Thursday, 6 March 2014

Ending the war on drugs

In this article I am going to argue that the "war on drugs" has been a catastrophic failure, and that it is about time the UK adopted a more scientific and evidence based approach to dealing with the inevitable use of substances which are currently prohibited by law.

The Americans were by no means the first country to dabble with the authoritarian idea of attempting to control public behaviour by prohibiting the consumption of specific substances, but they were the first great power with the economic might to turn their experiment in crude authoritarianism into a global orthodoxy.

Inspired by a fervour of moralistic puritanism and driven on by clear vested interests, the Americans set in motion the greatest tide of prohibitionist legislation in human history. The biggest wave of prohibitionist legislation came as part of the fightback against the youth counter-cultures of the 1960s and 1970s, and these authoritarian rules have been strengthened many times over by governments across the globe attempting to impress the reactionary elements of the press with their "tough on crime" posturing.

The "UK war on drugs"
The foundation stone of the prohibitionist laws in the UK is the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 which divides the different kinds of proscribed drugs into three completely arbitrary categories. The Act has been amended many times over the years to add ever more drugs to the list of prohibited substances.

One of the most notable additions to the list of proscribed substances was the extremely rapid classification of MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy) as a class A drug, as the establishment reacted against the rave culture of the 1980s. The evidence on MDMA is very clear, it is a relatively safe drug that actually has a lot of potential in the treatment of mental health conditions such as depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The thing that makes MDMA a "killer drug" is that it is supplied in irregular and often contaminated doses, often to naive and inexperienced youngsters, on the unregulated criminal black market.

Another highly contentious classification is that of psilocybin mushrooms (magic mushrooms) in the Class A group, alongside heroin, crack, cocaine and crystal meth. People have used naturally occurring psilocybin mushrooms since ancient prehistory. Research has shown that the effects of psilocybin include the development of feelings of powerful spiritual significance and a very long-lasting sense of well being. As with all substances, there are potentially adverse side effects such as mild paranoia, however in comparison with the utterly devastating effect of other drugs such as street heroin, crack and ketamine (which for some unfathomable reason is in the lowest Class C group), the negative effects of psilocybin are extremely negligible, especially given the fact that it is barely addictive.

In 2005 a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee described the way substances are classified under the law as "arbitrary" "unscientific" and "based on historical assumptions, not scientific assessment". The report was especially critical of the classification of psilocybin mushrooms amongst the most dangerous and harmful substances and it concluded that a more scientific approach to drug classification should be taken.

As the head of the head of The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) the British psychiatrist and neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt took up the challenge to develop a more rigorous and scientifically valid set of criteria for drug classification.

What professor Nutt came up with was hardly surprising stuff on the whole. His study showed that life wrecking drugs like street heroin, crack, cocaine and barbiturates are by far the most dangerous and addictive drugs; alcohol and cigarettes occupy the middle ground, whilst several currently illegal drugs such as cannabis, MDMA, psilocybin mushrooms and LSD turn out to be only mildly addictive and relatively safe.

The New Labour administration reacted with fury to these findings and worked tirelessly to drive professor Nutt out of his job for daring to question the orthodox ideology. One of the most extraordinary aspects to this furious response from the government was the truly absurd accusation that David Nutt was guilty of creating "confusion" with his scientifically grounded advice. Here's what Alan Johnson (the Home Secretary at the time) said in his letter demanding Nutt's resignation:
"I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy and have therefore lost confidence in your ability to advise me as chair of the ACMD" [source]
The idea that the source of "confusion" was Nutt's scientific advice rather than the arbitrary and unscientific government policy (driven largely by tabloid hysteria) is so backwards it would be laughable if it weren't so serious. What is the point of parliament seeking independent scientific advice on an issue only to sack the man responsible when they don't like the findings?

After making the clearest demonstration imaginable that UK drugs policy is based on ideology rather than sound reasoning, the UK establishment has slipped back into the reactionary groove. Alan Johnson conducted an ideological purge of the AMCD, with several eminent scientists and experts forced into resignation by the intransigent attitude of the government.

Since the Tories came to power they have followed the same agenda of ideological authoritarianism, even going as far as banning Khat, which David Nutt's research had classified as the least addictive substance on the whole drugs spectrum.

It seemed like the UK system was simply going to revert back to type, the same old ideologically driven hysterical moral puritanism taking precedence over rational analysis, but in February 2014 a petition initiated by the Green MP Caroline Lucas received enough signatures for parliament to consider her proposal that a thorough cost-benefit analysis on the prohibitionist drug regime should be conducted.

Such a cost-benefit analysis could potentially be the the starting point in the move towards liberalisation and a more rational/pragmatic approach to substance use. Given the growing global trend towards liberalisation (detailed in the next section) the idea of liberailisation in the UK seems a lot less outlandish than in decades gone by. The thing that will determine the success of rational drugs policy will be the public demand for it. If hundreds of people write to their MPs to request that they adopt a rational evidence based approach to drugs policy, they'll be far more likely to do it than if people don't bother.

International liberalisation

Undoubtedly the most famous example of drugs liberalisation can be seen in the Netherlands. Most people know that the Netherlands have liberal marijuana laws, but fewer know that since the laws were liberalised, the use of more dangerous and addictive drugs in Dutch society has fallen. Their experiment has been such a success that several other European countries (including Belgium and Germany) have considered the introduction of Dutch style cannabis laws.

There are other examples of substance liberalisation strategies elsewhere in Europe. In 2000-2001 Portugal enacted legislation to decriminalise the possession of small quantities of drugs. Many of the statistical indicators that suggest this policy has been successful in reducing drug related harms include: A reduction in the number of adolescent drug users; A reduction in HIV infection rates amongst drug users; A reduction in the number of drug related deaths; Increased take-up of treatment; A reduction in the drug related crime workload in the criminal justice system; And a significant decrease in the street value of most street drugs.

Many of the most progressive drug liberalisation strategies can be witnessed in South America. In 2009 the Argentine Supreme Court passed a landmark ruling that it is unconstitutional for the state to prosecute civilians for their own personal consumption on the basis that citizens should be free to make lifestyle choices without the interference of the state.

Before he was removed from office by a right-wing coup d'etat, the President of Honduras Manuel Zelaya had called on the United Nations to legalise drugs in order to reduce the alarming levels of drug gang murders in central American states that are used as staging posts in the global drug smuggling trade.

Uruguay was one of a tiny minority of countries never to criminalise the possession of drugs for personal use. In late 2013 Uruguay became the first nation state to officially legalise the sale of cannabis.

One of the greatest ironies in the global move towards drugs liberalisation is that after pushing their policy of moralistic prohibitionism across the globe, the United States is one of leaders in the move towards liberalisation. The sale of medical marijuana has become accepted policy in 17 states already, and in November 2012 the people of Colorado voted for theirs to become the first US state to legalise the sale of recreational marijuana, with proceeds from marijuana taxes to be used to fund the education system.

It is absolutely clear from the examples I've provided that there is a growing trend towards liberalisation, and that any countries that follow the trend now are unlikely to be treated as international pariahs.

The economics of the "war on drugs"

One of the major problems in conducting economic analysis of the "war on drugs" is that due to the illegality of the market, it is essentially impossible to provide completely accurate economic data. There are plenty of estimates from either side of the debate (prohibition supporters and liberalisers), however it is difficult to accept any of their figures at face value, given the inherent opacity of the illegal market and the fact that so many estimates are produced by agenda driven organisations. Therefore I have decided against cherry-picking specific estimates and conducting a rudimentary counting exercise, in favour of presenting the potential cost savings that could be achieved through liberalisation.

Petty crime: The biggest cost associated with moralistic prohibitionism is crime. Tens of thousands of people who are addicted to substances like street heroin and crack cocaine resort to crimes such as burglary, shoplifting, pick-pocketing and muggings in order to pay the extortionate black market prices that these drugs command. It has been shown time and again that treatment (rather than punishment) results in dramatically reduced crime rates. If extremely addictive drugs were made available on prescription, then the crime rate would fall dramatically, meaning a huge improvement in economic and social well being.

Insurance: Given that a huge percentage of burglaries are conducted by drug addicts seeking cash for their next fix, provision of prescription drugs instead would dramatically cut the rate, and therefore result in falling in home insurance policies (especially in high crime inner city areas).

Organised crime: The illegal drugs market is a fundamental source of revenue to criminal gangs. If the majority of drugs were fully legalised (or made available through prescriptions in the case of highly addictive substances) these criminal gangs would lose their market share. If you support prohibitionism, you support the criminal gangs that run the illegal drugs market.

Terrorism: It is undeniable that terrorists use the illegality of the drugs market in order to make money for their cause (just look at Afghanistan). Bringing the drugs market under regulation would cut off a significant source of untraceable revenue for terrorist organisations.

Enforcement: The cost of enforcing ideologically driven prohibitionism laws is absolutely enormous. Not only do the police waste billions each year fighting their losing battle against the drugs market, but hundreds of thousands of hours of court time is wasted on dealing with non-violent drugs offenders too.

Imprisonment: The cost of keeping a non-violent drugs offender in jail is £40,000 per year, and the cost of building each additional prison place is £119,000 per year. This is all money that could be spent on more sensible things. Another positive aspect to not locking up thousands of non-violent drug users is that more prison spaces would be made available to keep people who are a genuine danger to society (violent offenders, paedophiles, rapists etc).

Health consequences: The use of drugs that are supplied in irregular and often contaminated doses on the black market, and the sharing of needles are factors that create terrible health consequences, the costs of which are borne by the taxpayer. If drugs were properly regulated, the number of overdoses and toxic reactions would be cut dramatically, meaning NHS staff would be free to focus more of their time and resources on other things.

Preventable deaths: The supply of drugs in irregular and often contaminated doses on the black market result in hundreds of deaths per year. If you support moralistic prohibitionism, you essentially believe that these people deserve to die. A more rational (and humanitarian) drugs policy would be to make sure that drug users are not killed by irregular or contaminated doses, and to focus on education and rehabilitation. Teenagers and young adults will always be tempted to try mood-altering substances (especially in a society where alcoholism is rife), so it is better to make sure that they can experiment safely and survive to become productive members of society, rather than die because some unscrupulous criminal sold them a contaminated dose.

Lost tax revenues: If recreational drugs were regulated and taxed, the potential revenues would be significant. The vast majority of recreational drug users would prefer to buy their drugs from a regulated retailer and pay tax on the purchase, rather than spending their money in the criminal black market. The potential tax revenues from selling drugs like cannabis, magic mushrooms and ecstasy would more than cover the cost of regulation, education and rehabilitation, meaning £billions in extra revenues to invest in valuable areas of the economy, or to reduce the budget deficit.

Employment: The transaction tax on the sale of drugs wouldn't be the only source of additional government revenue. As the drugs trade is shifted from the black market to the real economy, more and more people working in the drugs market would migrate into legitimate employment (licenced producers, chemists, pharmacists, cannabis cafes, regulatory agencies ...) meaning increasing tax revenues via income tax and NI contributions as the number of people employed in the tax-exempt black market is reduced.

Public safety: The demand for cannabis has resulted in the creation of thousands of makeshift cannabis factories in residential neighbourhoods all over the UK. Many of these unsafe and unregulated factories burn down due to electrical fires. If the production of cannabis was regulated in a sensible way (ordinary people can grow a few plants in their shed, mass producers would have to follow industrial regulations and health and safety law) scores of house fires would be prevented every year.

The case for liberalisation

Supporters of the prohibitionist regime love to create the straw-man argument that those that favour drug liberalisation want some kind of lunatic free-for-all, where heroin and crack cocaine are put on supermarket shelves alongside kids sweets and fizzy pop. Nobody is actually arguing for that, it's just a pathetic tactic to discredit the voices of reason.

A sensible drug liberalisation strategy would be to legalise relatively safe drugs (cannabis, psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA, khat, mephedrone ... ) for sale in licensed establishments. More dangerous drugs (heroin, crack, ketamine, crystal meth ...) would only be available on prescription.

I'd want the decision over which substances fall into either category (sold to adults on licenced premeses or prescription only) to be made by a scientifically grounded cost-benefit analysis.

For naturally occurring substances like cannabis and psilocybin mushrooms, it would make sense to allow individuals and/or small community groups to produce a limited supply for personal consumption (but not for commercial sale).

There would still have to be enforceable laws to regulate the drugs trade, some of the most important offences would be:
  • Supplying controlled substances to children.
  • Supplying contaminated drugs.
  • Tax avoidance (selling drugs without paying tax on the proceeds).
  • Drug driving (to be treated in the same way as drink driving, with bans, fines or imprisonment).
  • Unlawful supply of prescription only drugs.
  • Production and/or distribution of controlled substances without a licence.
A liberalisation strategy like this would be socially and economically beneficial. The main benefit would be the transference of the sizable drugs economy from the untaxed and unregulated black market to the legitimate market. Other socio-economic benefits would include reduced crime, increased public safety, reduced law enforcement costs, increased tax revenues and increased provision of education and rehabilitation facilities.


The ideological "war on drugs" has been a catastrophic failure. If anyone argues against that, they're not arguing against an opinionated assertion, they're arguing against observable reality.

It is high time the UK took a rational, evidence based approach to the subject of substance use, with an emphasis on reducing socio-economic harms.

The reactionary core of authoritarian politicians and the right-wing media will kick up an awful stink about it. The vested interests (people involved in the drugs black market, the breweries and tobacco companies, drug enforcement employees) will also try to argue against evidence based analysis, but if we are to have any hope for humanity at all, we must believe that the evidence will eventually  win out over ideological posturing and vested self-interest.

What you can do

If you believe it is about time the UK abandoned the ideologically driven "war on drugs" in favour of a more rational and scientifically grounded approach to substance use, you should write to your MP.

In your letter you should:

You can find contact details for your MP here:
Find Your MP

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More articles from
The case for ... evidence based policy
The Tory ideological mission
The contrasting fates of Alan Turing and Lord Sempill
The incompatibility of Christian ethics and modern Conservatism
Richard Dawkins and the far-right extremists
The republican science-deniers
The Tory "War on Justice"
The JP Morgan plan for Europe
         David Cameron's Orwellian word games



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