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Thursday, July 26, 2001

Legalization: The drug war's best weapon


LONDON -- In Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Switzerland it is practically impossible to get arrested for buying or using "soft drugs." In the Netherlands, users may buy up to five grams of cannabis or hashish for private use at 1,500 licensed "coffee shops," and they are opening two drive-through outlets in the border town of Venlo to cater to German purchasers. Even in Canada, Conservative leader and former Prime Minister Joe Clark is openly calling for the decriminalization of cannabis. But that is still far short of what Sir David Ramsbotham, the outgoing chief inspector of prisons, suggested last Sunday in Britain.

"The more I look at what's happening, the more I can see the logic of legalizing drugs, because the misery that is caused by the people who are making criminal profit is so appalling and the sums are so great that are being made illegally. I think there is merit in legalizing and prescribing, so people don't have to go and find an illegal way of doing it," he said.

You will note that he said "drugs," not just "cannabis," and that he talked of "legalizing and prescribing," not just "decriminalizing." Most British politicians are afraid to go that far in public yet, but over the past week two former home secretaries and outgoing British "drugs czar" Keith Hellawell have all called for a debate on decriminalizing "soft drugs." And the new home secretary, David Blunkett, has given his support to a local experiment in the south London district of Brixton, where police will simply caution people found with cannabis.

Others, like Mo Mowlam, until recently the Cabinet Office minister responsible for the Labour government's drug policy, and Peter Lilley, former minister for social security and Conservative deputy leader, are now going further. "It strikes me as totally irrational to decriminalize cannabis without looking at the sale of it," said Mowlam. "It would be an absurdity to have criminals controlling the market of a substance people can use legally."

Lilley quoted a study in the respected medical journal "The Lancet" that concluded that "moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill effect on health, and decisions to ban or to legalize cannabis should be based on other considerations." For Lilley, banning cannabis is indefensible in a country where more harmful drugs like alcohol and tobacco are legal and he went the distance in accepting the implications of legalization.

Magistrates should issue licenses to local shops for the sale of limited amounts of cannabis to people over 18, Lilley said. Like tobacco, it would be taxed and carry a health warning -- and the tax yield on an estimated annual British consumption of 1,500 tons of cannabis a year has been calculated at about $23 billion if the cannabis were produced and marketed in exactly the same way as tobacco.

That is a pipe dream, of course. Many people would grow their own, and given the pre-existing black market, too high a rate of taxation on cannabis would simply push consumers back into the hands of the private dealers. Most experts think the highest practical rate of taxation would be around $3-$4 per gram, which would yield a mere $7-8 billion a year in extra tax revenue. But it would also cut law enforcement costs -- and it would keep cannabis users out of contact with "hard drug" dealers.

Opposition to legalizing cannabis has dropped from 66 percent to only 51 percent in the past five years, and the nay-sayers are overwhelmingly in the older age groups. It is a welcome outbreak of sanity, and even mere decriminalization in a major English-speaking country would have a profound effect on the debate in the United States, the heart and soul of the prohibitionist movement. But legalization of cannabis in Britain is unlikely because the U.S. government strong-armed all its allies into signing three international conventions that define cannabis as a dangerous drug.

To break out of those treaties would involve a larger effort of political will than any government with many other items on its agenda would be willing to undertake. So millions of individual Britons may benefit from the decriminalization of cannabis and an end to harassment, but the potentially large social and tax benefits of outright legalization are likely to be lost.

The bigger problem, however, is that most British advocates of decriminalization or legalization are too ignorant or too timid to extend the same argument to "hard drugs" like heroin and cocaine.

Nobody should use heroin, a highly addictive substance, for fun. Nobody should smoke cigarettes either, since they are even more addictive and a grave health hazard to boot. But quite apart from the civil rights considerations, nobody in their right minds would consider making cigarettes illegal.

The consequences of banning tobacco, in terms of creating a huge black market, expanding the field of operations of organized crime, bringing the law into disrespect, and criminalizing millions of harmless addicts, are simply unthinkable. So how can so many intelligent, well-educated people miss the analogy?

By making heroin and cocaine illegal, around $450 billion a year, or 8 percent of world trade, has been handed over to professional criminals. As a result, they have become rich enough to subvert entire countries.

Heroin addiction, before it was demonized by American lawmakers, was an undesirable but relatively low-cost affliction that had no adverse health consequences and left its victims free to lead a normal and productive life.

That's how it used to be in Britain, in fact. Only two years after the U.S. Congress, fresh from banning alcohol under the Volstead Act, imposed prohibition on the heroin family of drugs in 1924, the Rolleston committee in Britain concluded that non-medical heroin use was a problem needing help, not a crime needing punishment. So Britain adopted the policy of providing heroin on prescription to registered addicts -- and over the next 40 years, the number of addicts in Britain scarcely grew at all.

Then in 1971, largely in response to intense U.S. pressure to fall in with U.S. plans for global prohibition, British doctors were forbidden to prescribe heroin to addicts, and the black market came into being. The market then worked its usual magic, relentlessly expanding the customer base: since 1971, the number of heroin addicts in Britain has grown from fewer than 500 to around 500,000.

And because the black market charges them such a huge mark-up, most users can only support their habit by crime. It also provides them with a highly adulterated product of unknown strength, often mixed with lethal substances. So they spend a lot of time in jail, and die young.

As late as the 1990s, one British doctor in Liverpool was allowed to go on prescribing heroin to his addicted patients under a special Home Office license as an experiment. In the 10 years of the project none died, their arrest rate for property crimes dropped to close to the average for the area, and most managed to find jobs and stabilize their lives.

But then CBS television did a report on the project, infuriating the U.S. drug warriors so much that pressure from the American embassy in London forced the British government to shut the project down. The former patients were driven back onto the black market, and over the next two years 41 of them died.

It is not a war on drugs. It is a war on drug users, especially those from underprivileged and minority groups, driven by ignorance and fear and waged with lies. It kills the addicts, it destroys respect for the law, it creates huge criminal empires, and it undermines whole societies. It's crazy, and every year thousands defect from the futile struggle to "stamp out" drugs.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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