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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.

  • AdamThomson

    Presumably you believe that certain legal restrictions would still be necessary. For example, I’m sure you don’t think it should be lawful to encourage five-year-olds to take Heroin, or give them free samples. What legal restrictions do you think there should be?

  • kentgeordie

    Adultery is not illegal but pedophilia is. Where do we draw the line?

    If drugs were decriminalized we can be sure of one thing: consumption would increase.

    Perhaps the main beneficiaries of the ‘war on drugs’ are the people who don’t take them now but would take them if they were legal. One of the functions of law is to protect us from our baser appetites.

  • Aidan Coyle

    A brave line of reasoning to continue advocating because it seems so counter-intuitive and is guaranteed to elicit scorn. There is a lot to recommend it from both logical and research perspectives. It should not be seen as admitting defeat in the ‘War on Drugs’ (which is not a helpful metaphor at all): it’s a radical, far-sighted strategy that merits serious consideration to discern how it might operate most effectively to achieve meaningful harm reduction.

  • guest

    All the evidence shows that legalisation leads to a decrease in consumption.

  • Cestius

    It’s all very well talking about ending the war on drugs, but are drugs and the criminals that peddle them willing to give up their war on us and our society?  Seems to me there will always be a need for restrictions to protect the underage, vulnerable etc. that criminals will want to bypass.  And I don’t imagine the rich criminals masterminding the drug trade being willing to give up their lucrative lifestyle just because we drop some restrictions. That’s the basic problem – it takes both sides to stop fighting to stop a war.

  • anon

    Oh yeah, increased consumption you say?
    How come USA and Canada (especially Canada) are one of the biggest marijuana consumers per capita? Look at countries where they have legalized and regulated marijuana such as Holland and you’ll see consumption has decreased over times.
    Killing and jailing people who use safe drugs leads nowhere good. Time to change!

  • Just Sayin’

    WHAT “war on drugs”???  There is none.  George Michael is living, smoking testimony to that fact.

  • Benedict Carter

    Legalising drugs Father is you voting for the active proliferation of evil. I didn’t think any Catholic, let alone a priest, would be in favour of that. 

    The answer is to go after the men who control this trade with lethal force, and at the same time open our markets to the produce of those who, in a normal world, would grow fruit rather than poppies. 

    Both the EU and USA subsidise their farmers to the tune of billions each year and shut out Latin American and Africa growers from their markets. The so-called champions of free trade …!

    So it must be two-pronged. But I say again: there must be coordinated action to identify and then kill the men who control this trade. 

    Your legalisation would result in many more deaths, broken lives and destroyed families. 

  • Charles Martel

    Sorry, Father, but this is insanity, and surely no Catholic could agree with you. The war on drugs has not even begun.

  • JByrne24

    In the United States during the period of prohibition (of alcohol) there was a increase in the consumption of alcohol allied to increased serious crime. 
    Prohibition helped to actually fund crime.
    A vast proportion of crime in the UK results from the failure to legalise some popular drugs.All the evidence, both from the prohibition days and various countries in more recent times that have relaxed their “war on drugs”, indicates very strongly that consumption would fall and the associated crime would decrease if several popular drugs were legalised.  Unfortunately, because popular opinion pays no heed to the actual facts, it is politically very difficult for government in the UK to take the wiser course of action.This is a clear example of government failing in their duty, in order to curry-favour with the ignorant.

  • Robert

    An excellent, thoughtful article that really gets to the root of the problem:  it is the legality or otherwise of drug use rather than its moral status that is causing all the difficulties.

  • Benedict Carter

    Let’s re-write to reflect reality:

    “A vast proportion of crime in the UK results from the use of drugs”.

  • JByrne24

    No it doesn’t. The serious crime results from the illegal production and trading of drugs.

  • JByrne24

    There is very little criminal activity associated with the supply of legalised drugs such as caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.

  • Benedict Carter

    Mate, I once opened my front door at 02:30 AM to a girl in a nightdress, covered in blood, who had been attacked in her sleep by a 16-year old drug addict who was after cash to buy his next fix.

    You are living in cloud-cuckoo land. Wake up.

  • Benedict Carter

    What a stupid,stupid comment. 

  • Tobias Hoff

    If drugs were decriminalized we can be sure of one thing: consumption would increase.”

    The one thing we can be sure of is that you wrote your comment without examining the evidence; most of which strongly points to the opposite conclusion: when drugs are decriminalised, consumption decreases.

  • JByrne24

    But you deny the facts.
    I am not in favour of drug taking – but if it is de-criminalised the consumption of drugs will decrease. There is a veritable mountain of very strong evidence to support this view.

    The government well knows this – its own chief advisers have told it so several times. 
    However, as you might recall, a chief adviser who goes public with the facts (disagreeing with government inaction and shocked by government’s failure to act responsibly for electoral reasons) does not last long.

  • Tobias Hoff

    Its not a question of criminals being willing to give up their activities. If drugs were legal, there would no longer be a place for them. When you want a beer do you go to the pub or the shop and buy one legally or do you have to find some criminal dealer to sell it you in some alleyway? Who would go to a drug dealer to buy canabis if they could just go to their local shop? The criminal gangs would simply be driven out of business; they have no choice in the matter.

  • JByrne24

    I was responding to Cestius’ comment. You need to read his posting to understand mine.
    Actually I find you rather s—–, but I would never say so.

  • Tobias Hoff

    On the one hand you seem to be saying well maybe these people are not so bad, if only we would let them sell us fruit instead of drugs everything would be ok. But on the other hand actually they are bad guys we should just kill them. This seems somehow… confused. 

    Your last comment is also just wrong. How many people die every day in Latin America to sell people here in Europe and US illegal drugs? Many. And how many people died to sell me the beer in my fridge? None. Look at countries where drugs are decriminalised. It results in many less deaths, broken lives and destroyed families. If only the rest of the world would look at the facts.

  • Benedict Carter

    There is a moral issue though, isn’t there? 

    Our bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost. We are forbidden from the deadly sin of gluttony, which includes drunkeness and obviously includes drug-taking.

    Liberalising drugs is therefore an acceptance of the sin of gluttony; indeed, it is its promotion.

    And you claim to be a Catholic!

  • DJ Hype

    Most of the ‘I can’t believe you wrote that’ comments on here will come from people who never had any contact with drugs. Let’s be honest, half the UK is on drugs. Most of the people I know have at least tried canabis, plenty use it regularly. Class A drug use is pretty much accepted in any club that wants business, I’ve been stopped by bouncers and searched – they just take it off you and probably re-sell it later themselves.

    Get real, your never going to win a ‘war on drugs’ if half the people in the UK our on them and couldn’t give a monkey’s what the fine or even prison sentence is for using them. I’ve even been pulled over for speeding and had the car searched. Police didn’t care one bit that I had cannabis on me, just took it away and left it at that. They know they can’t go around stopping everyone that uses drugs or they’d do nothing else all day.

    If you want to stop people using drugs you need better education. When I was at school they told us extasy would kill us… except the weekend before you’d been to a rave and seen 200 people on E having a great time…. So what happens? You don’t believe a word you’re told, do you?! Education has to be realistic. Get former heroin addicts in to talk to kids to tell them how it really was. Don’t feed them rubbish about pills putting holes in your brain.

    That fact that it’s illegal makes it all the more ‘fun’. It’s a buzz, not just because you get high but because you’re doing something illegal and you know it. Now take the smoking ban… smoking used to be ‘cool’ – now all you see are miserable old farts standing outside in the rain giving themselves cancer. With the right education and the right legal approach you can change kids’ attitudes.

    Legalise drugs. Control their use. Remove the criminal element. Neuter the gangs that rely on drug dealing. Give the right education and soon you’ll see that people won’t want to mess themselves up 24/7 even if it is legal.

  • JByrne24

    B. Carter writes:
    “Liberalising drugs is therefore an acceptance of the sin of gluttony; indeed, it is its promotion.”

    De-criminalising recreational drugs does not promote these drugs.
    Rather, it is an obvious step to take in order to reduce their prevalence in our society.

    Yes of course there is a moral dimension – and it is deeply regrettable that government shirks its responsibility for electoral advantage and fear of losing votes.

    If people were better informed about the facts and the actual effects of criminalisation, it would make it more likely that government would act.

  • mholt210


  • Oconnord

    Not to mention, have you ever been to a rave sober? I have and after having my ears bleed from the music and about twenty hugs from sweaty near naked strangers, I simply left never to return :) 

  • Oconnord

    You haven’t worked out the logic of the ramifications of legalisation to your own example. If heroin, as the best example, was legalised and controlled the price would drop by a large margin. This would have two results. If the price were to drop by 50%, a drug addict would need half the cash every day for his “fixes”. In essence leading to half as many muggings or other crimes. 

    The second effect is more subtle, but I grew up and worked for many years in one of the most drug ravaged areas of inner-city Dublin, so I’d ask you to take my word on this one. The control and regulation of supply would result in huge savings for health services. Drug addicts are a huge drain on resources, not only in the obvious like HIV. Far more prevalent are problems like Hepatitis, blood-poisoning, infections from un-sterile needles, OD’s and the whole host of problem related to a low immune system and a dangerous lifestyle.

    If I could also give a personal anecdote, when I managed a shop in the area I mentioned we saw a sudden rise in the sales of oxtail cupa-soups. After I asked around I found out that the local dealers were “cutting” their heroin with soup. One could only imagine how many hospital visits were caused by addicts injecting powdered soup.

  • Oconnord

    “Not even begun”, a simple fact check would have shown otherwise. “The War on Drugs” as we understand it was begun in 1971 by Nixon. As to how successful it has been, well I’m sure we all have our opinion but can agree the answer is “not very”. In the words of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, last year:

     “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.”

  • Benedict Carter

    The confusion is entirely yours. 

    The men who control this evil business are not the poor farmers often forced into growing the filth in the first place. 

  • Parasum

    What about the liberalisation in the availability of alcohol ? Is that a warning of what is likely to happen  if the current drug laws are liberalised ?

    The effects of drunkeness are appalling – it transforms reasonable, decent people into foul travesties of themselves. It makes beasts out of men. Quite apart from the damage it can lead to in other ways, from vandalism to baby-battering. To call it a scourge is simply the truth. FWIW, maybe Buckfast Abbey could help matters, by producing something other than “Buckie”:

    A drink now and again is one thing – but that is not what drunkenness is. And if liberalising the availability of alcohol can lead to what it does – what are we to expect if drugs become as readily available ? A greater variety of  vomit on the streets ? A different odour of human urine ? This is not nice or decent – but it’s predictable.

    It is not the use of things that is the root of the problem, but the lack of moral virtues such as temperance. A temperate person will  not drink himself into beastlikeness or become a burned-out thug spoiling for a fight  – he will have the strength to say “No” to the desire.  Medicalising the moral life, & blaming lack of tempreance on biology, is a poor reason to ignore the need to develop a moral character. Virtues are not a Christian invention – the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance & fortitude are found in Plato. If he could see their importance, why cannot Christians ? Or modern secularists ?

  • Guest

    Great argument, im convinced

  • Oconnord

    “Adultery is not illegal but pedophilia is. Where do we draw the line?”
    You answer your own (later) question, sex is legal but certain “sexual behaviours” are illegal. If we can legislate against rape, paedophilia and incest then logically we can do the same to drug use. 

    The idea that legalisation leads to an increase in use is just an oft spouted falsehood. You are right by asking who benefits from the War on Drugs. It’s often the police and suppliers of military equipment who do. A simple look at the spending of many U.S. police forces show a large budget for military weaponry.

     “One of the functions of law is to protect us from our baser appetites”. 

    Now that is a statement truly worthy of a communist or shah! Let’s just ban everything just in case!

  • Parasum

    Couldn’t agree more. On that note, let’s legalise rape – that will mean that no-one will be tried for it, leading to the end, both of unsatisfactory stats for conviction rates, & of the crime itself. Two problems disposed of at once.

    Oh, wait…

    To allow what helps to destroy society by corrupting its members is from one POV a very late form of abortion. They’ve survived being in the womb ? No worries – kill them outside it, with other drugs. *Very* moral !  People cannot always be saved from the consequences of their unwise choices – that does not mean that what is harmful for them and society must be dangled before their eyes like a toffee before a child. Tempting people to ruin themselves is not virtuous.

  • Oconnord

    You are correct, the poor farmers are not the problem. In some cases they are coerced into growing drug crops. But the idea of subsidising crops always hits a tipping point. As the drug crops decrease in volume their value goes up. There is always a stage where drugs are more profitable than food. Of course then we not only see coerced farming but also “unknown” farming in areas that are not regulated. A simple thing of shifting the agriculture around the globe.

    As to “taking them out” or the other ways you phrased it, well that simply doesn’t work. Whether it be a street dealer or a kingpin, there is a line of replacements behind. The drug trade, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Someone will always rush in to take their place.

  • Benedict Carter

    You’re on Planet X.

  • Benedict Carter

    The answer as far as users and potential users is concerned is MORAL formation, not licence – which, as the Holy Father has pointed out, quickly turns into licentiousness. 

  • Oconnord

    No we’re on planet earth and trying to really address problems. You are the one who doesn’t see the reality and gives untruths and platitudes.

    You’ve failed to address any evidence presented to you, so go to silly pseudo-insults. Planet-X.. really.. how old are you? Even then it’s an argument from 50′s America! 

  • Benedict Carter

    No evidence at all has been presented – just “maybes’s”.

    And 1950′s America was a much better world than ours now.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    what are we to expect if drugs become as readily available? you ask….. well, the fact is they already are. Legalisation would mean that the production, supply and distribution of drugs would be in the hands of government-licensed agencies and not criminal gangs; such agencies would not promote drugs, but, on the contrary, treat them as the undoubted problem they are.

  • Oconnord

    Another platitude. When evidence, facts and reality show that you are incorrect could you not re-examine your opinion and adjust it? 

  • Oconnord

    Not if you were black, or a woman, or jewish, or catholic, or a socialist, or poor.. the list goes on.

    But it says it all that you hark back to the days when wealthy white men ruled without being questioned.

  • Benedict Carter

    What on earth are you suggesting?

  • Benedict Carter

    A platitude? The moral formation of young people? You are off your head.

  • David Lindsay

    What “War on Drugs”? It has never been fought.

    We need each offence, of whatever kind, to carry a minimum sentence of one third of its maximum sentence, or of 15 years for life. And within that, we need a single category of illegal drug, with a crackdown on the possession of drugs, including a mandatory sentence of three months for a second offence, six months for a third offence, one year for a fourth offence, and so on.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    David, we have had such fighting talk in the past and look where it has got us. Someone like Il Duce (or indeed, the Leader of Progressive Humanity, J. Stalin) might have managed to enforce such strong measures, but….. well, as I say above, that is statism. And statism is dangerous – and quite apart from that does not work!

  • Guest

    Legalising rape and legalising drug use are not even remotely analogous, can you really not see this?

  • Cshaws

    I found an article as cogent and sensible as this from a god botherer quite refreshing.  Until I read all the ‘holy father’ rubbish posted by others with the same belief in fairy tales.  Everyone should be entitled to put whatever they want in their own bodies  providing it does not effect others in a negative way.  If they have problems they should be offered help as happens for the worst drugs like alcohol and tobacco.  Drugs are readily available – fact.  Drugs dealing supports crime – fact. People will never stop seeking altered states of mind – fact.  Let’s make sure that drugs are controlled for quality, price and availability and those who have problems can rely on treatment without stigma. In the case of cannabis the government has already made it legal.  GW Pharma grow 300 tons of high quality , high potency cannabis every year, concentrate ALL the active ingredients into a spray, bottle it and sell it at huge profit.  They do this with full government backing and it is certified ‘safe and effective’.  If you or I do the same thing we are deemed criminal for producing a drug with no medical application which is dangerous.  Utter hypocrisy designed to protect big pharma profits (or should I say prophets?)  

  • Benedict Carter

    And drugs are ruining whole nations. And you want their use to be liberalised. And you are supposedly a Doctor of Moral Theology. 

    God help us.

  • Oconnord

    You can’t seem to answer the most simple of questions. You try to deflect and prevaricate, or just lie.      

  • Guest

    Criminalisation of drugs is ruining whole nations