Time to end the War on Drugs

Is something about to change in the way we face the challenge of illegal drug use? The Summit of the Americas is taking place in Colombia, and it seems that something is stirring. You can read about it in the Observer, here. 

Another conference about drugs? Nothing new in that, you might think. Well, there is. The Summit of the America’s brings together 33 out of 35 heads of government from the Americas; until now most conferences about drug abuse which have posed radical solutions have been shunned by those who hold office, and been supported by people who are former office holders, that is to say, people able to talk about drug decriminalisation and legalisation without fear of committing electoral suicide. But this conference is a gathering of men and women in office. That, I think, is a first.

The other thing is this: consider these words which come from Mauricio Rodriguez, a close aide to President Santos of Colombia and the current Colombian Ambassador to London:

[The outcome] could mean anything from blanket legalisation to a new and different war on drugs. We just do not know until we have the data, investigate every option with open minds, and have the full picture drawn up by experts who know the terrain, and are not motivated by interests, ideology or emotion. Whatever it is, it must be real change, based upon new paradigms.

One imagines that someone like Mr Rodriguez chooses his words carefully. Until now few have dared mention the prospect of “blanket legalisation”. Moreover, Mr Rodriguez’s words warn us off being motivated by “interests, ideology or emotion”. This too is much to be welcomed. Too much of the talk (one can hardly call it a debate) about drugs has been deformed by interests, ideology and emotion.

The emotions are well known. Many people have died through taking illegal drugs, and many lives have been ruined and entire communities blighted. These are all bad things, and all sensible people should deplore them; but this does not, as such, constitute a reason for keeping drugs illegal; in fact, quite the opposite, as if drugs were legal it might be much easier to help those adversely affected by them. Moreover, the illegality of the drugs as opposed to their being drugs per se, is what often does so much harm, insofar as their production, distribution and sale is in the hands of criminals who have only armed force as a means of resolving disputes. Legalisation would remove a vast illegal exclave from our society.

Ideology is equally harmful. The idea that the state should fight a war against drugs is statist. Yes, drugs should be resisted, but this has to be done at the level of the individual conscience. There are many sinful and harmful activities that are not and should not be illegal – adultery for example. That destroys families; but the idea that adultery should be stopped by state intervention is lunacy. The state must never replace the individual conscience.

And what about interests? This is a murky one. Some people in power may want drugs to remain illegal, because legalisation might well put them out of a job or lose them lucrative illegal pay-offs from the drug industry.

I have written about this before. I refer you to that article if you think that by advocating the abandonment of the War on Drugs, and adopting anew strategy of harm reduction I am somehow advocating free licence in other fields. It is because I think the War on Drugs so wrong-headed, and because it has produced so little by way of a reduction in illegal drug taking, that I want change.