The case for a more liberal drugs policy

Last month two young men tragically died after taking ecstasy (MDMA) during an event at Alexandra Palace in North London. Over the next few days the newspapers were flooded with commentary on the shocking dangers of the drug. This is why, they said, drugs are illegal. Goodness, how wrong were those who called for a liberalisation of drugs policy?

Yet, not for the first time, they spectacularly missed the point. Drugs prohibition in Britain is dangerously counterproductive from an economic, practical and moral perspective.

The economic argument was famously and quite brilliantly outlined by Milton Friedman. By restricting market forces, denying free choice and overruling consumer sovereignty, the state creates a perverse protectionist situation where only large organised cartels can afford to import drugs. It doesn’t take an economic genius to understand the huge inflationary effect on prices; as Friedman says, ‘what more could a monopolist want?’

Furthermore, prohibition directly results in massive government expenditure. Jeffrey Miron and Katherine Waldock have outlined the tremendous cost evident in the United States, but even in Britain over £4 billion of taxpayer’s money is spent each year on the enforcement of laws relating to Class A drugs alone. In times of austerity the economic implications are clear; yet Friedman raises an important ethical consideration as well, convincingly arguing that ‘I believe it is immoral to impose heavy costs upon people to protect other people from their own choices’.

Now let us take a more practical viewpoint and look at the specific case of those terrible deaths at Alexandra Palace. It was reported that the adverse effects suffered by the victims were the result of them taking a new and more potent form of MDMA. They did not take the stuff that thousands of people across the country do every weekend, but something different, up to six times stronger, and considerably more dangerous.

Therein the problem lies. Due to its illegality and the consequential covert and unofficial nature of its sale, it is impossible for MDMA users to ascertain the purity of the powder they are purchasing. For all they know it could contain all manner of harmful substances with which the MDMA they actually want has been cut. Alternatively it could be a relatively safe product unlikely to cause the user any harm whatsoever. Or, as those two men found out last month, it could be a new and untested form of the drug.

MDMA has its dangers, but so does alcohol, tobacco, even coffee. The difference is the customer knows what he is getting with the last three, so knows how much to consume safely. The illegal nature of MDMA means he has no idea. Legalisation would solve that problem.

Even if you hate the thought of drugs, a more liberal policy – starting with the legalisation of MDMA – is common sense from an economic, practical and moral point of view. Tragically, it may have saved the lives of those two young men at Alexandra Palace last month.

Unfortunately the pervading logic of those in support of prohibition is that a few deaths set an example to those who may be considering experimenting, as long as its not their own children. But these victims of poisoning are all someones children, brothers, sisters, parents. I live in Swansea where recently local councillor John Jenkins said of the treatment Naxolone (prevents death from heroin overdose if taken soon after) "Are we making the problem worse by making the drug safer? There should be a fear of drug taking." Here is a link to the story http://www.thisissouthwales.co.uk/story-13741047-detail/story.html Its even more worrying that we live in a society where expressing these kinds of callous sentiments is acceptable. We are one of the richest countries in the world with some of the worst social problems underpinned by patchy social cohesion. This social cohesion can not be improved by authoritarian policy, it's an organic process. This means we have to persuade rather than punish to actually affect positive change. The current 'one size fits all' approach does not address what is a very complex argument and we need leadership urgently on this issue that acts on the vast evidence base from qualified experts. Even the ACMD (Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs) advise a regulated market place for cannabis based on evidence from other countries and the effects of stop and search on public confidence in the police, yet the government are still hiding behind the threat of a right wing press backlash. We deserve much better!
The experience of US Prohibition of alcohol is highly instructive on the health consequences of banning 'drugs'. The ban resulted in large numbers of deaths (not to mention unrecorded health consequences) from drinking poorly distilled liquor that often contained methanol and other toxic substances. As the manufacturers were operating illegally, quality control was poor and consumers had none of the options to rely on information from signals such as brands, consumer groups, trade associations etc which normally convey information regarding quality. Whether or not government agencies such as the FSA (FDA in the US) help improve quality (I suspect not), clearly such government advice would not be available either. The same is exactly true of modern drugs. Could one imagine the outcry if, say, Diageo was responsible for poisoning a large number of its customers? Consumer confidence would collapse, customers would abandon the products and perhaps litigation would ensue. Thus it is strongly in Diageo's interests not to poison its customers! However, under an illegal market these constraints apply far less strongly, if at all. We should also remember that the careers of celebrated criminals such as Al Capone were built on the illegal liquor trade just as, for instance, the Colombian drugs barons or most organised crime are today. I would imagine that one of the biggest lobby groups in favour of drug criminalisation would be the drugs gangs themselves!
It’s hard to argue with drug warriors. For them, it’s a holy war, and a paean to a central tenet of progressive ideology: the masses are weak and need powerful government to protect them from themselves. When the drug war creates problems, drug warriors double-down. They don’t easily give up the faith. The war on drugs won’t end until freedom-loving people return to limited, self-government. One can’t support a comprehensive government safety net and not expect to find drug-warriors seated at the table. Michael Reznicek, M.D. www.drrez.com @DoctorRez
So prohibition is the cause of drug usage deaths! Hmmmm. An interesting commentary on the motives of the writer, and from which it also appears that the drug user is not responsible for his own decisions. However, only DEMAND REDUCTION eventually stops drug usage - fatal or not and prohibited or not. And demand is caused by the USER. So lets start curing addicts instead of trying to make sure they get the right "gear". Does Alexander consider alcohol "prohibited" or not? If "not", do we have an ideal scene in our town centres on Friday and Saturday nights? Do we have criminal suppliers of "doubtful" alcohol at lower prices or not? Is he also going to stop the prohibition of dogs with rabies? And the prohibition of paedophiles? Prohibition has a rightful place in our society, economy and morality, but it is the nature of the prohibition and how it is applied which makes it successful or otherwise.
Kenneth E. It is a very rare thing indeed to find a discussion about prohibition that advocates prohibiting coffee (and anything that contains caffeine), foods that are excessively fatty, salty or sweet, extreme sports, driving at over 20mph, watching movies containing swearing, violence, nudity, flash photography etc etc. You get my point. So the fact that you have to mention the likes of paedophilia, rabid dogs shows that you're short on material to argue against decriminalisation or legalisation. We do indeed have criminal suppliers of dubious cheap alcohol, but the amount of people affected by it is tiny, and that is mainly because alcohol is not illegal and so most people use their common sense and buy legitimate alcohol. And because alcohol is legal there is also a legal thriving home-brewing scene nationwide. Education and awareness of dangers of misuse is seen to be the way to go. Alcohol has been proven, time and time again, to be a serious menace to health because it is so easy to abuse and is tremendously addictive. It has a lethal dose and that dose is not so large as to be a barrier to anyone overdosing. Yet we trust Jo(e) public to be able to make an informed decision regarding alcohol without compromising their liberties. We regulate alcohol and tax it. Many people make an honest living from it and pay their taxes as a result. We accept that alcohol has positives as well as negatives. What are the positives of paedophilia and rabid dogs? The excuses for the hypocritical and contradictory laws around substances that alter our state of consciousness have to stop. For many people alcohol is totally unsuitable and they become ill or addicted through using it. If they had a choice to use something that suited their type, and is legal and regulated and taxed, then they would probably use it without detrimental effects. Instead many law abiding people only have one choice, alcohol or nothing. The whole of human history testifies to the fact that people will alter their state of mind through substance use, whether alcohol or something else (more often than not a safer alternative to alcohol!). So giving the choice of alcohol or nothing is easily seen as cruel and inhumane. But you have to leave emotionally triggered knee-jerk reactions behind to see that. Ask yourself, would you like to buy your alcohol (or your medicine) from organised crime sources? What do you think they would be funding with the profits? What confidence would you have in the product being what you wanted? How concerned would you be about contaminants, methanol, glycerol etc. What we actually have is a system that make sure people get the right gear and also seeks to treat addicts, aswell as those who have inflicted harm upon themselves through abusing it. But we don't have prisons full of people for possession or selling, and we don't millions with criminal records for using or selling it. And we don't spend billions on enforcing an unenforcible prohibition which generates no tax towards dealing with the negative consequences. Most of Europe is ahead of us in the UK when it comes to prohibition, by ahead i mean more mature. Even the USA is getting sensible about it, albeit state by state. When are we going to start evolving too?

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