Thursday, 16 April 2009

The Home Office is far, far wrong on drugs

Quotes from a home office statement in reply to Transform's “A Comparison of the Cost-effectiveness of the Prohibition and Regulation of Drugs”

1 "Drugs are controlled because they are harmful.

2 "The law provides an important deterrent to drug use and legalisation would risk a huge increase in consumption with an associated cost to public health.

3 "The legalisation of drugs would not eliminate the crime committed by organised career criminals - neither ; such criminals would simply seek new sources of illicit revenue through crime."

"Drugs are controlled because they are harmful.”

The notion that illegal drugs are in any way “controlled” is utterly preposterous. The very essence of the illegal market is that it is carried out without any government regulation or control. Controlling illegal drugs is exactly what the reform advocates are proposing, and regulating manufacture and retail of drugs will considerably reduce the harm they can cause. All the illegal drugs are harmful it is true, but they are made considerably more dangerous by accidental or deliberate contaminants, inconsistent preparation strengths and ignorance of safe use.

The harm caused by cannabis and the skunk varieties in particular is causing great debate in the media. There is a strong likelihood that the skunk situation has been brought about because of simple production economics. Cannabis plants have been selectively bred and grown to maximise profit for the number of plants you are able to grow. Skunk is the strongest variety you can grow, so you will make more money growing and selling skunk. Were cannabis to be legalised, I would hope that a wide variety of strengths and active ingredient ratios would be on offer, so that the customer has the option of choosing the mellow, giggly cannabis variety rather than the anxiety, paranoia, delusion and perhaps mental illness inducing varieties that may be dominating the illegal market (certainly the press).

There is also a strong possibility that users of heroin will be able to move away from injection, the current likely method of administration. Injection of heroin maximises the delivery of the drug to the brain for each unit purchased. With prescribed or cheaply available heroin this cost consideration is no longer relevant, so users could employ safer, if less efficient, methods of administration.

“legalisation would risk a huge increase in consumption”

The likelihood of increased consumption is very small.

Currently, the vast majority of people's first exposures to any drug will occur in a social environment, most likely coinciding with the consumption of other drugs with which the person is already familiar (alcohol being the most likely). The person offering the drug experience will probably, in the case of “low-harm” drugs such as cannabis, amphetamines, ecstasy or cocaine be using their access to drugs as social currency. It is unlikely that they will be seeking any financial benefit, rather they are just showing off and wanting to make friends. A naïve, inebriated party-goer might judge this drug-provider as someone with connections, someone they would rather not offend, or they might just be curious about the drug experience and be unsure when another opportunity to experiment might arise.

Consider now a similar scenario in an environment of regulated drug supply. The person with drugs is now just some guy who went to the chemist. They need not be especially well connected, they have nothing to brag about and they are altogether less interesting. The person being offered drugs knows that they can go to the chemist themselves the next day if they are really interested and would know that the person offering the drug is committing the offence of unlicensed supply if they accept.

The current common scenario with heroin and crack is that the benign show-off of the soft-drug example is most likely themselves addicted to the hard drug being offered and is now more interested in making customers than friends. Such people will routinely seek out vulnerable young people and offer them some heroin or crack, often without disclosing the drug's identity, in the hope of recruiting them as customers for the drug they are selling to fund their own habit.

If prohibition was to end then heroin and crack addicts would have nothing to gain from exposing others to the drugs they use. Their drug of addiction would be either available on prescription or at an affordable rate that need not be funded by criminal activity.

I suspect and hope that the culture of drug use at social gatherings will become the far more mature and responsible “get your own” model that currently applies to alcohol at student parties. Such a rule for drugs would also be much easier to maintain as the drugs being used would not need to be kept in the fridge and can be safely stored in a pocket or purse.

If all drugs were legalised and regulated there would be no formal marketing and any unlicensed supply would be illegal and should be heavily punished. Anyone interested in obtaining drugs would have to go to a licensed pharmacy where they should be given the necessary educational material to allow them to make an informed decision on whether to proceed. I feel it wise that a request for heroin by any customer be followed by a week-long cooling-off period similar to those required when purchasing firearms in the USA. It is not desirable for anyone to be able to obtain such a powerful drug for recreational use on a whim or a “bad day”.

"The legalisation of drugs would not eliminate the crime committed by organised career criminals - neither ; such criminals would simply seek new sources of illicit revenue through crime."

There are so many things wrong with this presumption. Criminals are in the illegal drug trade because it is easy, highly profitable and, on examination, no more morally wrong than working in an off-license.

Drug-dealing is a victimless crime, at least in the eyes of those involved in the transactions. Each criminal event is not going to be reported or even detected if the dealers have any sense, so the likelihood of punishment is extremely small.

The average organised career drug-dealer probably sees himself as just another businessman supplying goods in response to demand. If demand for illegal drugs plummets (as it would if drugs were legalised and regulated) then there isn't going to suddenly be another illegal commodity that will appear to take their place in the market, certainly not one that will be so demonstrably worth the risk. If these gangsters have guns kicking around left over from their wars for drug-dealing territory, I suppose it might be plausible that they turn to armed robbery or other crimes requiring intimidation, but this example and any other alternatives would be considerably more risky than their former lifestyle and would quickly be rejected by the vast majority.

The only potential growth area of criminality that might fit the drug smugglers skills and experience would be sex trafficking. With the legalisation of hard drugs there would be a considerable drop in the number of prostitutes working to manage their addictions. I do not know if this would suddenly cause an explosion of demand for new prostitutes, but it is possible. I would hope that the huge gap in moral acceptability between drug and sex-trafficking would be one that the organised criminals would not care to cross, but this is an eventuality which has to be anticipated. Certainly those police units formerly employed in combating the drug trade would be much more usefully employed preventing the rape and imprisonment of young women.

Desirable features of the post-prohibition environment:

Newly legal drugs should only be available from licensed pharmacies from pharmacists trained in the risks, safe use and possible side-effects of the available drugs.

A wide range of cannabis varieties should be available to allow users to choose their favourite experience and to ensure pockets of illegal trade do not survive to plug gaps in provision.

A cool-off period (a week?) should be initiated before a naïve customer can get heroin from a pharmacy. For all other drugs a naïve customer should be given educational material that should be read through before completion of the sale on top of safe use and risk information vocally provided by the pharmacist. Pharmacists should refuse customers suspected to be already under the influence of any drug or suspected to be buying either for another person or, in the case of naïve customers, following encouragement by another person.

Penalties for unlicensed supply should remain at current levels in an attempt to ensure that everyone receiving drugs gets the appropriate educational material and pharmacist advice.

To be considered:

All existing heroin and crack addicts be prescribed maintenance doses to immediately take the bottom out of the illegal market.

Amnesties for firearms and other offensive weapons on the end of prohibition. Paying the bearer of the weapon a reasonable price for the weapon might encourage cooperation.

If people formerly involved in the drugs trade want to go clean they may need help with issues such as CV preparation and employment, and psychological therapy. The state should aid with their transition into a non-criminal lifestyle. Some might be usefully employed in the manufacture of the newly legal drugs. Others might require assistance in presenting the business skills they have acquired as skills relevant to employment. Large gaps in employment history might be a problem that would need addressed.

The more help we can give to drug criminals to assist their integration into society, the less likely would be a turn to other crimes following the lifting of prohibition.

The end of prohibition should have major impacts on:
Public Health
Numbers of children taken into care
Prison overcrowding
Respect for the police
Public finances
Foreign relations (Afghanistan and Latin America will be very happy)
Acquisitive crime and the fear of crime
Struggling urban communities

For more information the “Transform” blog is an excellent source.