Pubdate: Sun, 5 Apr 2009
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Gerard O'Neill
Note: Gerard O'Neill is an economist and market researcher; his blog 
Cited: Transform


Imagine a single policy measure that could wipe out criminal gangs, 
improve the health of the nation, transform the Irish legal system, 
empty our prisons, deal a blow to international terrorism and boost 
government tax revenues. I'm talking about legalising drugs. Yet, 
extraordinary as it seems, there is little or no support for such a 
measure. I suspect that will change in the next few years.

Ireland has a drug prohibition policy that isn't working. The latest 
report on Irish crime statistics from the CSO shows crime levels in 
every category falling with one obvious exception: controlled drug 
offences. Indeed, many of the worst crimes in other categories - 
gangland killings, for example - are a consequence of our failing 
prohibition policy.

At an international level, the war on drugs has been an even bigger 
disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as 
consumption has soared in the rich world. By any sensible measure, 
this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless. 
Ask the people of Mexico, a country engaged in a civil war with 
powerful drug gangs fuelled by revenues and weapons from their client 
state north of the border.

This global picture reflects the dominance of America in shaping and 
operating UN drug control agencies and policies. It is as if the 
prohibition impulse didn't go away in America but instead got 
channelled from alcohol into cannabis, LSD, heroin and other drugs. 
But the sheer cost - financial, political, social and moral - of the 
war on drugs is forcing a rethink in several countries - even in the 
United States.

By legalising drugs we can apply the same controls to their 
production, distribution and consumption as we apply to alcohol and 
tobacco. And there's a triple bonus to society: spending on crime 
prevention will plunge, not just on drug-related policing but on all 
the criminality arising from the activities of drug-financed gangs; 
crime levels overall will plunge; and the government becomes a net 
recipient of monies from drug consumption rather than a net spender 
via law enforcement. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that 
the United States spends $44 billion (UKP32.76 billion) a year 
fighting the war on drugs. If they were legal, the US government 
would realise about $33 billion a year in tax revenue - a net swing 
of $77 billion.

Countries like Portugal are experimenting with drug policy 
innovations that seek to secure some of these benefits. In 2001, 
Portugal decriminalised the use, possession and acquisition of 
illicit substances for personal use, which was defined as being up to 
10 days supply of that substance.

Possession, however, has remained prohibited by Portuguese law and 
criminal penalties are still applied to drug growers, dealers and 
traffickers. Rather than criminalise drug users, Portugal established 
expert panels of health and other professionals designed to dissuade 
new drug users and help drug addicts. The results so far are a 
massive decline in drug-related deaths and illnesses, and a switch 
away from "harder" drugs such as heroin to "softer" drugs such as cannabis.

Ambitious policy changes don't have to be a once-and-forever shift. 
Organisations like Transform in the UK propose that the legalisation 
of drugs could be tried for, say, three years: long enough to wipe 
out the gangs and criminals; to determine the wider health and social 
consequences; and to refine policies further.

We continually refine policies on alcohol and smoking consumption 
(both of which have declined markedly, despite their legality and 
affordability) and the same would apply to drugs. Similarly with 
effective advisory and educational measures for potential and actual users.

As for worried parents (like me) the message is simple: your children 
are already living in a society with ubiquitous access to these 
drugs. Their decision to use them is as much subject to what you 
advise them to do as is their consumption of alcohol and cigarettes. 
Just because something is legal doesn't make it something you have to 
approve of. I discourage my children from smoking.

One hundred years ago, our newspapers carried front page 
advertisements for opium and cannabis. Ecstasy was legal up to the 
1960s. Magic mushrooms to the 2000s. The point is that society's 
attitudes to drugs changes all the time.

We've tried prohibition and it has failed. So my advice to Brian 
Lenihan as he tries to balance the budget is this: legalise it, 
control it, tax it. He will have my full support on that one.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake