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Books - Winning the War on Drugs
Written by Richard Stevenson   

And that singular anomaly, the Prohibitionist —

I don't think he'll be missed —

I'm sure he'll not be missed.

W.S. Gilbert ( The Mikado)

This paper argues for the legalisation of all drugs currently prohibited in UK and international law. The drugs act on the central nervous system and are known collectively as 'mind-altering' or psychoactive substances. They include heroin, cocaine, crack, amphetamines, cannabis and most other commonly abused drugs. Some are addictive and most can be dangerous.

Proponents of drug legalisation know the danger of drug use and wish to reduce it. Legal prohibition makes drug use more dangerous than it need be and hands the control of druemarkets to criminals. Where drug problems ramify into gangsterism, corruption and political violence, they are caused not so much by illegal drugs as by illegal drug money.

President Nixon declared war on drugs in 1973. Since then drug use has increased despite the expenditure of billions of pounds on law enforcement. Indeed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that -most drug problems are the entirely predictable result of an attempt to 'buck the market' in one of the world's most valuable and profitable traded goods. It cannot be shown that current policy will never work, but no one believes that victory in the drug war is imminent, or that it will be cheap.

In the meantime drug problems are urgent, so it seems reasonable to seek alternatives to current policies which may be cheaper and more effective. Many possibilities exist; most fall short of full legalisation. Some are discussed in Chapter IV. All deserve serious consideration, but they do not strike directly at what many see as the central problem which is to wrest drug markets from the control of criminals.

One of the principal attractions of legalisation is that it would allow society to regain control over the production and distribution of drugs. Many sorts of legal systems are feasible.

Drugs could be produced and sold by a state monopoly but, to an economist inclined to view current drug policy as a prime example of government failure, it is natural to wonder whether a market solution might not be preferable.

This paper argues that drugs could be bought and sold in much the same way as most other goods. They would be produced by private firms, and be available, without prescrip-tion, from normal sorts of retail outlets, such as chemist's shops. Users would choose from a range of products of certified purity in much the same way that drinkers choose between beer, wine and spirits. The only restrictions would preclude sales to children, and might affect some aspects of marketing strategies such as packaging.

In this legal system, users would become more visible and amenable to advice. Some of the worst hazards of drug use would be avoided, but problems would remain. Government and voluntary agencies would retain an important rôle in treatment, education and other strategies to reduce drug-related harm. It is also suggested that some part of the social savings from legalisation should be directed to improvements in social and medical services for drug users.

The case for the legalisation of drugs has much in common with the case for legal abortion. Abortion is tragic, but given that it will occur in any circumstances, it is better that it should be performed competently. In the same way, it would be better if everyone could cope without mind-altering drugs, but prohibition is unenforceable. If some people insist on using drugs, it is better that they should buy them from law-abiding businessmen rather than criminals, and better still if they can be integrated into society and brought under medical supervision if it is needed.

Legalisation will not solve all drug problems, but the problems which remain will be medical and social rather than political and economic. Drug abuse will be less likely to impose costs on third parties (which include the tax payer) and, perhaps most importantly, legalisation is the surest and most administratively parsimonious means of 'Getting gangsters out of drugs') Criminals love prohibition. They would hate legalisation.

November 1993   


1 The Economist, 2 April 1988.


Our valuable member Richard Stevenson has been with us since Tuesday, 21 February 2012.

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