Friday, 15 May 2009

Rebutting the Home Office

by Andi Sidwell

I recently read a short quote from a Home Office spokesman:

"Drugs are controlled because they are harmful. The law provides an important deterrent to drug use and legalisation would risk a huge increase in consumption with an associated cost to public health. The legalisation of drugs would not eliminate the crime committed by organised career criminals; such criminals would simply seek new sources of illicit revenue through crime."

I guess to a lot of people the statement above seems pretty straightforward, even obvious. I don't think it is (and took it as a cue to write a facebook note about it, possibly demonstrating my own self-righteousness). The very first sentence — "drugs are controlled because they are harmful" — sounds innocent enough but within it is the entire failing and failed model of international drug law.

In what way are drugs controlled? Is their price controlled? No. Are there age restrictions on who can buy drugs? No. Are the profits from drugs in any way taxed? No. Is the purity of drugs controlled? No. Is their general availability controlled to certain areas or shops, or by a licence? No.

Alcohol can be said to be controlled in all of the ways above. Drugs cannot. It is easier for a fourteen year old to get weed than it is for them to get alcohol— is that what the government means by "control"? The reality is that yes, drugs are controlled, by people who live and work totally under the radar, and not by the government. But the people who control them do so not because they are harmful, but rather because they are profitable. There are dealers out there who sell drugs to get people high rather than to make money, but they are in the vanishing minority; the vast majority of the drugs trade is done soley to make money.

The other fun thing about the statement "drugs are controlled" is that bringing drugs under a regulatory system actually controls drugs more in all the ways listed above, and not less, which is not how the government portray it. They portray moving control of drugs from illegal, unregulated markets to legal, regulated ones as a form of losing control, which I'd hope is fairly obvious that it's not.

And "drugs are harmful". Are all drugs harmful, in even the tiniest measure? No. The government makes paracetamol legal even though it is often used in suicides, yet in small amounts it is amazingly helpful. The government sanctions medical use of morphine, but does not sanction non-medical use (we call it heroin). The blanket statement the Home Office offers belies a complicated reality, where things are not so simple as "drugs are illegal because they are harmful".

For one thing, we have to distinguish between problematic and non-problematic drug use, something the Home Office is not fond of. We know for a fact that there is non-problematic drug use, because 30% of the population of the UK has tried an illegal drug at least once[1], and they're not all suffering major health problems, reefer madness or insanity from it.

Let me ask a few questions. Is someone who smokes a spliff a couple of times a year problematic? Is someone who does couple of lines of cocaine about once a month problematic? Is the person who takes ketamine every couple of nights instead of drinking problematic? Is the heroin user who mugs someone to keep their income up problematic?

These four situations have different answers, probably differing on who you are and your perspective on life, but the answer to all four is not "yes". The current government policy paradim denies there are non-problematic uses of drugs, because it insists that all drug use is harmful, when demonstrably, there is a lot of drug use that isn't. Or at least, isn't any more dangerous than a night of heavy drinking, horse riding[2], driving, living in cities, or being poor; and the governemnt doesn't rush to ban any of these.

Now, what are the main harms of drug use? Are they anything to do with users having no idea what is in the pills or the little packet of powder they get given—and so having no way to know what they're taking or whether it will kill them? Or because dealers have very little incentive to sell high-quality produce? In the case of heroin users, is it harmful because shared needles increase the risk of HIV, and dealers have no incentive to provide clean needles, and without needle exchanges there is no way to get take the drug even remotely safely?

These harms are not caused by the drugs— they are caused by the economic reality of an illegal and unregulated market. If the government regulated drug purity, drug deaths would drop dramatically. Needle exchanges already reduce HIV infection rates. In Portugal five years ago, personal possession of drugs was decriminalised, and the number of overdose deaths dropped by 110/year and the number of new HIV cases from dirty needles by 1000/year[3]. We cannot afford to be moralistic here. People die every day as a result of policies our government pursues, policies which cause the very harms that the government spins them to protect against.

I don't care if you have some kind of hierarchy of substances, whereby alcohol is OK to drink, or maybe cigarettes are, but trippy mushrooms aren't and cocaine is in some way evil, because this isn't about morality and individual tastes. This is about the people that are directly and massively impacted by the current worldwide drug policy, from the people in the countries destabilised by drug cartels and warlords, to the addicts on the street. Tell the people of Colombia, a country destroyed by drugs, that drugs are harmful— they know first hand, and they would benefit most if the trade was legal so their country could recover. Tell the drug mules that drugs are harmful, and remember that it is the illegality of drugs that caused the entire idea of drug mules to come about in the first place. And tell the addicts who die of poor quality drugs that they are harmful, because it is the impurities that kill.

People shouldn't use drugs, you say? Drug use is a reality, always has been, and always will be, and denying that reality and pretending we can make it go away is having massively adverse effects on significant portions of humanity. The moralising approach is killing people. It has to end.

Compare the situation to that of teenage sex. The Bush administration in the US put a lot of effort into promoting an policy of abstinence, where education about sex was minimal and condom use played down. This did nothing to reduce teenage pregnancies or prevent the spread of STIs. The parallel should be clear, since we are repeating the same thing in the drug war. Instead of telling people to stop screwing, we have to reduce the harm of people doing it. Tell them to stop screwing, sure, but don't deliberately stop them using condoms.

Screwing, like people wanting to take drugs, is a basic fact of human existence. We need to look at this dispassionately and compare numbers, not stories, and accept that if there is a massive demand for something, there will be a supply— and we should try and make sure both that the supply and the thing supplied hurt as few people as possible. Instead of thinking we can fundamentally alter human behaviour, we should be looking at how to work with it to stop so many people being harmed in its course.

Which isn't to say that a regulated drugs supply would be problem-free: it wouldn't. It would however effectively remove a lot of current problems. Yes, people could still get addicted, but in a world where you can openly seek help for that without worrying about the police, more people will. Yes, people will still overdose, but in a world where you can't be kicked out of your accomodation for taking drugs there, people will be more likely to seek help when it happens.

And when it comes to the "risk of a huge increase in consumption", ask yourself for a moment where those people would come from. The majority of people who want to try drugs already do, and most of them don't get hooked (remember that 30% statistic— that's how many people in the UK have used an illegal drug at least once). Do you know anyone who would seriously start taking drugs just because they were legal? Have you ever known such a person? In countries where drugs have been decriminalised, they have not found a massive increase in consumption, and in Amsterdam the average age of regular cannabis users is rising.

And if more people do take drugs, then because the police and counts aren't wasting their time and money on users and petty dealers, we will have the money to invest massively in drug research and treatment programmes. If there are serious health risks to taking certain drugs, we will have the money to fund, y'know, proper scientific research on them that isn't interfered with by the poor quality of today's street drugs, and enough money to do proper drug education that doesn't rely on lies or scaremongering.

Legalisation won't be easy and there will be mistakes and cockups and whatnot. Reasonable people can differ on how it should be done. It is, however, the only sustainable option: prohibition isn't. Locking people up and fining them because they take drugs is not the only solution, nor is it the best. The world is more complicated than "drugs are illegal because they are harmful".

So yeah, Home Office spokesman, take that. You're wrong, and I seriously hope you live long enough to see it.


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