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4 May 2021

Why drugs should be not only decriminalised, but fully legalised

The “War on Drugs” has failed. It’s time that governments, not gangsters, run the drug market.

By Michael Plant

Forty years ago, Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one”. This marked the start of the “War on Drugs”, a global escalation in police and military efforts to crack down on drug users and the illicit drug trade.

In the past four decades, three things have become clear. First, the War on Drugs has not been won. Although a 1998 UN special session aimed to create “a drug-free world” by 2008, illicit drugs are still plainly available today in nearly every town and city in the world. In fact, a 2013 paper in the British Medical Journal found that, between 1990 and 2007, the prices of heroin, cocaine and cannabis in the US dropped by over 80 per cent while their purity increased. The story was similar for Europe and Australia.

Second, the War on Drugs cannot be won. People take drugs hoping to feel pleasure and soothe their distress. These desires are not going away. People who want drugs are not deterred by criminal sanctions either: a 2014 report by the UK’s Home Office did not find “any obvious relationship between the toughness of a country’s enforcement against drug possession, and levels of drug use in that country”. It is also effectively impossible to stop the supply of such profitable products – a kilo of cocaine can be bought in Colombia for $1,500 but sells for 40 times that on American streets. Enforcement suffers from the “balloon effect” : successfully squeezing production in one area merely moves it elsewhere.

Third, the War on Drugs is expensive. The US alone has spent over $1trn on drug enforcement. Then there are the costs measured in human suffering: one-fifth of the US prison population, 450,000 people, are incarcerated for a drug offence. These sentences have lifelong effects. In Mexico, attempts to tackle drug trafficking organisations led to an escalation in violence, with 150,000 deaths since 2006. In the Philippines, up to 20,000 people supposedly involved in the drug trade have died in extrajudicial killings.

It’s increasingly obvious to the public that the War on Drugs has failed and a new approach is required. In the UK, one poll found over two-thirds think criminal punishments are ineffective at deterring drug users or sellers; another poll found twice as many support cannabis legalisation as oppose it. Fifty-five per cent of Americans support decriminalisation – removing criminal penalties for possessing small quantities of drugs – and last November, voters in Oregon approved ballot Measure 110, making it the first state to move toward decriminalisation.

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In light of the points above, whether using drugs – in itself and independently of how the drugs are obtained – is good or bad is beside the point: people do take drugs and the War on Drugs is an expensive, ineffective and extremely harmful policy for stopping them. Therefore, the question is this: given that the War on Drugs has failed, how should drug policy be reformed?

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Decriminalisation, the obvious first step, has several major benefits. Drug addicts can ask for help knowing they will not be penalised for their actions. Recreational users will no longer go to prison for the innocuous offence of trying to have a good time, and governments will save substantial sums on enforcement.

A natural, and understandable, worry people have is that decriminalisation will increase drug use, leading to crime, addiction and deaths. This fear does not seem to be borne out by the facts. Portugal decriminalised all drugs in 2001. A 2010 academic study found reductions in problematic use (defined as injecting drugs or regular use of opioids, cocaine and/or amphetamines) and drug-related harms, such as deaths and new HIV infections  – further evidence that few users are deterred by criminal sanctions.

The issue with decriminalisation, however, is that it leaves the drugs trade in the hands of criminals, affecting users but not the trade itself. Drug trafficking is a big business – the UN estimates it’s worth 1.5 per cent of global GDP. While the risks of consuming banned substances are regularly discussed, the harms caused by the trade in illicit drugs are enormous and often overlooked.

Cocaine, for example, is produced from the leaves of the coca plant, which grows in mountainous regions of Central and South American countries. Many of these regions will be under de facto control of cartels, control that is necessarily maintained by a combination of force and corruption.

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Pablo Escobar, who ran the Colombian Medellin cartel in the 1980s and 1990s, exemplifies the power and corrosive influence of criminal syndicates in drug-producing countries. He famously offered government officials “plata o plomo” – “silver or lead” – in their first week in office: they could either accept bribes or face the threat of bullets. Not surprisingly, many opted for the silver.

Once the coca leaves are collected, they are processed to produce a white powder – cocaine – which is then smuggled to the destination country. Once there, it will be distributed by organised gangs who are enriched and empowered by the trade. They resort to violence to defend their market share from other gangs, and sometimes to bribery to defend it from the police. Finally, the cocaine reaches the end user, who pays for it.

The greatest ills associated with the illicit drug trade are a direct product of its illegality, not of the nature of the substances being sold. Americans are not killing each other to sell alcohol, although they did just that in the Prohibition era of the early 20th century. It was only the end of Prohibition that put gangsters like Al Capone out of business.

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Ending the misery caused by the drug trade requires full legalisation – making it legal to produce, transport and sell currently illicit drugs – not just decriminalisation. The major barrier to reform is uncertainty about how a legal market would work.

One option would be the unconditional and unregulated legalisation of all currently illegal drugs. This would allow children to pop into a shop for a chocolate bar and a bag of heroin. Obviously, this is a terrible idea. It’s debatable whether, and to what extent, an unregulated legal market for drugs would be an improvement on what we currently have – an unregulated illegal market.

There is a better option: a regulated market, much as we have for alcohol and tobacco, with controls on who can buy what, when, where and how. It provides the flexibility to treat different drugs differently, thereby minimising the harms of drug consumption and ending those associated with the illicit drug trade.

A recent report from Transform, a UK think tank, points out there is already a range of existing regulatory frameworks used to manage legal recreational and medical drugs that currently illicit substances could be slotted in to. The report identifies five models for distributing drugs.

Supervised use: drugs are provided and taken under medical supervision only. This is used for some opiate maintenance programmes already, most famously in Switzerland, where addicts are given heroin to inject on site.

Pharmacy sales: drugs available on prescription or to registered users.

Licensed premises: vendors are licensed to sell drugs that are consumed on site, just as bars do for alcohol, and “coffee shops” do for cannabis in the Netherlands.

Licensed sales: vendors sell drugs for off-premises consumption, as happens with alcohol and tobacco, the sale of which is restricted by age.

Unlicensed sales: low-risk substances sold without a licence, and managed under existing food and drink regulations, as tea and coffee are.

Drugs could be allotted to each category based on the principle that substances with the potential to do more harm should be more restricted. Heroin, for example, would likely be for supervised use only, whereas cannabis might be distributed via licensed premises and sales.

Regulation can and should be realistic and adaptable, altering over time to reduce harm and eventually, over years, moving all trade across to the licit market where it can be controlled and taxed. This is necessarily a balancing act: if it’s too hard or expensive for consumers to buy their preferred drugs legally, the black market will persist. If it’s too easy or cheap, there could be greater substance abuse. Transitioning to licit drug markets is feasible: the US did it for alcohol in 1933 when Prohibition ended, and is doing it again now for cannabis.

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The main objection to moving to a regulated drug market is that this will make drugs easier to acquire, leading to an explosion in problematic use. In fact, moving to a legal, regulated market promises society greater control. It is often easier for teenagers to buy illegal drugs, like cannabis and MDMA, than legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, whose sale is regulated and age-restricted.

Like decriminalisation, legalisation is unlikely to radically alter consumption. The Netherlands effectively legalised cannabis in 1974 but has equivalent or lower annual usage rates than those of its (non-legalising) neighbours and about half those in the US. Plus, if drug consumption is deemed too high once it becomes legal and the black market has dwindled, governments can lower it by raising taxes.

Drugs can bring pleasure; drugs can be dangerous. They should be in the hands of doctors, pharmacists and regulated retailers, not criminals. Legalising drugs would make drug use safer, but the bigger impact of moving to a regulated drug market is that it would end the chaos, violence and corruption caused by the criminal networks that run the illicit drug trade. The War on Drugs has been fought. It has been lost. It’s high time for reform.

Michael Plant is the founder-director of the Happier Lives Institute and a research fellow at the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford.

Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His books include Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics and The Life You Can Save.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, senior research Fellow in philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.