The ‘war on drugs’ is the problem, not the solution. It never made sense: now we have the proof

The perennial question of the so-called “war on drugs”, I see, has emerged again, in the form of a debate involving in some way Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame and Sir Richard Branson, both of whom, it seems, are in favour of liberalising our drugs laws. Before the subject goes underground yet again (which it really shouldn’t; it’s an important and, because of Afghanistan, an urgent question) I seize this opportunity of saying that despite the fact that I find both these luminaries deeply irritating, and despite the fact that I am a fully paid-up traditionalist (and from time to time unashamed reactionary), I entirely agree with them both on this if on nothing else. We sometimes hear that the war in Afghanistan is “unwinnable”; I’m not sure about that: but I am certain, and have been for years, that the “war on drugs” is both unwinnable and massively counter-productive.

The facts are there for anyone to see. The more difficult it gets to smuggle in drugs, the higher their price rises, and the more profitable it becomes to smuggle them in. That’s why a free trade conservative like the economist Milton Friedman was in favour of the legalisation of the possession of hard drugs: current restrictions were for him a classic illustration of the need for the free market. By waging war on the illegal supply of drugs, vastly raising their scarcity and therefore their profitability, we had created the massive wealth of the Colombian drugs barons and corrupted the politics of a whole nation and those surrounding it. Heroin is a cheap drug to produce: if we decriminalised possession of it, supplying it (and other addictive drugs) to addicts free of charge on the NHS as part of a programme of treatment, not only would we seriously address the problem of addiction, we would undermine the illegal drugs market, dealing a blow against burglary and violent crime, at least half of which, according to some estimates, is directly drug-related (an addict will steal from his own mother).

Afghanistan provides a vivid illustration of this phenomenon on a vast scale. Here, the drugs barons are the Taliban, whose powerful military capacity is largely funded by the illegal poppy crop (which has also deeply corrupted the government of Hamid Karzai). All this could be dealt with by legalising the crop, thus solving the problem of a worldwide shortage of pharmaceutical morphine, under a scheme which has the most respectable origins. Take a look at this from the Chemistry World website:

This year’s opium harvest in Afghanistan will be ‘shockingly high’, according to figures released this week by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). They estimate that the country now supplies over 90 per cent of the world’s heroin.

The news has fuelled criticism of the current US-led strategy, which aims to eradicate the crop. Instead, there is growing support for a scheme promoted by a European think tank, the Senlis Council, which hopes to establish a trial licensing scheme that would allow farmers to sell their opium for legitimate, medicinal use.

The Senlis Council started research into its Poppy for Medicine scheme in 2005, and in October 2007 published plans outlining exactly how a pilot scheme would run. The project has since received the backing of the European Parliament.

A key feature of the project is that farming communities could cultivate poppy crops, which would then be turned into morphine tablets in facilities built in Afghanistan. The Senlis Council says that this will help to build the infrastructure for producing medicines, and create legitimate trade and stability in the most insecure regions where insurgency is rife.

The current approach – forcibly eradicating opium crops – is interfering with the counter-insurgency operations, claims Norine MacDonald, president of the Senlis Council. ‘When the crop is knee-high, tractors come in and plough the field to destroy it. The tractors are driven by Afghans but they are under the supervision of a private US military firm,’ MacDonald told Chemistry World. ‘So the locals see foreigners supervising people who are destroying their livelihoods. And there is a great deal of violence and anger in response.’

That’s why the war in Afghanistan is “unwinnable”: it’s for the same reason as the “war on drugs” is unwinnable.

The argument against all this, of course, is that if you were to legalise drugs there would be a massive increase in drug-taking and addiction. But this is simply not borne out by what happens if you actually do it. I was arguing in this way 20 years ago. Since then, the evidence has been piling up, most tellingly in the form of the experience of those countries which have been convinced by this argument and have changed their drugs laws. The fact is that, whether counter-intuitively or not, legalising drugs (“hard” or “soft”) actually reduces their use and slashes drug addiction. What actually happens, in other words, is the very opposite of what is supposed to happen: drug use falls, and, freed from the fear of prosecution, addicts come forward for treatment. That is what happened in Portugal; have a look at this, from (of all places) Time magazine:

The question is, does the new policy work? At the time, critics in the poor, socially conservative and largely Catholic nation said decriminalizing drug possession would open the country to “drug tourists” and exacerbate Portugal’s drug problem; the country had some of the highest levels of hard-drug use in Europe. But the recently released results of a report commissioned by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, suggest otherwise.

The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.

“Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

I rest my case. If you want to read more, have a look at this, by the distinguished journalist Misha Glenny, writing, it seems to me unanswerably, in the New York Times. As he says, the problem now is political: “Supporters of legalisation have all but won the moral and intellectual debate, but they now face the most difficult argument of all — the political one. That is unlikely to be won in Washington, where prohibition continues to enjoy powerful support. But we are seeing an erosion of the drug-war consensus in countries like Argentina, Mexico, Portugal and Switzerland — where drugs either have been decriminalized or de facto legalised.”

The fact is that our existing policy has led to death and violence on a vast scale, most obviously in Afghanistan, Latin America and the US but also, though, on a marginally smaller scale, here too (do you really think that last summer’s riots had nothing to do with this problem?). Portugal is one of the first countries to benefit from an idea whose time has come. Now, it is time for us, too, to open our eyes.