Pubdate: Wed, 29 May 2002
Source: Financial Times (UK)
Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 2002
Author: Martin Wolf


European Countries Are Starting To Realise That A Policy Of Retribution 
Against Drug Addicts Is Both Immoral And Stupid

Small chinks are opening in the wall of stupidity that surrounds drug 
policy. In the US, a few brave souls are challenging the "war on drugs" - a 
euphemism for a war upon its citizens. The Netherlands and Switzerland are 
experimenting with decriminalisation. And, last week, a report from a 
select committee of the House of Commons even opened a few holes in British 
government policy. It is regrettably timid but still a small step in the 
right direction.

Fresh thought is desperately needed. In the early 1970s the UK followed the 
US into the war on drugs, with disastrous results. According to Transform, 
a British campaigning group, "in 1970 there were just over 1,000 heroin 
users. By 2000 that figure had grown to at least 200,000." According to the 
British crime survey for 2000, a third of those aged 16-59 had used illegal 
drugs, mostly cannabis, at some point in their lives. Of 9.5m young people 
aged 16 to 29, some 2.3m had used an illicit drug in 2000 alone.

Supply has not been halted: street prices of drugs have fallen over the 
past 12 years, not risen. Yet prohibition has inflicted substantial 
collateral damage. Ten per cent of all British people sent to prison in 
2000 were convicted of drug offences. On some estimates, a third of all 
property theft is drug-related. Overwhelmingly, these criminals, have been 
the so-called "problematic drug users" - estimated to number 250,000. Each 
of these people spends an average of about Pounds 16,500 a year on drugs, 
of which about Pounds 13,000 is the proceeds of crime.

Prohibition also creates an illegal market in the UK worth an estimated 
Pounds 6.6bn a year - a honeypot for organised criminals. But drugs are a 
global industry. Consider what it has done to Afghanistan and Colombia.

Thus, "if we judge whether the existing drugs policy is working by 
measurable reductions in the number of people who use drugs, the number who 
die or suffer harm as a result, the supply of drugs, the amount of crime 
committed to get money to buy drugs and the organised criminality involved 
in transporting and supplying drugs, we have to say that the results are 
not coming through." The radicals making this damning judgment are the 
Association of Chief Police Officers, no less.

There are three broad responses to the failures of this "war": moralistic, 
libertarian and utilitarian.

Moralists believe that the right response to failure is to try harder. In 
the US, federal government spending on anti-drug programmes rose from 
Dollars 900m in 1979 to Dollars 18bn (Pounds 12.3bn) in 1999. For 
moralists, the taking of drugs is downright wicked. William J. Bennett, 
America's first drugs tsar, argued that users of drugs were "slaves" of 
their vice. These slaves must be forced to be free - by being incarcerated, 
if necessary.

This Orwellian policy is stupid and immoral - stupid, because it does not 
work, and wicked, because the harm done by users to themselves is modest 
compared to the harm done by the state to users. As authors of an excellent 
book from the Washington-based Cato Institute argue, in attempting to stop 
people doing what they want, the state is forced to act in ever more 
intrusive, coercive and, in the US, simply unconstitutional ways.

The libertarian response is that, in the words of one of the Cato 
Institute's authors, "we cannot protect free adults from their own choices 
and we should not use the force of law to try". I find this position 
persuasive. Others, alas, do not.

For this reason, it is necessary to focus on the third approach: the 
utilitarian one of harm reduction. Drugs are harmful - but so is 
prohibition. The utilitarian's approach is to reduce the total harm to a 
minimum. Along with restricting supply, policy should aim at reducing 
demand, educating potential users, treating drug abusers and minimising 
harmful consequences for public health.

Someone committed to harm reduction could be a legaliser, since dangerous 
substances become more harmful if illegal and unregulated. But this 
combination is rare. This is partly because of fear of public opprobrium. 
It is also because of the concern that legalisation would lead to increased 
use (a concern that heavy taxation can alleviate but cannot eliminate).

The latter worry leads the House of Commons committee to end up opposing 
the idea of legalisation, even though it recognises - a remarkable step in 
itself - that in future "the balance may tip in favour of legalising and 
regulating some types of presently illegal drugs".

The result is a series of modest but useful reforms. These include: 
focusing the whole of policy not on casual users but on the most 
problematic drug abusers; reclassification of cannabis, in line with the 
proposals of Jack Straw, the home secretary, as a class C drug (the least 
harmful category); and reclassification of ecstasy as less harmful than 
either heroin or cocaine.

In addition, the report argues there should be: a substantial increase in 
treatment places for cocaine abusers; universal availability of methadone 
treatments; and complementary therapies for heroin users. It also 
recommends creating an evaluated pilot programme of safe houses for 
injections by heroin abusers, with a view to extending the programme across 
the country; and a pilot programme for structured heroin prescription, on 
the lines of the Dutch and Swiss programmes.

All this should be helpful, so far as it goes, which is not far enough. But 
the crucial point in the report is the admission that "if there is any 
single lesson from the experience of the last 30 years, it is that policies 
based wholly or mainly on enforcement (of prohibition) are destined to 
fail". It follows that "harm reduction rather than retribution should be 
the primary focus of policy towards users of illegal drugs".

Bravo! The UK is at last moving out of the US-led camp of hysterical 
moralists. Now it can start to think seriously. Sensible policies would 
provide treatment and hope for the drug-dependent, not punishment; they 
would deprive gangsters of their income, not try to push prices higher; 
they would provide honest information to potential users, not offer lies; 
they would reduce threats to public safety, not increase incentives for 
crime; and they would limit the spread of disease, not promote it.

The UK debate is improving. In time, policy may even reduce the costs of 
drug abuse, not raise them.

References can be found at  ---
MAP posted-by: Beth