Pubdate: Wed, 28 May 2014
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: 2014 The Scotsman Publications Ltd
Author: Allan Massie
Page: 22


Decriminalisation Would Allow the State to Set Manufacturing Standards
and Collect Taxes, Writes Allan Massie

Every week, people appear in sheriff courts all over Scotland charged
with drug offences. Sometimes they are in possession of drugs for
their own use. Sometimes they are charged with supplying them to
others, often acquaintances, friends or members of their own family.

They are, I suppose, dealers, if only in a small way, though they may
also have closer connections to organised drug crime, which is, after
all, a big and profitable business.

Occasionally a big shot is arrested.

Assets are seized and charities, sports clubs etc may benefit from the
distribution by the state of the profits of crime.

Most of those who come up before the courts seem, however, to be small
fry, often the smallest of small fry. They acquire a criminal record
because possession of certain named drugs is illegal.

Vast numbers of people -- hundreds of thousands, millions probably --
habitually or occasionally use these same drugs, but are fortunate
enough not to be arrested and charged with possession. Everybody knows
that drug use is common, that, for instance, City traders snort
cocaine and drugs are passed round the table at dinner parties.
Newspaper columnists write of their own drug use, and do so with impunity.

The vast majority of drug users , at all levels of society, shrug
their shoulders at the law, which they probably regard as ridiculous,
if also potentially oppressive.

At this point anyone writing on the subject should make his own
position known.

Alcohol, happily legal, was my drug. It brought me much pleasure and
did me great harm till I gave it up almost 20 years ago. A long time
ago, I smoked a little cannabis and at university occasionally took a
pep pill, trade name Drinamyl, which combined an amphetamine with a
barbiturate. In those days you could buy it over the chemist's counter
and it was good if you wanted to stay up all night writing an essay or
playing poker.

But I have no experience of cocaine or heroin or any of the many
varieties of pill available now. My drugs in old age are caffeine and
nicotine, both legal. So my interest in the subject is, in the exact
sense of the word, disinterested.

It is evident that drugs can be harmful.

They may provoke or induce psychotic episodes.

They may do long-term damage to the brain.

They may result in early death, and addiction may be painful,
distressing, altogether horrible, not only for the addict but also for
his or her family.

All this is undeniable, but the same may be said of alcohol, which can
have precisely the same results, and, of course, people who have
committed acts of violence under the influence of "drink taken" also
provide business for our sheriff courts, week after week, year after
year. But nobody is charged with possession of alcohol, unless the
bottles have been stolen, because alcohol is a respectable drug and,
as our national poet declared, "Freedom an' Whisky gang thegither".
Any attempt to ban alcohol would meet with fierce resistance and, if
successful, would unquestionably have dire consequences. Prohibition
was imposed on the American people in the 1920s, to the benefit of Al
Capone and other mobsters. Organised crime profited and the
consumption of liquor, often of a dangerous quality, rose.

We have had a comparable experience here. For more than half a century
now the government has been pursuing a policy of prohibition, directed
not at alcohol, but at various drugs, according to how they are
classified. Governments have at times spoken of a "war on drugs". It's
a war that has been lost. It has failed to curb drug use. The
individuals who appear in our sheriff courts are like the stragglers
who have fallen behind an advancing army and are easily picked off by
the forces of order.

Meanwhile, despite the publicity given to "major drug hauls", the
criminal "Godfathers" continue to do very well, thank you, and their
chief problem is how to launder their handsome profits.

Scotland's newest, and most surprising, elected politician, the Ukip
MEP David Coburn, is not someone with whom I am likely to agree on
much. But when he says he would "probably decriminalise drugs" because
the present law "breeds crime", and he thinks drug use should be
treated as a "health problem", he is surely right.

There are two arguments to be made against our present drug laws; and
they are both good. The first is philosophical; that they represent an
unwarrantable restriction of personal liberty; that it is not the
business of the state to tell us what we may or may not consume so
long as this does not directly harm others.

In practice, such libertarian arguments usually have to be shaded at
the edges, an example being the law relating to abortion, which
qualifies a woman's right to control her own body by imposing a time
limit on terminations of pregnancy.

But in general the libertarian argument is sound, and should be

The second argument is practical.

The war on drugs has been lost. It "breeds crime". Supply has not been
curtailed, let alone choked off. The laws prohibiting drug use are
widely disregarded. Consequently, people who are otherwise law-abiding
view the law with hostility and contempt. This is not a desirable
state of affairs.

Decriminalisation would be good. It would take us back to how things
were in the Victorian age, when opium derivatives such as laudanum
were as widely available as gin and whisky.

But legalisation would be better still, since it is possible to
control the quality of legal drugs. Legally distilled gin is less
damaging than bathtub gin; in those states in India where alcohol is
prohibited, people are always being killed by drinking illicit stuff,
just as happens with drugs here today.

Furthermore, if you legalise drugs, you can not only set health
standards that manufacturers must abide by, but you can also tax them
just as you tax alcohol and tobacco today.

It's amazing that governments have missed such an obvious means of
raising revenue, and instead prefer to pursue their costly and
ultimately hopeless war on drugs.

At the time of the agitation for parliamentary reform in the 1820s,
there was a famous cartoon which showed a lady, called Mrs Partington,
trying to push back the Atlantic with a broom. The war on drugs sees
Mrs Partington at it again.
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MAP posted-by: Matt