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David Cameron shouldn’t dismiss drugs decriminalisation out of hand

By Peter Hoskin
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The shape of yesterday’s flare-up over drugs policy was predictable: a committee of MPs suggested that the Government should consider the system of drugs decriminalisation deployed in Portugal, only for the Prime Minister to slap them back down. “I don’t support decriminalisation,” said David Cameron, “we have a policy that actually is working.” End of.

Except that shouldn’t be the end of it, not least because it’s worth considering Mr Cameron’s argument in full. Here’s what he said:

“I don’t support decriminalisation. We have a policy that that actually is working in Britain. Drug use is coming down. The emphasis on treatment is absolutely right. We need to continue with that to make sure we can really make a difference. Also, we need to do more to keep drugs out of our prisons. Those are the Government’s priorities. I think we should stick at that, rather than have some very, very long term Royal Commission.”

The first question: is he right that drug use in Britain is “coming down”? Obviously, it depends on what drug you’re talking about. Here's what the picture looks like for three of the most high-profile fixes:

Graph 1

Which is to say, cannabis use has declined significantly since 2000, while heroin and cocaine use have basically flat-lined.

And the second question: so what? Well, here it’s worth looking at the street prices for the same three drugs over a similar period. Here’s an extended version of a graph that I put together for the Spectator’s Coffee House blog (where I described the methodology behind it) a couple of years ago:

Graph 2

In other words, the price of cannabis has risen sharply over the past decade, while the costs of heroine and cocaine have reduced by around a quarter. (We should discount the price spike for heroine in 2011, as this probably had more to do with conditions in Afghanistan than on the streets of Britain).

So, when it comes to cannabis, the two graphs above might suggest that the “war on drugs” is working. There are fewer people out there using the drug, and those who are now have to pay more for it. Indeed, the charity Drugscope has, in the past, put the increase in price down to factors including:

“…an increasing trend towards smaller deals, which increases the price per gram, and the impact of police activity against large-scale cannabis farms, which increases the costs for traffickers.”   

But what about the two other drugs, heroine and cocaine? Although there are slight positive shifts in some years, the overall picture is far less encouraging. There are now proportionately more users of the two drugs, and they pay considerably less for them than they would have done ten years ago. This implies that supply is easily keeping up with demand. And that’s without considering the spread of other problem substances, such as mephredrone.

This is why Mr Cameron shouldn’t be so quick to argue that “we have a policy that that actually is working in Britain.” The policy may be working in the case of cannabis, but as Philip Johnston argues in today’s Daily Telegraph, that is the drug which most people are in favour of legalising. Meanwhile, harder, scarier drugs are hanging on and on.

And that, in turn, is one reason why the Prime Minister shouldn’t dismiss the decriminalisation of — or at least relaxation of the laws around — cannabis out of hand. Until some of that “police activity” is focused elsewhere, we’ll always have a drugs policy that is skewed and insufficient.


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