Thursday, September 10, 2009

New Scientist: 'Blueprint for a Better World: Legalise drugs'

This weeks' edition of New Scientist magazine has a cover feature titled 'Blueprint for a better world' that considers 10 'radical ideas for transforming society and changing the way countries are run'. One of them is the legalisation and regulation of drugs, copied below. Whilst we didn't initiate or suggest the piece, we have contributed.

The ten ideas are introduced thus:

We live in an imperfect world. Poverty, disease, lack of education, environmental destruction - the problems are all too obvious. Many people don't have clean water, let alone enough food, and the unsustainable lifestyle of the wealthy few is storing up catastrophic climate change. Can we do anything about it? You bet we can. Technology is a double-edged sword, but science and reason have made our lives immeasurably better overall - and only through science and reason can we hope to make a real difference in the future. So here and over the next three weeks, New Scientist will explore diverse ideas for making the world a better place, and the evidence backing them.

Better world: Legalise drugs

Far from protecting us and our children, the war on drugs is making the world a much more dangerous place.

SO FAR this year, about 4000 people have died in Mexico's drugs war - a horrifying toll. If only a good fairy could wave a magic wand and make all illegal drugs disappear, the world would be a better place.

Dream on. Recreational drug use is as old as humanity, and has not been stopped by the most draconian laws. Given that drugs are here to stay, how do we limit the harm they do?

The evidence suggests most of the problems stem not from drugs themselves, but from the fact that they are illegal. The obvious answer, then, is to make them legal.

The argument most often deployed in support of the status quo is that keeping drugs illegal curbs drug use among the law-abiding majority, thereby reducing harm overall. But a closer look reveals that this really doesn't stand up. In the UK, as in many countries, the real clampdown on drugs started in the late 1960s, yet government statistics show that the number of heroin or cocaine addicts seen by the health service has grown ever since - from around 1000 people per year then, to 100,000 today. It is a pattern that has been repeated the world over.

A second approach to the question is to look at whether fewer people use drugs in countries with stricter drug laws. In 2008, the World Health Organization looked at 17 countries and found no such correlation. The US, despite its punitive drug policies, has one of the highest levels of drug use in the world (PLoS Medicine, vol 5, p e141).

A third strand of evidence comes from what happens when a country softens its drug laws, as Portugal did in 2001. While dealing remains illegal in Portugal, personal use of all drugs has been decriminalised. The result? Drug use has stayed roughly constant, but ill health and deaths from drug taking have fallen. "Judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalisation framework has been a resounding success," states a recent report by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington DC.

By any measure, making drugs illegal fails to achieve one of its primary objectives. But it is the unintended consequences of prohibition that make the most compelling case against it. Prohibition fuels crime in many ways: without state aid, addicts may be forced to fund their habit through robbery, for instance, while youngsters can be drawn into the drugs trade as a way to earn money and status. In countries such as Colombia and Mexico, the profits from illegal drugs have spawned armed criminal organisations whose resources rival those of the state. Murder, kidnapping and corruption are rife.

Making drugs illegal also makes them more dangerous. The lack of access to clean needles for drug users who inject is a major factor in the spread of lethal viruses such as HIV and hepatitis C.

So what's the alternative? There are several models for the legal provision of recreational drugs. They include prescription by doctors, consumption at licensed premises or even sale on a similar basis to alcohol and tobacco, with health warnings and age limits. If this prospect appals you, consider the fact that in the US today, many teenagers say they find it easier to buy cannabis than beer.

Taking any drug - including alcohol and nicotine - does have health risks, but a legal market would at least ensure that the substances people ingest or inject are available unadulterated and at known dosages. Much of the estimated $300 billion earned from illegal drugs worldwide, which now funds crime, corruption and environmental destruction, could support legitimate jobs. And instead of spending tens of billions enforcing prohibition, governments would gain income from taxes that could be spent on medical treatment for the small proportion of users who become addicted or whose health is otherwise harmed.

Unfortunately, the idea that banning drugs is the best way to protect vulnerable people - especially children - has acquired a strong emotional grip, one that politicians are happy to exploit. For many decades, laws and public policy have flown in the face of the evidence. Far from protecting us, this approach has made the world a much more dangerous place than it need be.

1 comment:

al capone junior said...

Some excellent points. I'm all for decriminalization of recreational drugs. So I guess you were kinda preachin' to the choir on this one. How likely is this article to get read by those who are in a position to enact actual changes in the real world?

Until politicians can say stuff like this out loud (without comitting political suicide), little progress is likely to be made. This is especially true in countries like the USA, where the nature of politics mostly kills the whole "open discussion" idea anyway.

The real problem is that the subject of decriminalization is just not subject matter for politicians who plan to get re-elected. Any mention of anything other than the "war on drugs" is pretty much taboo.

It doesn't help any that there's a huge lobby of prison builders/suppliers, prison guards, police, lawyers etc whose jobs might be affected by decriminalization, and who therefore have a major stake in keeping drugs illegal. These are the ones who will break out the highly emotionally charged arguments should any mention of reform get brought up.

I am pleased to hear that Portugal has reformed their system. They are an example for other countries to follow in the future. I do think that some reforms are inevitable, but I doubt that they will happen anytime soon, at least not in my country.