Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Sun, 5 Apr 2009
Author: Gerard O’Neill
Imagine a single policy measure that could wipe out criminal gangs, improve the health of the nation, transform the Irish legal system, empty our prisons, deal a blow to international terrorism and boost government tax revenues. I’m talking about legalising drugs. Yet, extraordinary as it seems, there is little or no support for such a measure. I suspect that will change in the next few years.
Ireland has a drug prohibition policy that isn’t working. The latest report on Irish crime statistics from the CSO shows crime levels in every category falling with one obvious exception: controlled drug offences. Indeed, many of the worst crimes in other categories – gangland killings, for example – are a consequence of our failing prohibition policy.
At an international level, the war on drugs has been an even bigger disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as consumption has soared in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless. Ask the people of Mexico, a country engaged in a civil war with powerful drug gangs fuelled by revenues and weapons from their client state north of the border.
This global picture reflects the dominance of America in shaping and operating UN drug control agencies and policies. It is as if the prohibition impulse didn’t go away in America but instead got channelled from alcohol into cannabis, LSD, heroin and other drugs. But the sheer cost – financial, political, social and moral – of the war on drugs is forcing a rethink in several countries – even in the United States.
By legalising drugs we can apply the same controls to their production, distribution and consumption as we apply to alcohol and tobacco. And there’s a triple bonus to society: spending on crime prevention will plunge, not just on drug-related policing but on all the criminality arising from the activities of drug-financed gangs; crime levels overall will plunge; and the government becomes a net recipient of monies from drug consumption rather than a net spender via law enforcement. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that the United States spends $44 billion (UKP32.76 billion) a year fighting the war on drugs. If they were legal, the US government would realise about $33 billion a year in tax revenue – a net swing of $77 billion.
Countries like Portugal are experimenting with drug policy innovations that seek to secure some of these benefits. In 2001, Portugal decriminalised the use, possession and acquisition of illicit substances for personal use, which was defined as being up to 10 days supply of that substance.
Possession, however, has remained prohibited by Portuguese law and criminal penalties are still applied to drug growers, dealers and traffickers. Rather than criminalise drug users, Portugal established expert panels of health and other professionals designed to dissuade new drug users and help drug addicts. The results so far are a massive decline in drug-related deaths and illnesses, and a switch away from “harder” drugs such as heroin to “softer” drugs such as cannabis.
Ambitious policy changes don’t have to be a once-and-forever shift. Organisations like Transform in the UK propose that the legalisation of drugs could be tried for, say, three years: long enough to wipe out the gangs and criminals; to determine the wider health and social consequences; and to refine policies further.
We continually refine policies on alcohol and smoking consumption (both of which have declined markedly, despite their legality and affordability) and the same would apply to drugs. Similarly with effective advisory and educational measures for potential and actual users.
As for worried parents (like me) the message is simple: your children are already living in a society with ubiquitous access to these drugs. Their decision to use them is as much subject to what you advise them to do as is their consumption of alcohol and cigarettes. Just because something is legal doesn’t make it something you have to approve of. I discourage my children from smoking.
One hundred years ago, our newspapers carried front page advertisements for opium and cannabis. Ecstasy was legal up to the 1960s. Magic mushrooms to the 2000s. The point is that society’s attitudes to drugs changes all the time.
We’ve tried prohibition and it has failed. So my advice to Brian Lenihan as he tries to balance the budget is this: legalise it, control it, tax it. He will have my full support on that one.Republish