Yesterday’s Observer reports that Richard Branson will soon give evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee’s enquiry into drugs policy. This is the first enquiry into the matter for some time, and the Observer’s report is hedged with caution. It seems that the fact that Sir Richard has been called to give evidence (he is a well-known proponent of reform) has caused concern among “health experts” – though at no point does it say who these experts are.
Branson himself has an article in today’s Daily Telegraph, which you can read here. It is rather wordy and it does not say much that is concrete beyond the, to me at least, self-evident, truth that the war on drugs has failed, and that we need to look at other ways of combating drugs – but he does not spell out what these other ways might be.
These other ways are in fact twofold – decriminalisation of all drugs, and legalisation of all drugs, which is not the same thing. It is worth noting that no single serving politician seems to be openly in favour of reform. The people who support the Branson position are all former presidents of this or that. The reason is simple – to support what is perceived as a soft line on drugs would be to court electoral suicide. And yet, all our serving politicians must know that our current drugs policy is not working. Look around you – if this is success, what on earth would failure look like?
Why are people so afraid? Decriminalisation seems to be working in Portugal. As for legalisation, some drugs are perfectly legal already. I don’t just mean tea, coffee and tobacco, but drugs such as khat, otherwise called miraa. Khat can be freely bought in New York and London, and because it has to be fresh, it is flown into London every night by flights out of Nairobi, or so I am told. Khat is traded in the same way that all other agricultural products are. But if it were to be banned and made illegal, you can be sure that not only would it still be sold, but that it would be sold at a highly inflated price, and its sale and production would be controlled by criminal gangs.
But are there moral questions here? There most certainly are. Is it wrong to take khat? Yes it is. It can hardly be squared with the virtue of prudence, as taking any mood altering substance might well damage your health and make you temporarily less responsible. I would not take khat, except possibly just once to gauge its effects. But the real question is this – given that khat (or cocaine, or heroin) is bad for you, is the resolution not to take it better made at a personal level, or should it be made at the level of government? In other words, who decides – the high court of parliament, or the high court of conscience? Which is the most effective forum for legislation?
Again, look at cigarette smoking in the UK. The decline in smoking has been remarkably steep over the decades since the Second World War, though it has recently levelled off somewhat. This has come about largely through education and persuasion, along with increase in prices, but not through coercion as such: while smoking has been restricted in public places, it has not been made illegal. If we were to treat the consumption of all drugs in the same way, legal but discouraged, and above all portrayed as unhealthy and unglamorous, the consumption of such drugs would perhaps markedly decline too. And if such drugs were legal, apart from raising much needed revenue through tax, the savings made from policing the drugs trade could be channelled into education and persuasion.
In the end we have to face the fact that coercion does not work. Nor is coercion morally desirable. We want people not to take drugs as a moral choice, not because we have frightened them into not taking drugs or forcibly removed their drugs from them – which is of course an impossibility, as a visit to any prison will tell you.
Finally, some Catholics might make the point that if I favour the legalisation of drugs, then surely this argument could also apply to the question of abortion. My position on abortion is that of the Magisterium: nothing could possibly justify the taking of innocent life, and all life has the absolute right to legal protection from its first moments. Allowing adults to harm themselves through drug taking is not the same as allowing adults to harm, indeed kill, unborn life, which is never acceptable. True, taking drugs is a moral evil; but that moral evil, which I deplore, is not best contained through the criminal justice system.