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Articles - International & national drug policy
Written by Nicholas Harman   


by Nicholas Harman

If I were a politician (and thank the Lord I'm not, Sir) I too would probably say I was in favour of a stupid policy on drugs, meaning going on as we are now. Perhaps, if I were daring, I might admit that change may be possible in the future. But I would be crazy to argue in favour of the reform that our drug laws so badly need. It would lose me a lot of votes, and the only television programmes it would get me on would be the ones about freaks.

Ordinary voters are scared of drugs and dislike drug users. Changing the present policy of drug prohibition is easily misrepresented by demagogues as going 'soft on drugs'. The very idea of lifting the drugs ban calls up instant resistance from the moral guardians in the churches and so on. And the one change worth making is counterintuitive, involving intricate and painful explanation. So here goes.

The only sound policy for mind-altering drugs is to bring the trade in them within the laaw, so that they can be taxed, controlled and discouraged. Moreover (whisper it) the drugs problem in Britain is really rather small, compared to say the alcohol problem or the smoking problem; the main beneficiaries of reform would be foreigners. So our politicians find other fish to fry, leaving the mess to be wiped up by doctors, policemen and Home Office boffins - many of whom privately know just how badly reform is needed.

But first, like the people who sell cigarettes, I must print a warning to consumers of this article. If you are a 'libertarian', and the word means what I think it does, I hope we disagree. I do not want the drugs trade freed. I want it controlled by law, which it can't be as long as it is outlawed.

In particular, I am revolted by those 'libertarian' right-wing Americans who enlist John Stewart Mill to back their argument that drugs should be freed up. What they often seem to want is more drugs, so that even more black people will kill each other over crack. These same moral idiots want more guns, to raise the general death rate; and oppose state power, while wanting the state to be so powerful that it employs civil servants to kill their fellow-citizens.

In Britain the drugs trade is less dramatic, but still very profitable. The tax-free entrepreneurs who run it are deploying more and more weapons and enforcement teams to guard their market shares against competitors. The police and customs think they catch about one-tenth of the drugs intended for the British market. So the Government's policy of prohibition is about 90 per cent a failure.

Drug prohibition doesn't work. The Americans in the 1920s found it didn't work for drink. In Britain, we were never so foolish as to try to ban our favourite mind-altering drug. Instead, over a couple of centuries, we have evolved ways of keeping alcohol under some sort of control by taxation, licensing, breath tests and so on.

Those drink controls have two broad objectives. They limit consumption, mainly by taxation to raise the retail price and also by licensing to restrict the retail outlets. Second, they control strength and quality to guarantee that strong drink is not poisonous, and only as intoxicating as it says on the bottle. Similar measures would probably work for drugs too. But if a commodity is illegal you can't tax it, licence it or control its quality. Legalisation would increase government power, which is now ineffectual.

Maybe governments should not try to protect their citizens against self-poisoning. But they do try (rightly, I think) to make road travel less dangerous for example by rules on seat-belts and crash-helmets. Regulating the sale of drugs would have exactly the same purpose. Private enterprise cannot do the job. A friendly 'libertarian' professor at Liverpool once advised me that the tobacco companies could be trusted to sell drugs responsibly. I rest my case.

A quick word about drugs and drug users. Cannabis is obviously not very bad for you, and is addictive only when smoked with tobacco. British potheads mostly smoke it mixed with tobacco, because clean grass is too bulky to import without getting caught. That is one example of how illegality harms people.

Cocaine too is not chemically addictive. But it can harm the weak as badly as alcohol does, especially in its quick-acting form, as crack. Yet most cocaine is a party luxury, like (and as harmful as) champagne; people have their snort and take no more until the next party. But illegality means that the party-goers' fun enriches criminals, a bad thing.

Heroin is a private drug, and some peopie go on calmly using it for years. Its effect on the mind is very powerful and its derivatives (codeine, morphine, and so on) are irreplaceable in medicine. But it tips many of those who try it into hopeless inactivity. Heroin and its opiate relatives should be regulated just like other powerful medical drugs, especially as to strength and purity; when heroin kills, it is usually because crooks don't care about the quality of what they sell.


The 'party drugs' - Ecstasy and the rest - are mostly traded by casual villains whom the police cannot possibly keep up with. Some party drugs can damage the brain. The relatively harmless ones are often adulterated, and therefore poisonous. The trade in them should therefore be regulated, which means legalised.

All these main drugs are at present unconditionally criminalised. Instead, different degrees of discouragement should be applied to each, according to its danger. We tax whisky more than beer, because alcohol concentrated by distillation is more dangerous than alcohol in a weak and nourishing fluid. Similarly we should go easy on cannabis, hard on heroin.

Yet most of those who suffer from the drugs trade never take drugs at all. They are mere bystanders in a nasty war. The trade is both illegal and immensely profitable. To stay in business, the traders must use force, and their profits pay for their guns. The resulting mayhem undermines civil authority all around the world. Note that the illegal supply exists solely to satisfy illegal demand if people did not want to buy drugs, gangsters could not sell them.

The world drugs trade, especially from Latin America to the world's richest market, the US, may be almost as valuable as the world trade in wheat (but, since it is illegal, the statistics are a joke, inflated by US government agencies trying to boost their own fraudulent budgets. The US government is powerless before it and spends vast amounts exerting its lack of power. As a result well over half of all US male prisoners (who outnumber the total of unemployed US males) are locked up on account of drug-related crimes. This is a serious, rising and avoidable burden upon their economy not to mention their society

Latin America and the Caribbean suffer far worse. (So does Italy, because of the Mafia - a case too complex to pursue here). In Colombia, for instance, entrepreneurs import coca leaves and process them into the powder which they ingeniously ship into the US (where they are also diversifying fast into heroin). Untaxed profits from the wholesale and retail trade run well over 1,000 percent, enabling the gangsters to bribe politicians and policemen, kill their competitors, terrorise witnesses, murder presidential candidates and destroy civil peace.

In Colombia, and in several other Latin American and Caribbean countries, the cocaine traders are a least as powerful as the Government. The resulting instability is a real threat to feedom, not to mention world trade and investment. The threat is growing fast. It is, I repeat illegality - and the failure of prohibition -that gives the traders their untaxed wealth, power and guns.

Legalise and control the trade, and you shift that power and money into the hands of legitimate governments. The way to do that is to stop using ineffectual penal sanctions, replace them by more intelligent methods such as control taxation and quality regulation. Again the trade is at present free of such controls, precisely because it is illegal.

One special reason why Britain will certainly and fruitlessly go on trying to ban drugs is that it is bound to do so by international law. Like practically everybody else, the British government is a signatory to UN conventions that commit it to keeping the main drugs banned. Undoing that stupidity would mean, among other things, a royal row with the entire European Union (except perhaps the Netherlands), and the US as well. So it won't be tried.

So what about half-measures? Decent policemen, weary of busting peaceable youngsters for smoking the odd joint, often talk wisffully about 'tolerating' petty drug use; more and more city policemen do not in fact prosecute for small-scale possession, as the law says they should. Others, more ambitious, advocate legalising the possession of small quantities of drugs, while keeping the ban on the wholesale trade.

These well-meant policies mean, in effect, legitimising the retail trade in drugs while keeping the wholesale trade illegal. The sure result is to make drug criminality worse. If customers may lawfully possess stuff that has been unlawfully supplied to them, the unlawful suppliers will fight each other (and the police) even harder to secure their share of an open market.

The Dutch have in effect freed the retail drugs trade. They have thereby much reduced drug-related crime in their country. Another, unintended, result is that their neighbours, especially the Germans and Belgians, find the tolerated Dutch-based drug gangs spilling over the border, with gun fights over control of the next-door drug markets. Freeing the Dutch retail trade has made their wholesale trade more profitable, enriching the international armed criminals who run it.

Moreover, those who would tolerate consumption must say whether they would also tax consumption, (as the brewers, facing tough competition from cheap pot, might secretly like). If the cannabis trade is to be taxed it must first be legalised. The courts will not enforce the payment of debts arising from illegal transactions.

Such are the tangles of a debate that has barely begun, and which politicians would do well, until the smoke has cleared, to duck out of. That's why I don't think sensible drug law reform is remotely on the cards, for five years, ten years, or maybe much longer.

Nicholas Harman is a former senior editor at the Economist and now lives in the west of Ireland.


1838 FIRST OPIUMWAR BETWEEN CHINA AND BRITAIN UK foists Indian opium on unwilling Imperial administration.
1868 PHARMACY AND POISONS ACT. Opium and later morphine sale restricted to pharmacists.
1909 SHANGHAI OPIUM COMMISSION Non-binding international agreement aimed at curbing UK opium trafficking and restricting opiates to medical use.
1912 FIRST OPIUM CONVENTION (HAGUE CONVENTION) International treaty committing signatories to pharmacy laws to restrict opiates and cocaine to medical use.
1916 DEFENCE OF THE REALM ACT REGULATION 408. Emergency regulations banning opium or cocaine possession or supply without prescription in response to cocaine epidemic among soldiers.
1917 ENQUIRY INTO COCAINE USE IN DENTISTRY Concluded there was no noticable cocaine problem.
1918 TREATY ENDING FIRST WORLD WAR Ratification of Hague Convention mandatory.
1920 FIRST DANGEROUS DRUGS ACT AND LATER REGULATION Implemented Hague Convention in UK making it a criminal offence to posses opiates or cocaine without prescription.
1925 GENEVA CONVENTION International treaty extending control to cannabis.
1925 DANGEROUS DRUG ACT. Implemented Geneva Convention in UK, extending 1920 Act to cannabis and coca leaves.
1926 ROLLESTON REPORT. Established that indefinite (maintenance) prescribing was a legitimate medical response to opiate addiction in Britain.
1961 UN SINGLE CONVENTION ON NARCOTIC DRUGS Cornerstone international treaty consolidating and extending earlier conventions.
1960S YOUTH REVOLUTION Doctors lose control of spread of addiction; cannabis, stimulants and hallucinogens join youth pharmacopeia.
1964 DRUGS (PREVENTION OF MISUSE) ACT. Controlled amphetamines in UK in advance of international agreements; later used to control LSD.
1965 SECOND BRAIN REPORT. Concluded growth of addiction in UK required heroin and cocaine prescribing to addicts to be limited to licensed doctors in clinics.
1967 DANGEROUS DRUG ACT. Implemented Second Brain Report.
1969 WOOTTON REPORT. Official UK government advisory body said no one should be imprisoned for possessing cannabis and recommends penalty reductions. Advice rejected.
1971 UN CONVENTION ON PSYCHOTROPIC SUBSTANCES Extends international controls to synthetic drugs including amphetamines and LSD.
1971 MISUSE OF DRUGS ACT. Cornerstone of UK legislation consolidating and extending earlier acts.
1986 DRUG TRAFFICKING OFFENCES ACT. UK law requiring confiscation of assets of convicted drug traffickers widely seen as reversing burden of proof. Also banned the supply of drug paraphernalia except
1988 UN CONVENTION AGAINST ILLICIT TRAFFIC IN NARCOTIC AND PSYCHOTROPIC SUBSTANCES. Increased sanctions and powers in respect of seizure and confiscation of assets, extradition and other enforcement





Our valuable member Nicholas Harman has been with us since Sunday, 19 December 2010.