in South America.
But Britain is not South America. Some of us may be consumers of cocaine (though only 7.6 per cent of the population have tried it), but our most commonly used illegal drug, cannabis, is largely home-grown, and plays scarcely any part in global trade.
What the libertarians require for the implementation of their proposals is American support, and a rewriting of the UN’s drug conventions. For that they would need to win over of a majority of the world’s states—quite a big ask, since according to the UN only 5 per cent of the global population has ever taken recreational drugs and only 0.6 per cent are addicts. Their argument is bold, big-picture, and stupendously unrealistic.
It’s also not palatable to those who argue for more limited decriminalisation in Britain. This, the second broad line of argument, is liberal-yet-statist, and advocates some kind of regulated market. It has a public health rationale, though its main emotive thrust is that legal “prohibition” doesn’t work.
The first candidate proposed for a regulated market tends to be cannabis. Advocates of legalisation correctly observe that smoking and drinking cause more deaths than cannabis. Why, though, do they conclude that restrictions on cannabis must be loosened, rather than those on cigarettes and alcohol increased? By contrast, if you oppose relaxing the law on cannabis on the grounds that it can cause psychiatric harm among a significant minority (as is now widely accepted) you may find yourself labelled a “reactionary,” or in favour of “prohibition.” The language is telling. It reveals that many in this “controlled liberalisation” camp view themselves as belonging to some kind of emancipatory movement.
Yet proposals for a regulated market seem far from liberating. Are they about state control or personal choice? Nobody seriously advocates making cannabis more easily available to children. A regulated market would still have to criminalise selling it to teenagers—the group most at risk of long-term mental health problems from cannabis use. Some argue that government-controlled retailing would price teenagers out of the market. But that would merely encourage competition from the illicit indoor farming of cheap skunk. The government would then be in the peculiar position of competing with private cannabis growers.
It is now common to hear the mantra that “the war on drugs” isn’t working. But by every measure—crime, health, death—the “war on drink” is working even less well, and for that there is a regulated market. Accordingly, most chief constables favour increasing restrictions on drink. Why should the logic work in the opposite direction for drugs? When people argue that our “war on drugs” (a daft comparison with Latin America’s real war) is not only failing to resolve the problem, but is the cause of it, they are guilty of a huge non-sequitur.
This leaves the third “legalisation” argument, which is not a legalisation argument at all. It does not seek to rewrite the UN conventions, but merely to reconsider our system of classification, rethink policing methods, and perhaps tweak the law. It’s a rather dull technocratic discussion. Perhaps we should be a bit more like the liberal Netherlands (good at keeping down rates of teenage cannabis use), or more like prohibitive Sweden (also good at it). Maybe more sophisticated research into the harm caused by illegal drugs is needed.
That’s as good as the “legalisation” arguments currently get. A civil rights movement this ain’t.