Lifestyle Economics

Drugs: The war we choose to fight

Opponents of drugs reform often trot out the line that the UK gave up fighting the war on drugs some decades ago. They argue that, following the sexual and moral revolutions which shook British society during the 1960s, the police effectively stopped trying to enforce the laws prohibiting the possession and consumption of cannabis. Any negative consequences we see around drug use today, their argument goes, stem from a failure to properly enforce the law, rather than any issues with ongoing prohibition.

Yet, for those caught up in the so-called ‘War on Drugs’, the harm can still be horrific. Last Friday, just four days into 2019, police executing a search warrant on a house shot and killed a man who had, just months before, been a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces. Two men were arrested following the raid for possession of cannabis.

This is an extreme case, to be sure, and thankfully the British police forces rarely act in the same trigger-happy way as those in other countries when dealing with drug suspects. However, this is only the most tragic, and most public, example of the harm caused.

Until recently, our restrictions on medical marijuana prevented sufferers of certain illnesses from accessing huge potential benefits. And were it not for the publicity around the recent heart-breaking cases of epileptic children being denied access to cannabis oil, these constraints would likely still exist.

Despite claims that we do not police low-level drug use, Britain did manage to prosecute some 127,000 people between 2011 and 2015 for cannabis possession, and 15,120 people in 2017. In six years, a mass of people, equivalent to the population of Oxford, Cambridge or York trooped through the criminal justice system for possessing marijuana.

At the same time, such arrests, prosecutions and convictions fall most heavily on those least likely to attend the great universities of Oxford, Cambridge and York. According to the charity Release, black and ethnic minority people were between 2.4 and 11.8 times more likely to be convicted for cannabis possession, despite a significantly lower self-reported usage rate.

It isn’t just the human cost, either. Those approximately 160,000 people who have been prosecuted for cannabis possession took up significant amounts of police time. Their trials had to be paid for, along with any legal aid they might require. In the comparatively rare situation that they might receive a custodial sentence, this too costs the taxpayer a small fortune. ISER estimates that the total cost of policing and prosecuting drug offences might cost the exchequer £100m a year, with police claimed to spend up to 1.5 million man-hours working on cannabis-related cases.

Surely the time has come to ask whether these costs – in police hours, public sector costs, and blighted lives – are worth it – and perhaps look abroad for inspiration. Colorado became the first US state to legalise recreation marijuana possession and use in 2012, and the results have been impressive – police, freed from policing cannabis laws, have seen their clearance rates for violent and property crimes improve significantly, a result similarly replicated in Washington State.

Closer to home, Portugal provides another compelling example of the benefits of a more pragmatic drug policy. After Portuguese lawmakers decriminalised the possession and consumption of drugs in 2001, the number of drug-related deaths fell by 80%, coupled with a dramatic decrease in overall drug addiction and associated crime.

Yet whatever your views are on drug reform, surely it is time to confront these questions with real information, rather than slogans. You may agree or disagree with our drug policy. You might consider it too harsh, or too soft. But let no one be in doubt that we are choosing to fight a war on drugs, and we are blighting tens of thousands of lives to do so.

Policy Advisor to Mark Littlewood

Sam Collins is the Policy Advisor to Mark Littlewood, IEA Director General. Sam has spent most of his working life in the political and charitable sectors in New Zealand, Britain and the United States of America. Working most recently as the Director of The Hope Foundation for Street Children (UK) and currently as Director of The Age Endeavour Fellowship, Sam has previously been Operations Officer and Communications Consultant at the IEA, as well as a researcher at Progressive Vision. Sam has a BA/Hons in Politics and History from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and was the New Zealand National Party candidate for Wigram for the 2011 General Election.

3 thoughts on “Drugs: The war we choose to fight”

  1. Posted 13/01/2019 at 15:40 | Permalink

    I would urge Mr Collins to read the latest report from The Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drugs Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA) on the consequences of marijuana legalisation in Colorado.
    Increases in traffic accidents and deaths, usage among all ages, emergency department and other hospital admissions especially among very young children after consuming edibles. Suicides, crime and treatment for all ages with marijuana as their prime choice of substance abuse etc have also soared.
    Mr Collins should also watch this very disturbing Chronic State video on the consequences of legalisation 2018

  2. Posted 13/01/2019 at 17:48 | Permalink

    If the IEA wants to be taken seriously as a commentator on matters of drugs use policy, it will need to do much better than this poor, seriously under researched effort. Slipping into using the false planted memes and language of the well financed drug legalisation lobby, is an amateur error (the word “prohibition” is a good example) .

    The health consequences of legalised Cannabis, as is beginning to be discovered in places like Colorado, Hawaii and elsewhere, extends well beyond addiction (I in 9 or 10 heavy users of Cannabis) and beyond the mental illness identified by Professor Robin Murray in the UK. The teratogenic effects (like thalidomide) on embryos, are showing up in increased, gastroschisis, anancephaly and heart defects. There is a “rapid response” on this here, in the British Medical Journal, replying to an earlier very foolish article there:

    Gastroschisis, of which there is a worldwide increase, matching terratorial cannabis use, is babies being born with their large intestines hanging outside the body cavity. It results in death or immediate surgery or both. There has been an outbreak in South Wales, the NHS Wales website has a warning about Gastroschisis and Cannabis/Cocaine use in pregnancy. Annacephaly is babies born with tiny brains.

    Epigenetic effects, DNA damage, crossing generations via damage to male sperm is yet another issue where the developing science is also becoming very strong. Collins should know this.

    Apart from the absence of this science, Sam Collins also misleads on Portugal where the reality is not so differrent to the UK, yet the drugs problem is much worse. Portugal has NOT “decriminalised the possession and use of drugs, it still uses the law to take action against users and certainly against trafickers. Those found with “upto 10 days supply for personal use” are put before something called a “dissuasion commission” something like a Drug Court under our Common Law system. Drugs are seized. The Portugese criminal justice system remains involved.

    It is worth noting too that the recent UK Psychoactive Substances Act, to deal with what journalists in the UK called “legal highs” and “Headshops”, was preceded THREE YEARS EARLIER, by a Portruguese Law designed to deal with the same issue and what they called “Smartshops”.

    The impression so often given, that Portugal is very lax on illegal drugs is misleading.

    UK drugs laws have been effective at containing drugs use and personal and social harm The most commonly used illegal drug is Cannabis (around 7%) of the dult population. This compares with around 13 to 16% using tobacco, that figure itself well down from the 48% of tobacco users the UK had in 1948. That has been achieved using a combination of law and social opprobrium and has brought a substantial health dividend.

    Sam Collins fails, as so many have done before him, to make a well argued case for drug legalisation.

  3. Posted 22/01/2019 at 22:52 | Permalink

    I support legalising recreational cannabis use. If legal supplies were available and simple to buy, the illegal suppliers would dwindle fast, and the current crime of “possession with intent to supply” would become a historical curiosity.
    But I believe legalisation must be accompanied by regulation of the quality and strength of cannabis sold (the Netherlands are ahead of us on this). Regulating the quality and strength of cannabis is not anti-liberal or oppressive; it’s simple food standards. No-one wants to consume corrupted food; no-one should consume corrupted cannabis. No-one wants to find themselves drinking illegal hootch at 200% vol alcohol (a risk that existed under 1920s US Prohibition); it’s reassuring that alcoholic drinks are legal and regulated, so we have labels saying wine is 13% vol and vodka is 40% vol. We make our choices accordingly.
    People on this thread worry about bad outcomes from legalised cannabis. But they seem to assume no regulation. Most of the current tragedies result from lack of regulation – the lawless, dangerous and frightening world inhabited by illegal manufacturers, smugglers, middlemen and pushers in the dope industry. To cut these people out, cannabis should be legalised. and regulated for strength and quality.

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