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Joshua Lachkovic: Conservatives should be for drugs law reform

Twitter Joshua Lachkovic is a freelance writer, blogger, libertarian and Conservative Future member.

There were just one or two members at the Liberal Democrat conference who voted against drugs reform. None of you will be surprised that our Coalition partners are in support of drugs reform. We know that Liberal Democrats are for drugs reform, but as Conservatives, we should be too.

"If we get this right we will have a chance to cut crime, save money, improve the health of the country and even save lives," said David Cameron in 2002 sitting on the Home Affairs Select Committee - and he was right.

Prohibition leads to crime. During alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, bootleggers created and controlled the black market. The same is true today with the drugs market. From creation and transportation, through to sale and then use, we criminalise each step. There are an estimated 2.87 million people in the country who take drugs each year, and 1.57 million people who take drugs at least once a month.

Drug users will always exist and in the eyes of the law, they are all criminals. In Portugal, where drugs were decriminalised in 2001, the rates for drug-related crime have dropped from 44% to 21% in ten years.

Following the riots, David Cameron promised a tougher stance on crime with a "zero tolerance" approach. Zero tolerance, tougher policing, is good, but only if we approach drugs differently. Are we really prepared to criminalise 4.8% of 16-to-59 year-olds? At present, we spend £17 billion a year on the war on drugs. If Britain follows America in terms of policing, then the cost of zero tolerance will escalate dramatically.

A regulated market would bring considerable tax revenue into the country. 

Yet it is not just crime and cost that could drop if we had a bolder approach to drugs. We would, as David Cameron said, "improve the health of the country and even save lives." 

Using Portugal as a model, we know that decriminalisation leads to better health. A study by the Cato Institute found that between 1999 and 2003, drug rehabilitation rose from 6,040 to 14,877 (and fewer addicted drug users reduces the number of those who steal to feed their habits).

Drug-related HIV cases dropped from 1,400 in 2000 to just 400 in 2006. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health (pdf) found that decriminalisation of softer drugs, as with the Netherlands, reduces the chance that users will progress onto harder substances. In all instances of health, the decriminalisation model is far superior to our existing system.

A regulated market could solve many of the issues with drugs such as ecstasy; as adulterated tablets would not be produced or used. With heroin, regulation could ensure that the product was always of the same strength, therefore reducing many of the accidental overdose deaths. 

While drug dealers control the market, teenagers who could not legally purchase alcohol, can purchase drugs with ease. This is immoral and dangerous.

I'd like to answer as well, a few of the concerns often raised with either a decriminalised or legalised market.

Drug use would dramatically rise

We should again consider Portugal. While it is true that the number of those who had ever tried drugs increased by around 5%, the number of people who take drugs at least once a year only raised by 0.3% in the six years between 2001 and 2007. This is a very minor increase and certainly disproves the idea that usage would dramatically increase.

The country would become a drugs hotspot for tourists

The same fears were expressed in Portugal prior to decriminalisation, and yet less than 5% of those with drug misdemeanours after decriminalisation were not Portuguese.

Drugs are dangerous and so they should be illegal

This leads onto my final argument for reform: liberty. Alcohol and tobacco are commonly recognised as more dangerous than many illegal drugs and almost all recreational drugs. Yet they are both legal. We should be free to choose what to do with our bodies and any restriction on the contrary, is the nannying government that we as conservatives oppose.

We need dramatic reform to the drugs policy in this country. Our Coalition partners passed a motion at their conference this weekend, that said the same, and we need to back them every step of the way. Our drugs laws are out-dated, they are based upon fear and routinely ignore science. The war on drugs and their prohibition has resolutely failed.

It is time for a change in the way we deal with the issue. Our Prime Minister was right nine years ago when he said a new approach could cut crime, save money, improve the health of the country and save lives. It is high time that we, as Conservatives, recognise this, follow in the footsteps of our Liberal Democrat partners, and start the debate on drugs reform.

> Also today we've published an alternative view on drugs policy from Ryan Bourne of the Centre for Policy Studies.


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