[fyeg_gen-l] Why we should legalise hard drugs

Sascha Bachmann sascha at netzmomente.de
Sun Feb 23 19:46:55 CET 2003


Observer Comment Extra
Why we should legalise hard drugs

Online commentary: It is time to end a dangerous and unwinnable war

Henry McDonald
Sunday February 23, 2003

I was having lunch last week with a senior member of the Garda Siochana or 
Irish police in Dublin. He is a man with 32 years of service fighting crime 
in the Irish capital. Throughout his career he has witnessed three major 
drug waves in the Irish Republic - the first heroin epidemic of 1980; the 
explosion of ecstasy and cocaine use in the mid 1990s and now the 
introduction of crack cocaine at the start of the 21st century. He is a 
superintendent with some major successes under his belt including the 
operation against John Gilligan, the drugs baron who ordered the murder of 
my colleague, the reporter Veronica Guerin. He has seen millions of pounds 
of euros in drugs seizures. But the officer was highly modest about the 
scale of his achievements in the fight against drugs.

In his most candid moment of the afternoon he came across with a startling 
statistic - the police only seize about ten per cent of the drugs that come 
into the state at any time. When you press him about the success of the war 
on drugs he is dismissive. This is a war, he states, that cannot be won.

The drug sub-culture still fills me in equal parts with disgust and ennui, 
but there seems to no logic to prolonging what is arguably the most futile 
conflict in human history: this so-called war against drugs. This war, 
equivalent to fighting a thousand Vietnams at once, can never be won. Even 
the United States, with its superpower monopoly and infinite military 
resources, has failed to stem the narcotics flood. Dictatorships, whether 
of the Islamic fundamentalist variety as in Saudi Arabia or the 
Leninist-capitalist model in China, have employed brutal methods to 
suppress drugs, respectively beheading or blowing the brains out of alleged 
dealers. The latter means of dispatching drug peddlers is also used by the 
IRA on the streets of Belfast, Derry and even Dublin.

But neither the Saudi and Chinese cliques nor the IRA can put an end to the 
production or consumption of drugs. That is because since the time of the 
ancient Greeks - and quite possibly even before - the iron laws of 
economics have operated: a permanent demand creates an inevitable supply. 
Dealers are prepared to continue risking their lives on the streets of 
Belfast, Beijing and Riyadh to meet that demand.

Prohibition, as the Americans found with alcohol in the 1920s and 1930s, is 
counter-productive and only gives rise to a vast criminal sub-culture. The 
monopolisation of supply in criminals' hands hikes up the price of drugs to 
the point where consumers can only feed their habit through larceny or 
prostitution, thus further fuelling crime.

Then there is the enormous and totally unnecessary cost to the state of 
prosecuting those individuals who choose freely to take drugs as a means of 
entertainment or escapism. The Economist magazine has estimated that 
between 1996 and 2000 the British taxpayer paid out £36 million to lock up 
people who were tested positive for cannabis. The figures for jailing those 
consuming hard drugs are reckoned to be even higher.

Then there is the one drug which is widely available, legal and socially 
acceptable. Families are ripped apart and lives shattered through the 
fermentation, advertising and distribution of the most popular legal drug 
in the free world - alcohol. How many young men for instance will end up in 
the casualty wings of Irish and British hospitals this weekend due to 
obscene bouts of boozing? What are the odds of someone getting mowed down 
on an Irish or British road by a drunken driver?

Despite this we persist in glamorising drink while demonising drugs. In 
Ireland more people are killed by drink and cars than drugs. These are 
indisputable facts yet we never hear calls for the prohibition of alcohol 
or driving. Nor does society ban dangerous sports such as hang-gliding, air 
boarding, bungee jumping and so on. These activities are taken up by 
individuals exercising personal freedom and choice. The state does not 
intervene in these choices.

Opponents of legalisation claim that drug takers are not free individuals. 
This is because the moment they consume a drug, any drug, their minds are 
altered and thus their ability to act as free thinking individuals. But if 
you apply this logic consistently then what about the moment that someone 
takes a sup of his first pint, then his second, third, fourth and so on? 
That individual's mind is also being altered by chemicals. Are our 
opponents seriously suggesting that we should therefore ban alcohol because 
it stops us from being rational individuals the moment we put pint or glass 
to our lips? I think not.

Legalisation of course contains inherent dangers. The sale of narcotics 
should be regulated but definitely not controlled by the state. The 
prospect of the state selling drugs to consumers brings to mind Aldous 
Huxley's Brave New World, where the regime kept the masses docile by doling 
out Soma. Nor should legalisation imply hedonistic license. The minimum age 
should range from between 16 for soft drugs and 18 for harder substances; 
those who sell to children must suffer the maximum penalties.

There are pitfalls over price fixing. An exorbitantly taxed product will 
result in what has already happened with tobacco in Ireland, where the 
paramilitaries have flooded the market with cheaper illegal foreign 
cigarettes. Tax revenue from drugs should be funnelled into drug treatment 
programmes and preventative education aimed at de-mystifying drugs.

None of this is to suggest a solution to the drugs problem because there is 
no solution, only the pragmatic management of it. A reasonable tax on 
narcotics can help fund education programmes aimed at reducing demand for 
drugs. Furthermore, decriminalisation would wipe out far more effectively 
than the Criminal Assets Bureau the profits earned by loathsome beings, 
such as John Gilligan, who control supply.

With apologies to The Verve: the drugs don't work but the ban on them just 
makes us all worse.

· Henry McDonald is Ireland Editor of The Observer. This piece is extracted 
from a speech at the Cambridge Union on Thursday in support of the motion 
"This House would legalise hard drugs". The motion was defeated by 80 votes 
to 44.

henry.mcdonald at observer.co.uk

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