30 November 2016

Recreational Drugs and the Law

It ought to be clear by now that people are not going to stop taking drugs recreationally. Prohibition hasn't worked. It won't work. Prohibition never works.

So the question now is, how long are we going to tolerate the supply of, and profit from, recreational drugs being in the hands of multi-billion pound, international criminal gangs? How long do we let our kids and peers buy drugs from criminal gangs, with no standards or guarantees on content or purity, no advice about safe use, and an active discouragement from seeking help with drug problems?

Government policy is supporting the criminal gangs by ensuring that they are the only ones who can supply recreational drugs. Vast amounts of money are wasted on pursuing drug users and drug gangs to almost no effect, since drugs are freely available and we cannot even keep drugs out of our prisons.

Some people advocate harsh prison sentences. This has been tried in the USA where they introduced mandatory minimum sentences. The prison population tripled mainly due to extra sentences given for non-violent drug crimes. The three-strikes rule means that a lot of people have life sentences for non-violent drug crimes. And has drug us abated in the USA as a result? No, it hasn't. In the UK it costs about £50,000 per annum to keep someone in prison. The average wage is just £30,000. Due to budget cuts and privatisation our prisons are dangerously overcrowded and understaffed, and many of the building are suffering from decades of neglect. If we start jailing more drug dealers for longer, where is money going to come from? Where do we put these people? If harsh penalties don't work elsewhere, what makes us think they'll work here? And remember, drugs are freely available in prison.

We've had prohibition for about 100 years. Vast amounts of money (trillions) have been spent on prohibition; hundreds of thousands of people have been killed prosecuting prohibition, millions have been turned into criminals and spent time in jail for trivial drug possession. And nothing has changed.

Governments should be obligated to make rational policies and to abandon policies that are demonstrable unfair, unworkable, ineffective, or harmful.

This does not mean that a small percentage of people who use drugs will not suffer some ill-effects. But guaranteed levels of strength and purity, combined with accurate safety advice, would mitigate most of the accidental harm. Proper education that was practical rather than moralistic would also help. Being able to seek help without fear of criminal prosecution might also mean that problems are less likely to escalate.

Addiction would continue to be a problem for the minority of drug users who get addicted. But such people would no longer be criminals. They could openly seek help. Chronic opiate addicts could be prescribed heroin and past experience tells us that this would be a much more cost effective way of dealing with the problem. Addicts frequently turn to crime to support a habit. Give them drugs that cost us pennies and they stop doing petty crimes that cost us thousands; and we stop locking them up at the cost of tens of thousands. Give them drugs of known strength and purity, clean needles, and counselling if they want it and they most likely stay relatively healthy. They don't burden the health system with serious diseases like AIDS, hepatitis, septicaemia, or accidental overdose. To clean up an addict needs stability and supportive conditions. Not easily found while trying to get money to score drugs from street dealers.

Remove the irrational prohibition from drugs and the therapeutic uses could be explored more easily. Some of these drugs have important effects that could help many people.

Current drug laws are irrational, unfair, unworkable, inefficient, and criminalise a lot of people who are really not criminals. They don't work and cost too much. And there are better ways to reduce the harm from drug use. Not all recreation drug use is drug abuse.

I don't necessarily endorse drug use. Certainly we would still want to restrict children's access to drugs as we do with other things that might harm them. But adults ought to be able to make their own informed decisions about these things. Just as we make our own decisions about who we have sex with, what kinds of sexual practices we enjoy, and who we marry. It's not up to me, or the government, to dictate anyone's lifestyle as long as that lifestyle is broadly compatible with the continued existence, prosperity, and security of society. In the vast majority of cases, no one is harmed by drug use. A lot less people would be harmed if drugs were made safer by being out in the open and regulated. There would be less motivation to seek out alternatives of unknown properties. Make the old favourites freely available and the novelties would be much less attractive.

We've had a century of irrational drug policies and laws. It is time to have rational policies and laws.

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