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Matthew Barrett: Time to end the "War on Drugs"? I'm still waiting for it to start.

By Matthew Barrett
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Calls for the legalisation of drugs in Britain are repetitive. Prohibition has failed! The government must end the War on Drugs! There are liberals in favour of legalisation on the left. There are libertarians in favour of legalisation on the right. Both say Britain (or the West)'s terrifying crackdown on illegal drugs has been tried for 40 years, and has failed miserably. 

There are arguments in favour of legalising drugs. There is the argument that we should allow Britons to smoke, snort, swallow or inject whatever they like. Do whatever you want in your own home as long as it's not hurting anyone else sort of thing. There is the argument that drug users are not criminals but victims, and they must be helped by not attaching stigma to them. There are also arguments against legalising drugs. I seek not to deal with the issue of legalisation itself, but of the current situation.

In Mexico there is what could be described as a war between the Mexican state and the drugs cartels that operate in that country. That conflict spills over the American border. Critics of British drugs laws are all too quick to point to the situation in those countries, and call British drug policies, and those of the West in general a "war" against drugs. But legalisers on both left and right ignore a rather important point: the "war" label is a red herring, and the language used to describe Britain's response to drugs is extremely misleading. Britain has never had a "War on Drugs" (See Peter Hitchens' new book, "The War We Never Fought").

We currently have a system where the production and sale of illegal drugs is punished to some degree, but there exists an intensely relaxed system for the personal use of the same drugs. The legal establishment, law enforcement and political class regard personal drug use as a small pleasure, which many teenagers and some adults will experiment with, and should be allowed to do so as part of the natural growing up process, or for coping with boring everyday life. That creates an organised hypocrisy whereby our politicians tell us drugs are wrong and evil, and destroy lives, but then do nothing to prevent the personal use of illegal drugs.

This view of widespread drug usage as inevitable is precisely what motivates many legalisers. We will all end up experimenting with drugs, or enjoying a bit of cannabis now and then, so we might as well end the drugs war now and admit it has failed, they say. But what we have at present is the unsatisfactory settlement I described above - an effectively legalised regime for personal drug users, and especially for cannabis users. And it's not just cannabis users, but cannabis dealers who have it pretty easy: seizures of cannabis have fallen by 34% over the last ten years. Critics of British drugs policy are, effectively, criticising a regime that is extremely lenient and relaxed towards personal drug use.

At present young drug users are not punished for committing an illegal act, but "supported". We have a "harm-reduction" policy, not a usage-reduction policy. The British state no longer believes in abstinence as a route to leaving drug addiction, it believes in addiction management, designed to reduce criminal activity outside of drugs. The government has seen methadone as the cure for far too many problems - not only has it effectively legalised the personal use of a number of drugs, but with methadone, the state has become a drug dealer itself.

A 2009 Centre for Policy Studies report (pdf) on the British drugs trade revealed that we spend...

"...only £380 million a year – or 28% of the total drugs budget – attempting to control the supply of drugs (over £800 million is spent on treatment programmes and reducing drug-related crime). Only five boats now patrol the UK’s 7,750 mile coastline."

We spend hundreds of millions on a ridiculously small-scale attempt to intercept drugs as they enter the country, and then spend hundreds of millions more on "treatment programmes" for addicts. The state pays hardly any attention, with either words or actions, to the fact that something takes place in between the importation of illegal drugs, and the addiction to drugs of hundreds of thousands of people in Britain.

Britain's drugs usage - and the problem of illegal drugs in general - is a problem without a perfect solution. Legalise drugs and, legalisers say, you will save on (relatively low) policing costs. You might do that, but you won't save on long-term health costs, nor on Saturday night policing/ambulance/hospital costs, nor on the long-term costs of millions of your workforce rendered physically or mentally feeble by legalised drugs. Even if you only legalise part of the drugs market, such as cannabis, consumption will increase, and the drug dealers' products will become part-legal, part-illegal.

The undoubtedly necessary solutions to that problem are best left for another discussion. However, proper and comprehensive solutions to the drugs problem will not materialise unless the legalisers and the establishment acknowledge that what we have now is not a failed strategy, but a relaxed regime devoid of a coherent strategy - and that can only worsen Britain's problem with drugs. For the meantime, actually enforcing the laws currently on the statute book - or, starting that terrible "War on Drugs" we hear about all the time - would be a good start.


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