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Time to end the War on Drugs

Criminalising drugs is a statist policy does more harm than good

By on Monday, 16 April 2012

Is something about to change in the way we face the challenge of illegal drug use? The Summit of the Americas is taking place in Colombia, and it seems that something is stirring. You can read about it in the Observer, here. 

Another conference about drugs? Nothing new in that, you might think. Well, there is. The Summit of the America’s brings together 33 out of 35 heads of government from the Americas; until now most conferences about drug abuse which have posed radical solutions have been shunned by those who hold office, and been supported by people who are former office holders, that is to say, people able to talk about drug decriminalisation and legalisation without fear of committing electoral suicide. But this conference is a gathering of men and women in office. That, I think, is a first.

The other thing is this: consider these words which come from Mauricio Rodriguez, a close aide to President Santos of Colombia and the current Colombian Ambassador to London:

[The outcome] could mean anything from blanket legalisation to a new and different war on drugs. We just do not know until we have the data, investigate every option with open minds, and have the full picture drawn up by experts who know the terrain, and are not motivated by interests, ideology or emotion. Whatever it is, it must be real change, based upon new paradigms.

One imagines that someone like Mr Rodriguez chooses his words carefully. Until now few have dared mention the prospect of “blanket legalisation”. Moreover, Mr Rodriguez’s words warn us off being motivated by “interests, ideology or emotion”. This too is much to be welcomed. Too much of the talk (one can hardly call it a debate) about drugs has been deformed by interests, ideology and emotion.

The emotions are well known. Many people have died through taking illegal drugs, and many lives have been ruined and entire communities blighted. These are all bad things, and all sensible people should deplore them; but this does not, as such, constitute a reason for keeping drugs illegal; in fact, quite the opposite, as if drugs were legal it might be much easier to help those adversely affected by them. Moreover, the illegality of the drugs as opposed to their being drugs per se, is what often does so much harm, insofar as their production, distribution and sale is in the hands of criminals who have only armed force as a means of resolving disputes. Legalisation would remove a vast illegal exclave from our society.

Ideology is equally harmful. The idea that the state should fight a war against drugs is statist. Yes, drugs should be resisted, but this has to be done at the level of the individual conscience. There are many sinful and harmful activities that are not and should not be illegal – adultery for example. That destroys families; but the idea that adultery should be stopped by state intervention is lunacy. The state must never replace the individual conscience.

And what about interests? This is a murky one. Some people in power may want drugs to remain illegal, because legalisation might well put them out of a job or lose them lucrative illegal pay-offs from the drug industry.

I have written about this before. I refer you to that article if you think that by advocating the abandonment of the War on Drugs, and adopting anew strategy of harm reduction I am somehow advocating free licence in other fields. It is because I think the War on Drugs so wrong-headed, and because it has produced so little by way of a reduction in illegal drug taking, that I want change.

  • Sam M W Judge

    The evidence that drug regulation and decriminalisation is a positive thing has been established. Most importantly it reduces abuse of a drug, and promotes responsible use by educating people the facts rather than the current, frankly disgusting advice that is currently offered by the government – which amounts to little more than the universal statement of “Drugs are bad – if you take drugs you are a bad person and a criminal”. We live in a country where 1 in 6 people have used a class A substance in their life; from what I can tell, most of them are not going to steal or mug anyone for a ‘fix’, and those that do suffer from a disease. It is a health issue, and it’s never going to be eliminated from society any more than the common cold. I’d rather live in a society where we try and stop people from getting to that point, and if they do, offering them the treatment they need to get better rather than punishing them. And from a Christian and moral perspective, by what power do we have the authority to curb the free will of another person who does harm to none other but themselves (And in the vast majority of cases, this IS where the harm ends) – someone who is forced to be a good person is not a good person at all. Have a little faith that if drugs were legal, that those around you would have the good sense to say no, or at least use in moderation (which I think has been established, as many freely available research chemicals these days are far more potent – and possibly dangerous – than the drugs they are supposed to be emulating, and yet despite that it remains quite a niche market).

  • kentgeordie

     Many of you have posted that I am wrong in thinking that decriminalization would result in increased consumption.
    I admit I made my point on the basis of what I thought I had read about the Dutch experience, and also my surmise as parent.
    Having been challenged I tried googling, and it seems pretty clear that there is no conclusive evidence either way as to whether (de)criminalisation has a strong effect on drug use. Different studies point to different conclusions, which often reflect the initial position of the researcher.
    I was surprised to read the hostility to my opinion that we need to work hard to achieve virtue. Many posters seem to have a stronger sense of the inherent rationality of moral conduct than of original sin. Do we not agree that we are all subject to temptation and need all the help we can get to avoid it? At the risk of provoking those more knowledgable than myself, I am sure Aquinas says somewhere that it is better to do good under compulsion than not to do it at all.
    Unlike the ‘non-negotiable’ life issues, the status of currently illegal drugs remains subject to the normal rules of prudential political debate, and neither side should claim that orthodox Christian teaching indubitably supports its position.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Thank you for your kind comment!

  • Peter Reynolds

    Very well said and it must make you ashamed to see the hate filled rhetoric of so called “Christians” in these comments.

    Jesus Christ was evidently a great man but never were truer words written than by Messrs Crosby, Stills & Nash:

    “Too many have died in the name of Christ for anyone to heed the call”

    Regrettably, the judgmental, moralising haters below prove how true that is.

  • David Fleischmann

    You are ignorant. I’m not giving you an insult, just stating a fact. You know nothing about this subject and all you speak is moralizing judgments. Well, by that same judgment by which you judge others, so shall you be judged, Benedict.