BRITAIN Shopping for a drugs policy
Britain's Labour government wants to do a better job of tackling the problem of illegal drugs. How about legalising them?
Marijuana's medical uses
COPYING other countries' successes can be a good idea. Copying their failures is daft. But that seems to be the British government's intention when it comes to the problem of illegal drug use. Two weeks ago, Tony Blair, not for the first time going where America has gone before, invited applications for a new post of drugs "tsar", to take charge of cleaning things up.
On the same day, in a blatant bid for street-cred, Mr Blair welcomed Noel Gallagher, star of the rock band "Oasis", to a Downing Street party for some of Britain's performing artists. It was Mr Gallagher who famously said that taking drugs was "like having a cup of tea in the morning".
Nobody has accused Tony Blair of putting a spliff to his lips, let alone inhaling. But the contrasting signals sent out by these two events suggest that his thinking on the issue is at least as muddled as that in the White House. Neither the British prime minister nor the American president wishes to be seen to be "soft on drugs", but neither gives the impression that, in his heart of hearts, he actually believes there is much wrong with them, at least when used by the successful. What troubles them-quite rightly-are the drugs-related problems of the inner cities.
The drugs-related murder this month of a five-year-old child in Bolton has led to calls for Mr Blair to adopt a very different policy on illegal drugs to America's. Brian Iddon, one of the town's Labour MPs, has called for a Royal Commission to consider drug legalisation. Several of his colleagues agreed. Moreover, the Liberal Democrats have long advocated a review of drugs law, and several prominent Tories have shown a desire for fresh thinking-most notably Alan Duncan, the party's new chief spin-doctor, who has argued with vigour for drug legalisation. A growing number of the "great and good", from police chiefs to church leaders, want a new approach, too. This suggests that there now exists an opportunity to build a cross-party coalition for change strong enough to defeat the failed prohibitionism hitherto supported by most ordinary Britons.
Any debate on drugs law should start with a fundamental question: why are some drugs illegal in the first place?
The usual answer is that illegal drugs are illegal because they are dangerous. The figures, though, do not really bear that out. The danger varies widely from drug to drug. The least risky is cannabis, which has never been shown to have killed anybody (indeed, it is widely canvassed for its medical properties, see article). The most dangerous are opiates (ie, heroin and methadone), which kill about 1.5% of their users each year, according to London's Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence. Tobacco kills 0.9% of its users each year and alcohol 0.5% of them. Ecstasy, about which there has been huge controversy, kills 0.0002% of its users each year. A motorbike journey is three times as likely to kill you as taking a tablet of street ecstasy and-astonishingly-flying on a civil airliner is one-and-a-half times as dangerous as dropping an "e".
A second response is that illegal drugs are addictive, and so the rules about freedom of choice do not really apply: legalise them and millions of people might become hooked, suffering long-term damage to their health (particularly their brains) even if they do not die as a result.
There is some truth in this-at least for opiates-but no more than for alcohol and nicotine, which are both notoriously habit-forming. The physiology and psychology of addiction are imperfectly understood, but if addictiveness is truly the criterion for a ban, then booze and cigarettes should be banned, not cannabis and ecstasy.
A further argument is that drug-taking is not a private matter, but has social consequences. True, again-but not enough to justify the current list of illegal drugs. The National Health Service has to cope with many accidents and diseases that are largely self-inflicted (not least from tobacco and alcohol). Those caused by illegal drugs are a small fraction of them.
Against these arguments, the case for legalisation comes in two parts: the ideological and the pragmatic. In principle, in a free society, people (adults, at least) should not be prevented from doing something if it does not harm others. If they harm themselves, provided that they have not been deceived into doing so, that ought to be their problem, not the state's.
The pragmatic case is multifaceted. First, prohibition has failed. Over 60% of British 20-22-year-olds say they have used an illegal drug, almost half of them in the past three months. Even the Draconian anti-drug laws in America have not stemmed the flow of drugs. Why not try a new approach, if only as an experiment?
Legalisation would, if accompanied with suitable regulations, result in a safer product. Many drug-related deaths and injuries are caused by the use of adulterated materials or, more rarely, stuff that is stronger than the user realises.
And legalisation would stop the police and Customs & Excise from wasting time and money chasing users and traffickers. It could cut Britain's prison population by up to 10% at a stroke by ending the imprisonment of those convicted of possession or dealing. By cutting the price of drugs, it would mean fewer crimes caused by the need to pay the current inflated prices (although, almost certainly, lower prices would mean more drug use, too). Reducing the risks and profits that proscription brings to traders might eliminate the violence that often accompanies drug dealing.
As well as the money saved from not having to enforce anti-drug laws-£500m ($780m) in Britain last year-the drug trade would provide a source of revenue for the government. Four-fifths of the price of a packet of cigarettes is tax, and so is 60% of the price of a bottle of whisky. Similar levels of taxation would no doubt apply to newer entrants to the legal recreational-drugs market. Customs & Excise seized more than £500m worth of smuggled drugs in 1996 (and several times that amount are thought to have got through), and around £250m worth of ecstasy was sold in Britain last year. Even though legalisation would bring the price down, tax revenues of between £500m and £1 billion might be realised.
It is possible that the world would be a better place if nobody took anything that could harm them. Failing that, the least-worst outcome may well be one in which most, if not all, of the popular recreational drugs are legally available, and where people understand the risks associated with them, just as they (supposedly) understand the risks of alcohol and tobacco.
Getting there would not be easy, and the journey should be undertaken gradually. Ideally, the established regimes for alcohol and tobacco would be replicated, with licensed sales-outlets and minimum ages of purchase. For synthetic drugs such as ecstasy, licensing manufacturers to ensure the purity of their products would be wise.
The question of product liability would be best left to civil law. The balance between caveat emptor and caveat vendor would have to be slugged out in the courts, as is now happening with tobacco. But, beyond making sure firms keep to the terms of their licences (particularly on the question of sales to children), the government could reasonably leave well alone.
Initially, the new licences should be restricted to cannabis and ecstasy, as these are the most widely used and also the safest substances. There would also be a wider consensus supporting this limited action because many of those who argue for legalising "soft" drugs do so in the hope that it would stop people coming into contact with street traders who peddle the more dangerous materials. If the experiment worked, it could be extended.
Such gradualism would also allow for a necessary shift in attitudes, so that currently illegal drugs come to be regarded in the same light as their cousins, tobacco and alcohol. Both of these substances have well-established conventions for their use, and these conventions limit their social side-effects. No-smoking areas are accepted as legitimate by most people. Drinking in the morning is usually frowned upon. Driving under the influence of, say, cannabis, would have to carry the same stigma (and sentence) as driving under the influence of alcohol. Such shifts in etiquette have happened before-the introduction of cigarettes changed many of the conventions that surrounded the smoking of tobacco.
Legalisation would certainly be a leap in the dark. There would be unpredictable consequences as well as predictable ones. But that does not argue for doing nothing, or talking tougher. Tony Blair wants to make his mark on a wider stage than that provided by Britain. Why not show the world that the best way to deal with drugs is to topple the tsar and embrace freedom?
(c) Copyright 1997 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All Rights Reserved
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