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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: There is no alternative to legalisation of drugs and this is how it might work

It made me take notice. Jimmy Carter and Perry Worsthorne signing the same manifesto: who would have thought it? Admittedly, not all the names were as impressive as Sir Peregrine's. Another signatory was Noam Chomsky. Never in the field of human politics has one man been so wrong about so much for so long. But we also had Peter Lilley and General Lord Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of prisons, plus many others who deserve to be taken seriously. They were calling for a debate. Despite their eminence, they may be out of luck. Their chosen subject is illegal drugs. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.

The eminent persons subscribe to some stark and factual propositions. The so-called war on drugs has failed, is failing and will continue to fail, even though ten million people are in gaol - worldwide - for drug abuse. The illicit drugs market has created the world's third-largest industry. The losing war against it is promoting crime, corruption and chaos. Indeed, the manifesto could have gone further, but for the need to avoid offending various politicians. Drug trafficking is wrecking countries: Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad. Colombia has also suffered severe problems. Above all, there are no signs of improvement. In the UK, a huge number of crimes are drug-related. Burglaries, muggings, car theft; much of the proceeds goes straight to the drug-dealers. This is one of the principal threats to our quality of life. As a young officer, David Ramsbotham would have been told that you should not reinforce failure. Yet Western governments have been doing precisely that for decades. It is time to stop.

That has long since been my conclusion, albeit reached without any enthusiasm. But there is a basic philosophical argument, as well as a host of practical ones. According to Kant, we should act as if our every action became a universal moral law. Although that might seem excessively rigorous for poor old human beings in a fallen world - and their governments - he had a point.

Laws ought to rest on an intellectually consistent framework. Our drug laws fail that test. There is a fundamental question. What is the status of adults? Do we possess moral autonomy, in which case governments are only justified in restricting our freedom in circumstances - such as driving a car - where untrammelled libertarianism would be a threat to others? Or are we the state's livestock? In that case, it would have the right to regulate our behaviour.

Most of us now believe that this argument has been definitively settled in favour of Mill and Liberty. If that is so, why should adults be forbidden to take certain drugs? Can anyone offer a theory of the modern state, compatible with its practices in other areas, which would justify the current drug regime? It is worth recalling that attempted suicide ceased to be a crime several decades ago: an important symbolic moment.

I am not arguing all this in order to re-connect with my inner hippy. If it were announced that drug use in the UK had fallen by ninety per cent, I would feel like celebrating - over a large drink. But I will have to find another excuse. On present trends, drug use will not fall and we will continue to fight a losing campaign, founded on incoherence.

Equally, there is no sense in that oft-proposed compromise, de-criminalisation. If that were to happen, the trade would still be in the hands of the criminals who would have an easier life and more money to invest in recruiting new customers. If we are going to change tack, then it has to be a radical change. However shocking it may sound, there is no alternative to legalisation.

This is how it might work.

1) Licence chemists to supply the stuff in limited quantities to those over eighteen, who would need a document, to be stamped every time they made a purchase, thus enforcing the limits, which would accommodate an addict's cravings, without giving him a surplus. The document would be bio-metric, thus preventing the ingenious druggie from acquiring a stash of them.

2) Fix the price at as high a figure as possible without sending the customers back to their dealers.

3) Ban advertising, even if that might seem insufficiently Millite. The ban should be extended to tobacco.

4) Announce an amnesty for all previous dealing in illegal drugs.

5) Also announce that the penalties for future drug-trafficking were to be significantly increased, and would include impoverishment. The trafficker would lose all his assets, however acquired. The police would intensify their efforts to arrest those who prey on minors.

6) The hope would be that a lot of successful drug-dealers would decide that it was now time to retire. They were about to lose a significant proportion of their market. The risks of going underage would be significantly increased, and their ill-gotten gains would be protected by the amnesty. No doubt there would be new dealers on the block, but as they would be less experienced, they should be easier to catch.

7) Some might claim that in practice, it would be impossible to enforce such a rigid distinction between the over-eighteens - legal - and those who are slightly younger. Who ever waited until they were eighteen before buying their first pint? But there are two rebuttals to that. First, it would not be easy to circumvent the new arrangements; much harder than sending the oldest-looking kid in the group to stride confidently to the bar. Second, over recent years, homosexuality has not only been legalised; it has been de-stigmatised. Yet paedophile acts are still severely condemned and punished. Why should the same not be true of the corruption of minors via drugs?

I see no reason to believe that the measures outlined above would lead to an increase in drug-taking, and good grounds for hoping that it could lead to a cut in consumption. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that at present, anyone who wants drugs can find them. My proposed reforms should make it harder - perhaps, even, much harder - for the under-eighteens to obtain drugs. But there are two difficulties, and we reluctant legalisers should not seek to minimise them. Once before, when I made a similar argument in the Spectator, my friend Katie Grant objected. What sort of signal was this sending to the Mum in Castlemilk - a dire Glasgow housing estate in urgent need of an IDS-style strategy - who was trying to bring up her children decently and keep them away from drugs?

Putting on one side the publicity which Spectator articles generate in Castlemilk, it is a good point. But there is a rejoinder. Eric Hobsbawm wrote that many of those swept into the factories and slums of the early Industrial Revolution responded to their plight with dreams and violence. With today's underclass, it is drugs, dreams and violence. It is not enough to maintain the ban on drugs. We need much better education, an end to permissive welfare, and early intervention to mitigate the effects of fatherlessness. We also need ruthless policing to hunt down any drug dealers who try to destroy the Good Woman of Castlemilk's children. The present system is failing her, them and everyone else.

The second difficulty would be encountered a long way from Castlemilk. There must be some youngsters who are a little curious about drugs, but who are currently deterred from experimenting because they are unhappy about breaking the law: not many, but some. Legalisation might encourage them to give it a try. What if they had heavily addictive peronalities or metabolisms? Legalisation could blight the lives of a few people who would never otherwise have found their way to drugs.

Actuarially, that would be a price worth paying. There those who will now protest, insisting that human worth is too unique for actuarial considerations, which are only to be tolerated in the life insurance industry. In that case, they would presumably agree that these uniquely wonderful human beings should also make their own moral decisions - drugs included. 

There is one final objection, which is really easy to brush aside. If we were to legalise drugs, we would be in breach of various international conventions. To that, there is only one answer: so what? It would be highly desirable if the repudiation of international agreements became a habit-forming drug. The International Criminal Court, the Conventions on asylum, the European Convention on Human Rights, the EU's Social Chapter; that is by no means an exhaustive list, but it would do as an hors d'oeuvre. The restrictions on British sovereignty have increased, are increasing and ought to be diminished.

Although the various conventions cannot be blamed for the UK's drugs crisis, they have done nothing to mitigate it. As that will not change, there is no alternative. We must think through the problem for ourselves, and then employ our own sovereign remedies. A vigorous debate would help. Yet it is easy to understand why the serving politicians who wish to win elections and hold office are reluctant to take part. They are afraid of the likely public response.

It may be possible that their timidity is excessive. Look at the way in which public attitudes have changed on homosexuality. Is the fear that drug legalisation would turn the whole country into a Whitechapel opium den circa 1890 really ineradicable? If it is, so is the drug problem. Let us therefore hope that a courageous debate could lead us forward to realism. Failure on the scale that we are currently enduring demands action and change.


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