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The ‘war on drugs’ is the problem, not the solution. It never made sense: now we have the proof

Legalising drugs reduces both crime and addiction

By on Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The perennial question of the so-called “war on drugs”, I see, has emerged again, in the form of a debate involving in some way Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame and Sir Richard Branson, both of whom, it seems, are in favour of liberalising our drugs laws. Before the subject goes underground yet again (which it really shouldn’t; it’s an important and, because of Afghanistan, an urgent question) I seize this opportunity of saying that despite the fact that I find both these luminaries deeply irritating, and despite the fact that I am a fully paid-up traditionalist (and from time to time unashamed reactionary), I entirely agree with them both on this if on nothing else. We sometimes hear that the war in Afghanistan is “unwinnable”; I’m not sure about that: but I am certain, and have been for years, that the “war on drugs” is both unwinnable and massively counter-productive.

The facts are there for anyone to see. The more difficult it gets to smuggle in drugs, the higher their price rises, and the more profitable it becomes to smuggle them in. That’s why a free trade conservative like the economist Milton Friedman was in favour of the legalisation of the possession of hard drugs: current restrictions were for him a classic illustration of the need for the free market. By waging war on the illegal supply of drugs, vastly raising their scarcity and therefore their profitability, we had created the massive wealth of the Colombian drugs barons and corrupted the politics of a whole nation and those surrounding it. Heroin is a cheap drug to produce: if we decriminalised possession of it, supplying it (and other addictive drugs) to addicts free of charge on the NHS as part of a programme of treatment, not only would we seriously address the problem of addiction, we would undermine the illegal drugs market, dealing a blow against burglary and violent crime, at least half of which, according to some estimates, is directly drug-related (an addict will steal from his own mother).

Afghanistan provides a vivid illustration of this phenomenon on a vast scale. Here, the drugs barons are the Taliban, whose powerful military capacity is largely funded by the illegal poppy crop (which has also deeply corrupted the government of Hamid Karzai). All this could be dealt with by legalising the crop, thus solving the problem of a worldwide shortage of pharmaceutical morphine, under a scheme which has the most respectable origins. Take a look at this from the Chemistry World website:

This year’s opium harvest in Afghanistan will be ‘shockingly high’, according to figures released this week by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). They estimate that the country now supplies over 90 per cent of the world’s heroin.

The news has fuelled criticism of the current US-led strategy, which aims to eradicate the crop. Instead, there is growing support for a scheme promoted by a European think tank, the Senlis Council, which hopes to establish a trial licensing scheme that would allow farmers to sell their opium for legitimate, medicinal use.

The Senlis Council started research into its Poppy for Medicine scheme in 2005, and in October 2007 published plans outlining exactly how a pilot scheme would run. The project has since received the backing of the European Parliament.

A key feature of the project is that farming communities could cultivate poppy crops, which would then be turned into morphine tablets in facilities built in Afghanistan. The Senlis Council says that this will help to build the infrastructure for producing medicines, and create legitimate trade and stability in the most insecure regions where insurgency is rife.

The current approach – forcibly eradicating opium crops – is interfering with the counter-insurgency operations, claims Norine MacDonald, president of the Senlis Council. ‘When the crop is knee-high, tractors come in and plough the field to destroy it. The tractors are driven by Afghans but they are under the supervision of a private US military firm,’ MacDonald told Chemistry World. ‘So the locals see foreigners supervising people who are destroying their livelihoods. And there is a great deal of violence and anger in response.’

That’s why the war in Afghanistan is “unwinnable”: it’s for the same reason as the “war on drugs” is unwinnable.

The argument against all this, of course, is that if you were to legalise drugs there would be a massive increase in drug-taking and addiction. But this is simply not borne out by what happens if you actually do it. I was arguing in this way 20 years ago. Since then, the evidence has been piling up, most tellingly in the form of the experience of those countries which have been convinced by this argument and have changed their drugs laws. The fact is that, whether counter-intuitively or not, legalising drugs (“hard” or “soft”) actually reduces their use and slashes drug addiction. What actually happens, in other words, is the very opposite of what is supposed to happen: drug use falls, and, freed from the fear of prosecution, addicts come forward for treatment. That is what happened in Portugal; have a look at this, from (of all places) Time magazine:

The question is, does the new policy work? At the time, critics in the poor, socially conservative and largely Catholic nation said decriminalizing drug possession would open the country to “drug tourists” and exacerbate Portugal’s drug problem; the country had some of the highest levels of hard-drug use in Europe. But the recently released results of a report commissioned by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, suggest otherwise.

The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.

“Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

I rest my case. If you want to read more, have a look at this, by the distinguished journalist Misha Glenny, writing, it seems to me unanswerably, in the New York Times. As he says, the problem now is political: “Supporters of legalisation have all but won the moral and intellectual debate, but they now face the most difficult argument of all — the political one. That is unlikely to be won in Washington, where prohibition continues to enjoy powerful support. But we are seeing an erosion of the drug-war consensus in countries like Argentina, Mexico, Portugal and Switzerland — where drugs either have been decriminalized or de facto legalised.”

The fact is that our existing policy has led to death and violence on a vast scale, most obviously in Afghanistan, Latin America and the US but also, though, on a marginally smaller scale, here too (do you really think that last summer’s riots had nothing to do with this problem?). Portugal is one of the first countries to benefit from an idea whose time has come. Now, it is time for us, too, to open our eyes.

  • Jason Clifford

    Is drug use really so linked to supply and legality?

    Alcohol is legal and easily available. Abuse of alcohol is certainly not going away or even diminishing.

    The problem with all of the various ideas for legalising drug abuse is a moral one. The abuse of drugs harms the person abusing them and those close to them – typically family. Whether the drug is heroine or booze the moral issue is the same.

    With drugs and alcohol we see two sides of the same coin. One is legal and the other illegal. The legality of otherwise has not changed the fact that abuse springs from a culture rather than supply.

  • Vince

    This article is very Paulinian. No law, no crimes. Well…

  • Vince

    “Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, suggest otherwise.” Well… Mind your sources.  Libertarians are quite liberal regarding the manipulations of studies and figures.

  • Lazarus

    Although I’m sympathetic to Dr Oddie’s argument, it’s all a bit reminiscent of the arguments in favour of liberalizing drinking laws: by having lots of drink available all the time, the UK would develop a cafe culture and alcohol consumption would go down. That didn’t work and I’m not sure that this would either. (And extrapolating from Mediterranean cultures such as Portugal doesn’t work for alcohol in the UK and I suspect wouldn’t for drugs either. Brits seem to like getting out of their heads.) 

  • bustera
  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I agree with Dr Oddie. The evidence for the benefits of legalisation are overwhelming.

  • StewartG

    Peter Hitchens has written, in a fashion contrary to your piece, about the portugal experiment:

    It would be interesting to see the two of you debate this issue.

  • Anonymous

    Well whatever one’s view, the fact remains that the last 40 years have been an abject failure. It is surely time to try something else, I do not want my children growing up where the only thing a person needs is a £20 note, no matter their age or mental state, and if they don’t have Cannabis they will offer something far worse.
    Sorry Vince, you don’t offer anything into the debate.
    I agree with Dr Oddie, the war on drugs has failed, but the fact is that it is a war on people, not drugs. It is people’s actions that are controlled by law.

  • Morys Ireland

     You’re right, that is a different issue. But nonetheless there is hardly the criminal network surrounding the sale and distribution of alcohol as there is around drugs. Not to mention the other criminal activities that feed off drug trafficking.

  • Ender Wiggin

    there’s a rather huge gap between “i like getting out of my head”  and   “i’m trapped in an addictive cycle, bur i f i try to get help they’ll throw me in prison”.  stigmatizing drug use makes certain that no one seeks help.  No one wants to end up a junkie with the flesh rotting off their arm from missed shots, but the fear of losing years of your life looking for help is a pretty big argument for staying hidden.

  • Anonymous
  • Just Sayin’

    What “war on drugs”?  If Branson lit up an illegal substance, do you really think he’d get arrested?  Of course not.  There is no war on drugs.  Unfortunately.

  • John Smith

    Alcohol use is actively encouraged through advertising on a huge scale, so no wonder abuse of alcohol is not going away or even diminishing. 

    If drugs were to be legalised then first you would have to provide education about the dangers of drug use based on scientific fact, and also be required to have a license to purchase any said drugs.

    The money raised through taxing said drugs could hugely contribute to any public health costs and the surplus profits could even be spent elsewhere for example: education to prevent drug abuse and  treatment for people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol.

    Drug use/abuse should be treated as a health issue not a criminal issue. Why turn drug users into criminals? All that does is greatly reduce the chance of them becoming a productive member of society.

     Why not offer them a way out through treatment? Think of the money saved  that would have been spent on taking people through the court/legal system.

    The money would also be taken away from criminal networks who are operating due to the huge profits to be made. Street crime, burglary and the spread of diseases would be massively reduced. 

  • Mrs. Rene O’Riordan

    At least the fact that it’s illegal is a good reason why I wont allow it in my house – in spite of all the debates on the matter that go on. It’s illegal – end of debate!! – Rene

  • Mrs. Rene O’Riordan

    At least the fact that it’s illegal is a good reason why I wont allow it in my house – in spite of all the debates on the matter that go on. It’s illegal – end of debate!! – Rene

  • Lazarus

    That’s perfectly true -and one of the reasons why I’m sympathetic. On the other hand, stigmatizing drug use is one way of ensuring that other people either don’t take it up or restrict their consumption. (And I suspect that the biggest barrier to seeking help is less the illegality than the difficulty in finding suitable treatment and support for fighting addiction.)

  • Martin Powell

    On Portugal, the Cato Institute report probably painted a slightly too rosy a picture, just as a counter report by the World Federation Against Drugs clearly cherry picked data to suit their agenda. Fortunately there have now been two peer reviewed papers by Prof Alex Stevens of Kent University published in established journals examining this issue in an entirely evidence based way. He and his colleagues found that decriminalising the possession of drugs did not lead to use levels rising (youth use down a bit, adult use up a bit etc).Overall use remained similar to comparable countries that had not changed their laws. In other words criminalisation did not significantly deter use – and massive amounts of money that would have been spent arresting, trying and imprisoning people has been freed up to spend on treatment and prevention measures, leading to a halving of the rates of HIV infection etc, and of course far fewer young people’s prospects being ruined by getting a criminal record. 

    NB Decriminalising use is part of the answer, but to take the supply out cartels and local drug dealers hands, and reduce crime etc in the way William Oddie describes, we also need strictly controlled legally regulated supply – as for example Switzerland has done very successfully with heroin to addicts, and the Netherlands is now doing with cannabis supply. Please see our website for more information on this 

    Martin Powell
    Head of Communications
    Transform Drug Policy Foundation

  • Jack

    “Stigmatizing drug use is one way of ensuring that other people either don’t take it up or restrict their consumption.”

    This is not borne out by the evidence presented in the article above, or my experience, or the experience of the vast majority of young people, who have tried at least marijuana. Young people listen to the recommendations of their friends and peers far more readily than they listen to the recommendations of finger-wagging politicians, policemen and right-wing newspapers. So it is, so it has always been, so it shall always be.

  • Jack

     Quite so. As far as I can see, demand and legality are all but unrelated.

  • Ewanhoyle

    The Liberal Democrats want to have the debate in the UK too, or at least the members do:

  • sergio montes

     Drugs and humankind have peacefully co-existed for millions of years… since before we are human, as animals too enjoy drugs.Anyone
    can learn history to realise that prohibition and violent punishment
    and discrimination of drug users started when, after thousands of years
    of peaceful drug taking, violent prohibitionists decided to forcibly
    stop people from buying, selling and possessing drugs. Of course, the
    consequences have been exactly the same in every country were this
    violent prohibition has been applied: aggravating to unheard extremes a
    hypothetical evil, justifying the destruction and plundering of
    countless persons, promoting the ill-gotten wealth of corrupt
    inquisitors, and creating a prosperous black market for all the
    forbidden items. Some prohibitionists still have the
    drivel to insist that all this violence has nothing to do with
    prohibition, that it is your drug consumption what is causing
    prohibition enforcers to violently steal and kill thousands of peaceful
    drug users and producers, while at the same time giving the control of
    dangerous drugs to violent criminals which are in most cases
    indistinguishable from prohibition enforcers. This is, obviously, not
    true, as drug consumption used to take place peacefully long before
    violent prohibition was forced on us and prohibitionists started
    violently kidnapping (some) drugs users, sellers and producers of
    (some) drugs, with the most terrible consequences: In
    India, a huge opium production there during the nineteenth century did
    no give rise to anything that could be called “abuse”, and in 1981, not
    a single case of heroin addiction was reported there. But in 1985,
    when the county accepted a harsh repressive legislation to comply with
    international directives, the population began to substitute poppy
    juice for heroin, and in 1988, the number of Indian heroin addicts,
    mostly young, was estimated to be one million. Its neighbour Pakistan,
    with a much smaller population, had double that amount, according to
    the health minister of the Benazir Bhutto government, whereas a decade
    earlier the phenomenon had been largely unknown. In
    Malaysia, where the death penalty was invariably applied to anyone
    possessing more than fifteen grams of heroin, the government estimated
    in 1986 that there were 110,000 heroin addicts, exceptional in a
    country with a population of ten million. The same thing occurred in
    Thailand, were the penalty was death or a life sentence but there were
    about half a million junkies. The principal result of these draconian
    laws was to create a monopoly of the traffic concentrated in a few
    hands, well infiltrated into institutions, and excluding competition.
    Something similar was true in Latin America, where even though
    legislation drifted into harshness, cocaine production in 1991 was a
    million kilos, something inconceivable twenty years before, and great
    land extensions were assigned to poppy cultivation. In
    Europe, where illicit drug problems were largely unknown until the
    seventies, a persecution initially directed against psychedelics ended
    up being identified as a battle against the Enemy Within, American
    style, creating conditions favorable for organized bands around the
    hashish, heroin, and cocaine traffic. Starting at the end of the
    eighties, this traffic began to include MDMA and other design analogues.
    Criminality related to drugs had passed from being a negligible
    chapter to one encompassing three-fourths of all convictions,
    saturating prisons catastrophically, multiplying by a factor of a
    thousand the involuntary deaths from fatal intoxication, and filling
    the streets with sellers and informants, paid with a percentage of what
    they turned in, whose intervention adulterated the product and at the
    same time assured its ubiquitous presence. News about substances that
    “disappeared” or “were reduced” after confiscation suggested that there
    was an informal tax, destined to support that dense layer of double
    agents, and that everything confiscated tended to en up, in whole or in
    part, in the black market. In the early 19th century,
    when opium smoking was gaining popularity in China, the Emperor took
    counsel from his mandarins. One party argued for taxation and
    regulation, the other for prohibition. The prohibitionists won, with
    the result that the profitability on opium sales to China rose over
    1000%. The consequence was an unparalleled wave of smuggling, the
    penetration of opium to every corner of China, a rate of addiction
    never seen before or after, and ultimately the collapse of the Manchu
    dynasty into civil war, invasion and famine. Had the Emperor chosen the
    pragmatic choice of regulation and control, the use of opium in China
    would never have followed the course it did. Here in
    Britain we seem determined to repeat the same mistakes. The adoption of
    strictly prohibitionist policies in the 1980’s resulted in an
    unprecedented explosion in drug use, especially heroin, across Britain.
    Eventually in the 1990’s it was recognised these policies were making
    the situation worse, and pragmatic harm reduction approaches were
    developed. Now it seems the Coalition wishes to abandon harm reduction
    and return to a strict abstinence only prohibitionist position. Its
    time we woke up and realised that drug prohibition is an abject
    failure, which affects all members of society, whether you use drugs or
    not. The answer is not tougher laws, or more police, but a regulated
    supply of drugs to those who need/want them, combined with highly
    visible public health education to prevent another generation from
    experimenting. Although the majority of the governments
    generally lined up with the intransigent position favored by the United
    States, the example of liberal Holland was embarrassing because of the
    results if produces. The Dutch actually had the highest rates of
    illicit drug consumption but the lowest rates of fatal intoxication and
    related criminality, as well as the least correlation (6 percent)
    between the use of heroin and AIDS, when by omparison that correlation
    exceeded 60 percent in France and Spain. Dutch authorities explained
    their country’s privileged position by the population’s high awareness
    (instead of ignorance- of pharmacology), by the absence of counter
    productive mythologies or alarmist reactions that distort the real
    effects of drugs, and by the availability of drugs though noncriminal
    routes.  At the beginning of the nineties, several
    Swiss cantons adopted this position as well, even testing the free
    distribution of heroin to anyone who requested it, and making certain
    zones available for its consumption.Take a leaf from the Swiss.
    They give heroin to addicts in government clinics. Young people don’t
    want to try heroin, as they can visibly see its for sick messed up
    peoplequeuing at some boring clinic; rather than falling for the
    fake glamour created by harsh prohibition combined with the latest
    celebrity drug scandal.The reasons given by law, social science,
    medicine, and history against prohibition have not changed in the last
    forty years, when Szasz, Becker, and Schnur, among others, diagnosed
    its probable route. Within strictly scientific circles, dissidence was
    (and continues to be) as unanimous as support for it appears to exist
    among political and religious leaders. Drugs have
    always been around, and they will certainly ever remain. To pretend
    that both users and non-users will be better protected because some of
    them are impure, very expensive and sold by criminals (who are, by the
    way, indistinguishable from undercover police and plain businessmen) is
    simply ridiculous, and yet more so when the street supply grows year
    after year.

  • Lazarus

    Your general point appears to be premised on the dubious idea that negative social pressure (‘stigmatization’)  doesn’t affect individuals’ decision making. Highly implausible. The question then becomes: what sort of social pressure and how should it be applied? The article merely suggests that illegality is the wrong sort of social pressure -and perhaps that’s right. But the position isn’t as clearcut as is being suggested here.

    On your remark about young people, trying marijuana is only evidence that illegality is not 100% effective in stopping drug use. I think we know that. The real question is, in the absence of illegality, would use go up or down? Would social harm go up or down? Anyone who is confident that they know the answer here is being rash. As I said, I’m not unsympathetic to Dr Oddie’s position. But let’s tread carefully here.

  • Anonymous

    How anyone can take Hitchens seriously is beyond me.

  • Martin Powell

    I think we have only to look at tobacco to see how we can make a drug increasingly socially unacceptable through regulation and education without having to give criminal records to young people, or hand control over to criminals who then destroy poor countries and estates with the money and power they get. 
    We can also see that use of tobacco has halved through using health warnings on packaging, managing prices, access points and advertising etc – none of which methods are available for unregulated illegal products. Health education is not best delivered with a pair of handcuffs.Worse still, it is clear from Portugal that stigmatising users through criminalising them drives them away from treatment, and encourages dangerous habits like needle sharing in dangerous environments. In fact, as the Home Office has acknowledged, criminalisation can have the opposite effect in some circumstances by creating the “forbidden fruit” effect making them more attractive particualrly to young people. 

  • Doc

    There are no easy answers when it comes to drugs.

    Legalizing all drugs would solve some problems and create others: and these new problems would be squarely the responsibility of the government (at least as far as the tabloid press are concerned)

    Alcohol causes far more damage and harm that heroin, cocaine or crack do, but funding for treating alcoholism is much less than for “war on drugs”, mainly I suspect because most people like a drink now and again.

    Which is worse: telling people they can’t use drugs and making it illegal, or standing back and making it legal and watch many vulnerable people suffer and die though their ill-advise use and abuse of the drugs?  I don’t know the answer to this: do you allow people to make their own mistakes, even if these mistakes might kill them?

  • Bjorn Stuverod

    Hey I can win the drug war if you all follow my and join my event 1.7.2012 and pleace join my group I wantd to sue all the government because it is one brake at the human rights to forbid human to use medicine plants se first mosebook 1-29 se I give you all the plants osv