The imperial war on drugs
I often write about drugs, and am doing so again today, but today's post is not about licensed pharmaceutical products designed to treat disease; it's about drugs of abuse: heroin, cocaine, and the like.
Bob Ainsworth, a Labour MP and a former cabinet minister, has publicly declared his support for legalising all drugs. It's certainly a radical solution. He imagines a future in which drug users can obtain heroin, cocaine, or whatever perfectly legally, either on prescription from their GP or perhaps bought from the local pharmacy (for such a radical policy, clearly there are a lot of details that would need to be worked out).
That would have 2 main advantages. First, the drugs themselves would be made to pharmaceutical standards, and so would be safer. But much more importantly, it would take the distribution of drugs out of the hands of gangs of organised criminals. At the moment, the supply of illegal drugs is a lucrative source of income for criminal gangs. Governments have tried and failed to tackle that problem through law enforcement measures.
Trying to eliminate illegal drug use through law enforcement doesn't work. It never has, and it never will. The Americans should have learnt this lesson when they tried prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. They had to abandon that policy because of the massive boost it gave to organised crime.
The situation is exactly the same today for illegal drugs. As long as the demand is there (and no matter how hard governments try to reduce demand, there is very little evidence that they have any chance of succeeding), criminal gangs will fill that demand. That is not good for society.
The government may claim that legalising drugs would simply mean more people using drugs, and thus creating greater harm. They have no evidence for that. In fact the experience from Portugal suggests that legalising drugs may even reduce drug use.
Bob Ainsworth is so obviously correct in what he says. I fail to see how anyone can claim that the current policy on drugs is working. Drugs cause great misery, largely as a result of the criminal activity that accompanies them. Taking the supply of drugs out of the hands of criminals may not solve all drug-related problems overnight, but it is hard to imagine how it wouldn't be a tremendous help.
It is also hard to imagine why government ministers can't see this (or indeed why Ainsworth didn't see this when he was the government minister responsible for drug policy, when he would have had far more influence than in his current role as an opposition back bencher). One could imagine conspiracy theories about government having reasons to want a society riddled with organised crime, but those theories strike me as rather far-fetched. The only plausible explanation I can think of is that governments judge that the policy would result in bad headlines in the tabloids. And for most government ministers, when it comes to doing the right thing versus headlines in the tabloids, the tabloids win every time.
So why "imperial war on drugs"? This has nothing to do with the war we are fighting in Afghanistan in a neo-imperialist way, although heroin production is indeed one of the main issues in that war. No, I write "imperial", because I imagine the government's War on Drugs being run by an emperor. The government sees this emperor as wearing particularly fine clothes. Bob Ainsworth has told them what the emperor is really wearing.