You may or may not have seen comment by Nigel Farage, the UKIP party leader, in mid February that he had finally heard something from Nick Clegg that he could agree with. Nick Clegg said that ‘the so-called War on Drugs isn’t working’ and that ‘we should appoint a royal commission to look into the alternatives’. (one report is here).
UKIP received a serious briefing on this topic at the 2004 annual conference when the newly retired head of the Association of Chief Police Officers made exactly the same point. Now he was no longer a serving policeman he could speak freely. Prohibition had failed and an alternative had to be found.
Then in early 2007 a study was published in The Lancet that classified drugs by the actual harm they do. This study placed alcohol and tobacco in the upper half of the league table, ahead of cannabis and several Class A drugs such as ecstasy. The classification system used was developed by a team led by Professor David Nutt, from the University of Bristol, and Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council and it rated the different types of drug by the harm they do to the individual, to society and whether or not they induce dependence.
In order to provide familiar benchmarks, five legal drugs, including tobacco and alcohol were included in the assessment. Alcohol was rated the fifth most dangerous substance, and tobacco ninth. Heroin was rated as the most dangerous drug, followed by cocaine and barbiturates. Ecstasy, however, rated only 18th, while cannabis was 11th.
Of course our gutless politicians did nothing and in fact Professor Nutt was sacked in 2009 from his position as the Labour government’s Chief Drug Advisor for saying the same thing again.
Now it is a self-evident truth that if alcohol was invented today it would be banned and the hypocrisy of the current system is obvious. The situation at the moment is the equivalent to our children being sold 100% proof, home distilled alcohol at the school gates. This ‘moonshine’ would have been brewed in dubious conditions, by dubious individuals, from dubious ingredients and the profits from this exercise would go direct to organised crime. By allowing the legal sale of alcohol the government ensures that the product is clean from poisons, it is sold at regulated strengths (e.g. 5% = beer, 15% = wine, 40% = spirits) at regulated times and places and it’s use is factored into things like, for example, drink-drive laws. The ability to raise taxes on alcohol is not a minor side issue either.
The same has to be true of other drugs. Yes, Cannabis use may cause brain dysfunction but it is about time a serious study was undertaken into the relative dangers of using different strengths on Cannabis. It is likely that, as with alcohol, there are safer levels and there are more dangerous levels. The strongest legal alcohol is about 40% proof and that is strong enough so that nobody goes round making 100% proof alcohol to drink. The same is likely to be true of Cannabis. If the level of 15% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in Cannabis) in powerful ‘skunk’ cannabis causes dysfunction but a lower level does not, then selling packaged lower level cannabis cigarettes in an off licence should be all that is required. As with alcohol, the Tax revenues from legalising other drugs would be a major boost to the exchequer and the revenue loss would cut organised crime off at the knees.
It is time that politicians brought some consistency and practical realism into drugs legislation and , for a start, all drugs less dangerous than alcohol should be legalised. The safest levels and methods of use need to be researched, along with methods of detection and updates to the drink drive laws and then they should be taxed, controlled and sold in the same way as alcohol. Whether the law should go the whole hog and legalise all drugs should be considered but even if they are not their use must be decriminalised. A Heroin addict needs help and society does not benefit from treating addicts like criminals. The health issues are massive as well. Pure pharmaceutical heroin can be taken indefinitely without any negative effects. It isn’t poisonous like alcohol. If an alcoholic continues to drink indefinitely, the alcohol itself will destroy the liver and kill whereas heroin just rapidly makes you completely dependent on getting more heroin. Street heroin screws addicts up badly because it is mixed with all sorts of junk. The police found all sorts of street heroin in the actor Philip Hoffman’s apartment after his death, including heroin cut with the powerful pain reliever fentanyl, which is a major cause of heroin overdose death.
Crime is another issue. While the are many good reasons why nobody should start using heroin, once they have started they will do anything to get it. That is why when the Swiss started proscribing free heroin to junkies – it cut the overall crime rate by nearly 20% and street crime by about 70%. The benefits of proscribing won’t just include reducing the cost of your home contents insurance and reduce the chance that you will get mugged, it will also dramatically increase the quality of life for the addicts and the chance of getting them off drugs.
We have a blind spot for alcohol because our culture has used it to provide clean drinking water for a thousand years and our ancestors must have spent half their lives under the influence. So don’t let us get hung up on the headlines of a lazy press and power hungry politicians who do what they think is popular rather than right. This is an issue that has obvious logic and socially is currently a cancer in our society.