Drugs - legal and illegal

Cannabis accounts for 83 per cent of all drug offences in Britain-yet the drug causes neither violence nor death. Alcohol, a legal drug, causes some 25,000 deaths a year. Duncan Campbell examines the arguments for and against legalising some drugs and wonders why the issue is being debated more seriously in the police force than in parliament
April 19, 1996

Take three court cases in February this year. In the first, in a court in Larnaca, Cyprus, a member of the Royal Greenjackets regiment explains during his trial for manslaughter how he had been so drunk when he had battered a Danish tour guide with a spade, that he could not remember which of his two fellow soldiers, both also drunk, had actually beaten her to death. In the second, at Worcester crown court, a man is convicted of selling by mail order, through Private Eye and Viz magazines, a book that teaches people how to grow cannabis and is warned by the judge that he faces a custodial sentence. In the third, at Warrington crown court, the prosecution offers no evidence against a man who has been arrested in possession of cannabis and has argued that it helps to alleviate the pain he suffers from Von Hippel Lindau Disease.

Alcohol, the drug referred to in first of the three cases, is legal. The drug in the second and the third cases is not. According to West Midlands police recent research the legal drug is associated with 82 per cent of public order offences and 43 per cent of assaults. It is estimated to cause 25,000 deaths a year. The illegal drug is not associated with violence and there are no known deaths attributed to it. Such anomalies might have been expected to provoke debate in a late 20th century democracy; yet there is virtually none.

Or rather, there is no party political discussion about drugs at the moment, mainly because the difference between the two main parties is as thin as a Rizla cigarette paper. But there is a debate taking place within the police, in the press, and on the streets where in some parts of the country a caution is seen as sufficient punishment for possession of heroin, while elsewhere 30 year sentences are handed out in cocaine smuggling cases.

What happened to the political debate?

In July 1967, a famous advertisement stating that "the law against marijuana is immoral in principle and unworkable in practice" appeared in The Times. It was signed by 64 distinguished names, including academics, politicians, writers and doctors. Twenty years later, almost all-except for Jonathan Aitken and Brian Walden, who had become politicians-still believed that the law should change. If anything, however, change seems less likely now than then. Public opinion polls still show a majority opposed to legalisation.

The legalisation debate has mainly been associated with cannabis. But the arguments relating to all drugs are similar: that the illegality of drugs rather than the drugs themselves cause crime; that prosecutions against drug users alienate those people whose co-operation the police need; that the cost of enforcing the law runs into hundreds of millions of pounds; that revenue from the taxation of drugs would benefit the state rather than the criminal; that legal drugs would allow for quality control so that dangerously cut Ecstasy and heroin could be screened out; that the use of drugs is victimless and that the state has no business regulating what an individual does if it does not affect other people; that alcohol and nicotine are more dangerous and unhealthy than most drugs-cannabis in particular, which is the main illegal drug and the source of most arrests. There were 72,400 arrests for cannabis in Britain in 1994, accounting for 83 per cent of all drug offences.

The arguments against legalising drugs are: that legal drugs would send a message to impressionable young people that all drugs were safe when they clearly are not; that more addicts would be created who would commit further crimes to finance their habits; that a drug-saturated society would become dependent and unproductive; that even if drugs were legalised, criminals would still find ways of being involved in their distribution; that additional addicts or Ecstasy users would be a burden on the health service; that there would certainly be an outbreak of lawlessness.

In recent years the case for legalisation has been argued in the leader or editorial columns of The Economist, the Independent, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator. Two former heads of the Metropolitan police drugs squad, a chief constable, and the head of Interpol, have all suggested publicly that there should be a debate; yet from Westminster there is as much activity as in an opium den in Benares on a quiet Sunday.

A very few politicians have suggested that discussion would be desirable: Labour MPs Paul Flynn and Tony Banks have both raised the issue and Labour MEP Carole Tongue was one of the first politicians to talk about drug laws in Europe. When Clare Short MP merely suggested a discussion on the cannabis laws during a television interview last year, she was swiftly slapped down by the Labour leadership. The Conservative MP Alan Duncan has argued that prohibition has, perversely, increased consumption, and he has the backing of the libertarian right within his party. Grassroots Liberal Democrats have spoken in favour of legalisation but Paddy Ashdown has distanced the leadership from such calls. Among politicians there is a terror of being labelled "soft on drugs." Indeed, holding status quo views on drugs has come to be seen as a sort of litmus test of political seriousness.

Many politicians of both right and left have, of course, thought about the issue and remain strongly committed to its prohibition. This is not a right/left issue. Andrew Barr, in his book Drink: an Informal Social History, quotes Count Leo Tolstoy writing in 1891 that people drank alcohol "simply and solely in order to drown the warning voice of conscience." Barr adds: "After vodka was prohibited in Russia in 1914 people were no longer able to silence their consciences in alcoholic drink. It may not altogether have been a coincidence that they rebelled and overthrew the government three years later."

In the non-party political world, Janet Paraskeva, director of the National Youth Agency, argued that the law "criminalises large numbers of young people for whom drug use is problematic neither to themselves nor to society. Worse, it suggests to young people that society neither understands nor cares about their culture, thus making it difficult for youth workers to get down to the real business of drugs education." She also made the point at a drugs conference last year that most people take drugs quite simply for fun, not as a retreat from reality, but as something that is as normal and unaddictive as a bottle of wine with a meal.

So what effect does prohibition currently have? Customs figures for the last five years show that the number of seizures has hovered steadily between 8,000 and 9,000 annually. Total seizures of cannabis last year rose by 3.6 per cent to 63.7 tonnes. If the rough estimate that customs seize between 10 and 20 per cent of drugs imported is correct, this would mean that there is still a plentiful supply for the nation's estimated 3m regular and occasional drug users. Even the large seizures of drugs in recent years have had little effect on the retail price, which moves upwards at slightly below the rate of inflation. The message, accepted either explicitly or implicitly by both police and customs, is that while law enforcement may cause temporary breaks in supply, it has little effect on overall consumption and availability.

Plain speaking policemen

What we have also seen in the last two years is a large increase in the amount of home grown drugs, produced hydroponically and with the use of sophisticated lighting equipment. The Netherlands already produces enough home grown cannabis to supply its own drug users and to export; there is no reason why a similar pattern should not be followed here. Roy Clark, co-ordinator of the south east regional crime squad, concedes that "all the law enforcement agencies in the United Kingdom together cannot beat the drugs trade... The comparisons with the free market economy are frightening. If this were a legitimate trade, it would be looked upon as a marvellous enterprise." John Grieve, currently the head of the anti-terrorist branch and the former head of intelligence at Scotland Yard, has stated that "tobacco and alcohol are at least as dangerous and the costs to the community greater." He added: "You cannot keep drugs out of the United Kingdom." And he spelled out the reality of drug purchase: "You are more likely to be offered drugs for the first time by a member of your family or a close friend than by the archetypal stranger at the school gates. When parents demand that we arrest the dealers, it is their own children they are referring to."

Such plain speaking is rarely heard in the party political arena, where everyone who raises the issue gets short shrift from their party managers. Hence the opportunity for rational debate is limited. But drugs and the pursuit of their sellers and users affects every area of society-schools, crime, employment, race, health and the economy.

It is the perverse effect on economic morals and incentives which free marketeers have singled out as the chief reason for legalisation. If drugs were sold like alcohol, say the legalisers, the state could both control their quality and benefit from the revenue-currently fought over in such a bloody way on our inner city streets.

No surrender

The alternative view, voiced recently in the Guardian by Derek Todd, a former head of the drugs squad at Scotland Yard, is that the law should now concentrate its fire on the users rather than just the dealers, that cautions are handed out too readily by the police when custodial punishment is needed. "The user is the cause of the drug problem," he says. "With no demand, the problem simply disappears and the producers have no marketplace for their wares." To this end, he suggests opening old army camps to cater for the inevitable increase in the number of people jailed, and he believes that we should look at the possibility of weekend jails for drug users in employment. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, also believes in stricter punishments for drug users: we are now seeing the jailing, for two or more years, of people who have been caught simply growing cannabis in a barn. We have also now moved into a society where schoolchildren and employees in a growing number of jobs have to submit to random drugs tests and where neighbours are encouraged to report suspicions about drug taking.

The reform lobby recognises that the likeliest movement would be a gradual decriminalisation, so that cannabis possession for personal use ceased to be an offence; there would then be a slow move towards legalisation with its effects monitored. The liberalisation of the Scottish licensing laws in 1976 and 1990 were similarly monitored and shown to have had little negative effect on violence or ill health. Progress would be more easily achieved if all our neighbouring countries took the same step simultaneously, so that no single country acted as a magnet for drug users and dealers.

The debate is complicated by the fact that all types of drugs are lumped together: many people who have no problem about the use of cannabis baulk at the sale of Ecstasy, heroin, cocaine and its derivative "crack"-a drug with few redeeming features. While there might be public acceptance of a softening on the law on cannabis, there would be resistance to allowing the sale, even to those over 18, of class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

But if such sale were allowed, would the effect be a dramatic increase in the use of drugs? Here, perhaps, it is worth returning to the bottle. Nearly 250 years ago, Henry Fielding warned that "drunkenness... will infallibly destroy a great part of the inferior people." Gin did indeed do dreadful damage in the short term, but the lesson is that attempts to impose prohibition both in this country and, more famously, in the US, have generally had the opposite effect to that intended. Once legalised, a drug finds its level and life goes on. If people find their journey through the world easier with a chemical walking stick, why should others kick it away from them?

Dopey thinking

When Leah Betts, the Essex teenager, died recently after taking Ecstasy a poster campaign showing her in a coma appeared with the word "sorted" attached. We see no posters of dead winos with the word "sorted" across their scar-tissued faces because alcohol is our legal drug. Above all, it is this perception of hypocrisy which brings the law on drugs into disrepute and helps to keep the legalisation debate alive-albeit in politically muted form.

Drugs legislation was introduced in Britain in 1920 following the death of a young actress, Billie Carleton, possibly through cocaine-although this has been challenged by Marek Kohn in his essential book on the drug laws, Dope Girls. Laws enacted in reaction to public panic often become the laws which are most widely abused or ignored. In 1957 The Times wrote in an editorial: "White girls who become friendly with West Indians are from time to time enticed into hemp smoking... this is an aspect of the hemp problem-the possibility of it spreading among irresponsible white people-that causes the greatest concern to the authorities. The potential moral danger is significant since a principal motive of the coloured man in smoking hemp is to stimulate his sexual desire." There is still too much of such dopey thinking wafting around the discussion on drugs. What the issue now needs is that most potent of stimulants: open debate.