Last week, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise the consumption, production and sale of cannabis. Drug laws around the world are evolving as the cataclysmic failure of prohibition becomes impossible to ignore. The winds of change cometh. Slowly, oh so painfully slowly, they are a-blowing.
An estimated $100bn of your hard earned tax is spent fighting the war on drugs each year across the world, and where has it got us? Under prohibition, drug use has risen faster than at any other time in history. In the past thirty years heroin use has risen by at least 1000%, cocaine has doubled; ecstasy use went from zero to several million pills a week being consumed. The global trade of drugs is now worth a growing $350bn a year.
Drugs have become more potent as more concentrated weights produce higher profit margins: instead of cocaine, opium and marijuana there is now crack, heroin and skunk. Purity has increased tremendously yet prices have dropped. Methamphetamine is on the brink of an epidemic. The government has admitted it is unable to control the rapid development of legal highs.
Not only has prohibition failed to eliminate drugs, it feeds criminal gangs, and corruption has seeped into every level of the judiciary, police and military. Drug profits fuel and escalate violence in unstable conflict zones, claiming lives every day.
These are direct consequences of prohibition; the problems are not seen with regulated drugs like alcohol and tobacco, yet the same issues arose when alcohol was prohibited in the U.S. in the 1920’s, with the emergence of the Mafia.
Prohibition is causing far more damage than the drugs themselves could ever do.
The rationale behind the current strategy is that by cutting off drug supply, people won’t be able to take drugs and so the problem will disappear. But simple economics tells us that where there is a demand, there will be a supply. It is like squeezing a balloon – the air will simply reappear somewhere else.
Illicit drugs are categorised according to the level of harm they induce: the more harmful the drug, the harsher the penalties. So effectively, we place our most dangerous drugs in the trust of unregulated dealers and criminals. This could mean a user pays a lot of money for oregano, or it could mean that they buy a pill that kills them.
The drastic need for reform is no longer a leftfield view. Advocates stretch far and wide, from world leaders such as Juan Manuel Santos, Otto Perez Molina and José Mujica, presidents of Columbia, Guatemala and Uruguay respectively, to attorney generals and top police constables, to respected figures like Stephen Fry, Richard Branson and The Economist magazine. Even the UK government seems to be finally taking heed, and for the first time, large scale, objective scientific research examining other countries drug policies are taking place. Things are looking tentatively promising.
But the status quo will remain so long as it is not in politicians’ best interests to change it. A fear of not wanting to appear soft on drugs has kept the current regime operating for so long, yet it is for precisely that reason that reform is needed.
Bringing the drugs market under government control would cut off the primary income of criminal gangs. Control can be seized on the production, distribution and consumption of drugs, with rigorously checked operations, enforced age limits, licensing regulations, registered users, labelled products, maximum quantities available and safer drugs.
By moving it from a criminal issue to a health one, police resources can be alleviated and spending refocused.
More money can be spent on treating addiction. For instance, cleaner environments for heroin addicts can be provided to reduce aids and hepatitis C. Mike Barton, a senior UK constable, believes ‘addicts must be treated and cared for and encouraged to break the cycle of addiction. They do not need to be criminalised’.
Money can be spent on better education and research. Teaching children that ‘drugs are bad, mmkay’ and ‘just say no’ is not good enough. It doesn’t work. If an individual accidentally overdoses, their friends need to know how to handle it, without being scared to go to the authorities, and better researched drugs, with knowledge of their contents, make recovery far more likely. Most importantly, education teaches people how to stay out of trouble in the first place.
Improved education and research changes cultural and social views, and history has taught us that it is these that change patterns. For instance, since better knowledge of the health effects of tobacco have become known, rates of smoking have significantly declined. But while drugs remain taboo, scientific research and education are hindered.
The law has little correlation with drug use. The UK has one of the harshest enforcement regimes and still remains the highest consumer in Europe. And it is mostly Class A drugs, carrying the harshest penalties, which have seen the most dramatic rises in use. The criminal system is based on the principle of allowing consenting adults to engage in whatever behaviour they wish so long as it does not harm others. It does not ban other things that are bad for us, such as unsafe sex, dangerous sports and fast food. It should not be used to send out public health messages.
Independent think tanks like Transform and The Beckley Foundation are working hard to raise awareness, because change will only occur if enough people’s opinions make it necessary for the government to rethink.
It is time to become realistic and admit this ludicrous war on drugs has failed for long enough. The fact is, millions of people want the right to take drugs and are doing so despite the law. Reducing drug related harm is more important than the futile pursuit of a drug free society.
Congratulations, Uruguay, for having the cojones to stand up and try something else, and paving the way for reform.