28 June 2014
Decriminalising drugs leaves the crooks with the cash. Legalise drugs instead.
“I’M GONNA smoke’a de ganja until I go blind,” sang Bob Marley. “You know I smoke’a de ganja all a de time.” Jamaicans who share his devotion to cannabis have long risked arrest. But this month the government said it intended to decriminalise possession of small amounts of the drug. Several countries in Europe and Latin America have already taken this step. On the day that Jamaica announced its plans, a report commissioned by the Kofi Annan Foundation argued that minor drug offences should be decriminalised in West Africa to reduce violence and corruption.
After decades of failure it is hardly surprising that people are seeking alternatives to the ruinously expensive, bloody “war on drugs”. Prohibiting narcotics has failed to prevent an increase in their use, mainly in the rich world but increasingly in emerging markets (Brazil is now the world’s biggest customer of crack cocaine). At the same time it has enriched the criminal mafias which spread corruption and murder from London’s East End to Tijuana’s barrios, and which threaten to make failed states of countries in Africa and Latin America. Even Britain’s official advisory panel on drugs opposed the government’s move this week to criminalise khat, a mild and little-known stimulant whose users may now turn to more harmful alternatives (see article).
So reform is needed, but is decriminalisation the right approach? Jamaica has proposed that people caught with up to two ounces (57 grams) of cannabis should be fined but not arrested or taken to court. Similarly, drug users in Portugal can be forced to attend classes to get them back on the straight and narrow. Italy confiscates pot-smokers’ driving licences. These lenient penalties save thousands of young people from being branded with criminal records, and spare taxpayers the expense of arresting, trying and jailing them. Jamaica’s police, battling one of the world’s highest murder rates, have better things to do than fill the country’s jails with people whose crime is to have consumed something less potent than their island’s rum. It is madder still that Sierra Leone or Guinea should devote their meagre resources to stopping adults getting high.
But decriminalisation is only half the answer. As long as supplying drugs remains illegal, the business will remain a criminal monopoly. Jamaica’s gangsters will continue to enjoy total control over the ganja market. They will go on corrupting police, murdering their rivals and pushing their products to children. People who buy cocaine in Portugal face no criminal consequences, but their euros still end up paying the wages of the thugs who saw off heads in Latin America. For the producer countries, going easy on drug-users while insisting that the product remain illegal is the worst of all worlds.
Stir it up
That is why decriminalisation makes sense only as a step towards legalisation. Jamaica and other countries frustrated with the current regime should adopt the policy pioneered by brave Uruguay, Colorado and Washington state, the only places in the world to put criminals out of business. By legalising cannabis from cultivation to retail, these places have snatched the industry away from crooks and given it to law-abiding entrepreneurs. Unlike the mafia, they pay tax and obey rules on where, when and to whom they can sell their products. Money saved on policing weed can be spent on chasing real criminals, or on treatment for addicts.
Steps away from prohibition are to be welcomed. But half-measures could be as dangerous as overdoses.