"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Friday, December 17, 2010

How 'stupid' is the 'war on drugs'?

I see Ed Miliband has 'rebuked' Bob Ainsworth for suggesting that the liberalisation of drugs should be considered as an alternative to the 'disastrous' policy of prohibition.

I'm more inclined to agree with Mr Ainsworth than his critics but I'm not comfortable with the way in which people who take my view seem to suggest that the argument for liberalisation is unarguable and that to insist on the continuation of prohibition is merely stupid.

The language of the 'war on drugs' was certainly a fairly silly semantic trap to fall into - involving as it does the declaration of hostilities on inanimate objects, and then being seen to lose.

But laying so much weight on unfortunate rhetoric is hardly taking on the policy of prohibition at its strongest point and it involves itself the formulation of arguments that are themselves rather weak. Amongst these I would include the following:

1) That the 'war on drugs' demonstrably 'hasn't worked'. No, obviously - but I think people are taking their cue from the rhetoric that they have already dismissed as nonsensical. It wouldn't make anymore sense to say that the 'wars' against rape and murder have been lost and should therefore be abandoned either. They wouldn't say this because they are making an implicit distinction of harm to self and harm to others. The argument against prohibition should rest on a more explicit formulation of this point.

2) The argument that prohibition empowers criminal gangs as they flourish as suppliers of a product that people want but are unable to obtain through legal means. I don't really disagree with this - I just think people should be a little more circumspect. Criminal gangs are also heavily involved in enterprises that are perfectly legal, such as nightclubs and private car hire firms, as well as illegally supplying legal products such as tobacco. Also, if a move away from prohibition is to be 'evidence-based' there should be some kind of assessment of how the harm caused by criminal gangs supplying drugs compares to the potential harm that might arise from new crimes. There is, after all, a colossal crime problem associated with the legal drug of alcohol. Do gangsters cause more misery than these?

3) The argument that prohibition doesn't limit supply. Here you often get bloggers and journalists waving their street-wise credentials. Drugs are easily available to them and people they associate with and since they obviously move in a very narrow circle, they universalise the experience. "Is there anyone who doesn't know where to get drugs?" Well, I think my mother, even if she were so inclined, would find it a bit tricky. But the point is, even when people don't, it is not just the lack of availability that limits demand. There is the (admittedly small) chance of detection, which people might not want to risk - and there's constraints imposed by the relative inconvenience of acquiring the product and the inability to guarantee the quality of the product, which deters potential customers.

The 'war on drugs' obviously 'doesn't work' according to its own definition but it doesn't follow from this that it doens't work in some other more realistic sense. Better to argue more straightforwardly that it isn't justified from a liberal point of view. The utilitarian case can be made also but I don't understand why people make it with such certainty, which brings me to the weakest point in the pro-liberalisation argument:

4) The argument for complete legalisation makes an assumption about a future that cannot be known from the pre-Misuse of Drugs Act days and is therefore by definition not 'evidence-based'. This is why liberalisation, were it to be attempted, should be done - and argued for - more carefully.

This is not to say I find the arguments for prohibition any more convincing than I did. They certainly aren't in the hands of James Brokenshire, the crime prevention minister:
"Legalisation fails to address the reasons people misuse drugs in the first place or the misery, cost and lost opportunities that dependence causes individuals, their families and the wider community."
When looking for a 'cure' for behaviour they disapprove of, people often over-rate the importance of finding the motive. Even if you do discover them, they can often disappoint. I think it was Irvine Welsh who said, "People take drugs because they like them. Everything else is sociological window-dressing."
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