SO FAR this year, about 4000 people have died in Mexico’s drugs war – a horrifying toll. If only a good fairy could wave a magic wand and make all illegal drugs disappear, the world would be a better place.
Dream on. Recreational drug use is as old as humanity, and has not been stopped by the most draconian laws. Given that drugs are here to stay, how do we limit the harm they do?
The evidence suggests most of the problems stem not from drugs themselves, but from the fact that they are illegal. The obvious answer, then, is to make them legal.
The argument most often deployed in support of the status quo is that keeping drugs illegal curbs drug use among the law-abiding majority, thereby reducing harm overall. But a closer look reveals that this really doesn’t stand up. In the UK, as in many countries, the real clampdown on drugs started in the late 1960s, yet government statistics show that the number of heroin or cocaine addicts seen by the health service has grown ever since – from around 1000 people per year then, to 100,000 today. It is a pattern that has been repeated the world over.
A second approach to the question is to look at whether fewer people use drugs in countries with stricter drug laws. In 2008, the World Health Organization looked at 17 countries and found no such correlation. The US, despite its punitive drug policies, has one of the highest levels of drug use in the world (PLoS Medicine, vol 5, p e141).
A third strand of evidence comes from what happens when a country softens its drug laws, as Portugal did in 2001. While dealing remains illegal in Portugal, personal use of all drugs has been decriminalised. The result? Drug use has stayed roughly constant, but ill health and deaths from drug taking have fallen. “Judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalisation framework has been a resounding success,” states a recent report by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington DC.
By any measure, making drugs illegal fails to achieve one of its primary objectives. But it is the unintended consequences of prohibition that make the most compelling case against it. Prohibition fuels crime in many ways: without state aid, addicts may be forced to fund their habit through robbery, for instance, while youngsters can be drawn into the drugs trade as a way to earn money and status. In countries such as Colombia and Mexico, the profits from illegal drugs have spawned armed criminal organisations whose resources rival those of the state. Murder, kidnapping and corruption are rife.
Making drugs illegal also makes them more dangerous. The lack of access to clean needles for drug users who inject is a major factor in the spread of lethal viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C.
So what’s the alternative? There are several models for the legal provision of recreational drugs. They include prescription by doctors, consumption at licensed premises or even sale on a similar basis to alcohol and tobacco, with health warnings and age limits. If this prospect appals you, consider the fact that in the US today, many teenagers say they find it easier to buy cannabis than beer.
Taking any drug – including alcohol and nicotine – does have health risks, but a legal market would at least ensure that the substances people ingest or inject are available unadulterated and at known dosages. Much of the estimated $300 billion earned from illegal drugs worldwide, which now funds crime, corruption and environmental destruction, could support legitimate jobs. And instead of spending tens of billions enforcing prohibition, governments would gain income from taxes that could be spent on medical treatment for the small proportion of users who become addicted or whose health is otherwise harmed.
Unfortunately, the idea that banning drugs is the best way to protect vulnerable people – especially children – has acquired a strong emotional grip, one that politicians are happy to exploit. For many decades, laws and public policy have flown in the face of the evidence. Far from protecting us, this approach has made the world a much more dangerous place than it need be.