Monday, 28 September 2015

The Real Reason Drugs are Still Illegal.

I have outlined many, many times why drug policy is insane, and how a properly regulated supply-chain, generating taxes rather than spending them on the futile task of interdicting supply, would be better than the current system of prohibition.

The arguments are compelling to all except those who cannot accept that "Drugs are bad" does not equal "Drugs should be illegal". Think about the issue in any depth, and most people come to the same conclusion. Politicians such as Nick Clegg and David Cameron have been on record as favouring a more liberal drug policy, as do many police I've spoken to on the subject (in a social, not *ahem* professional capacity).

So why does nothing happen when such people get to the top of the tree?

Most people do not take drugs, (at least outside the unofficially sanctioned, and generally accepted "few spliffs at university") and hope their children won't either. Many are absolutely persuaded (wrongly, as it happens) that one puff of a spliff is a first step on the road to becoming a smack-addicted self-arguer in the underpass. It is more reasonable to think of substance abuse as a mental illness, afflicting some people who take drugs. Alcohol is at least as bad in this regard as some substances listed as Class "A". Let's not pretend there's much difference between the self-arguers in the underpass with special brew, and those who inject Heroin. In fact they're often the same people whose objective is oblivion. The drug used to achieve it depends upon circumstance and personality. The dependence isn't a feature of the drug, but a consequence of multiple factors. Such substance abusers are highly visible. They are also a small subset of people who take drugs.

Ultimately the problem with drug laws is the people most affected: users, are either highly visible and acting as cautionary tale, or utterly invisible to officialdom. No-one is asking the happy stoners, the gak-snorting partiers, or the functioning junkies who only get high/stoned at the weekend and pay for it out of income, what they think. These people have to hide their opinions on drug laws. They either don't really care as their fix is just a phone call away, and won't rock the boat and cannot take the risk of coming out publicly as being users. Furthermore, should these people get caught up in, for example, a drug bust, all legal incentives will be for them to claim the drugs as a "problem", and hope to be treated as an "addict" rather than be dealt with administratively by courts. Problem users and drug related crime are therefore created in the statistics where absent the illegality, there would not be. Any hard data on drug use and effects on any but the most extreme problem users, is hard to come by, which skews the data, most of which is in any case highly motivated, assuming cutting use is the purpose of policy, not minimising harms.

Thus the media picture of "drugs" is set according to the availability heuristic: A problem, leading to destructive behaviour; when the reality, for most users, is vastly different.

Politics is full of solutions that are simple, easy to understand and wrong. The opponents of drug liberalisation have the simple logic of the statement "Drugs are bad, so ban them". The legalisers have to make the complex, counter-intuitive argument that most, if not all, of the harms that flow from drug use are a direct consequence not of their psychopharmacological effects, but of their illegality. And frankly most people to whom you need to make that argument will already be assuming you're a filthy junkie and will be ignoring you anyway. It's an extremely difficult argument to make to most people.

For example, it's likely there would be fewer heroin users were a full recreational pharmacy available legally than there are now. Why? Because of the pyramid marketing of drugs is particularly effective for heroin. Users become dealers to fund their habits. There were few problem opiate abusers before it was made illegal, and most of those picked the habit up in hospital. Just try making that argument to a Daily Mail reader.

Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently to any politician thinking of putting drug law on a less insane footing, is prohibition has gifted the most profitable business in history to criminals. In doing so, it has created rich, powerful and ruthless people, used to violence who have thought nothing of assassinating politicians. 

Any politician who looks like getting the supply-chain out of criminal hands would be a direct threat to the people currently in charge of a multi-billion dollar industry in a way an enthusiastic drug warrior would not be.

There is no public clamour for drug reform. Users are people who by definition can already get the drugs they want. Most people are happy that drugs are illegal, and are inherently conservative. And there are vested interests in law-enforcement and the criminal fraternity in favour of the status quo. A simultaneous monstering from the Tabloid press and the immediate threat of assassination by some of the most ruthless criminals on earth? Is it really a surprise when politicians who're known to be privately in favour of liberalisation keep their heads down over something of such marginal interest to most of the electorate, who in any case, have already made up their minds?

1 comment:

Alex K said...

There are still ways to sell legalization to the general(ly stupid) public, by pointing out the causal connection between the illegality of drugs in the First World and large-scale violence worldwide, such as the de-facto civil war in Mexico. Parallels with Prohibition can help: high-minded do-gooders brought it in, organized crime was the primary beneficiary.

Reaching out to the simpler souls, why not simply promise them cheaper, safer drugs?

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