Friday, January 18, 2013

Reforming Law and Order: Drugs Reform

It seems that it has been a very, very long time since I have posted on the subject of solutions to the UK's current fiscal crisis. My posts on the subject of reform have been mostly well received by readers, but I am not sure that this proposal will please many. However, it is perhaps the most simple reform that I have proposed, and would play a very significant role in cutting the costs of law and order, and would make the UK a significantly safer place as well.

My proposed reform may have you spluttering in your coffee. It is very simple. It is to legalise all drugs. And I mean all. I was hoping to be able to show you a video called 'Breaking the Taboo' to convince you of many of my arguments, but it has puzzlingly stopped being made freely available, and attempts to watch it describe is as a 'Private Video'. Although the film is focused on the US, the arguments made in the film are far more widely applicable. The film presents a persuasive argument in favour of drugs legalisation, and features some somewhat surprising supporters; Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter as well as many other senior politicians. The argument is simple, and that is that the 'war on drugs' has long been lost, and the cost of the war is greater than the benefits. It is both a financial and moral cost that is discussed. Wired offers a good summary of the film:
Breaking the Taboo is straightforwardly honest about its message from the start -- the war on drugs is futile and misguided, and it makes people's lives miserable. It makes its points clearly: the drug war has devastated South American countries; it has devastated poor communities in the US; it's given rise to a huge prison-industrial complex in the US; countries that have approached drugs as a health problem and not a criminal one, like Portugal, the Czech Republic or the Netherlands, have fewer problems with organised crime and addiction. It's even narrated by Morgan Freeman, giving it that warm tone of reliability (Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal narrates the Spanish-language version).

They're not new points, but then the whole point of Breaking the Taboo is that it's for people who may not have heard these counterarguments made so succinctly and matter-of-factly -- that's what the title of the film is referring to, the proposition that speaking about drugs as anything other than a problem that needs to be wiped out with force is a taboo topic among much of mainstream society. It heavily features the 2011 Global Commission on Drug Policy, the organisation which released a report declaring that the war on drugs had "failed", something made more notable by the number of former high-ranking public officials it included in its ranks -- including three former presidents and one former prime minister.
The views expressed in the film mirror many of the views I have held for a long time. For example, the US prohibition of alcohol provides a case study of the impacts of drug prohibition; it launched an organised crime crime wave. Al Capone was not fiction, but fact. This is from Wikipedia and, although requiring additional citations, the account conforms with more reliable sources I have seen:

Organized crime received a major boost from Prohibition. Mafia groups limited their activities to prostitution, gambling, and theft until 1920, when organized bootlegging manifested in response to the effect of Prohibition.[67] A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished. Powerful criminal gangs corrupted law enforcement agencies, leading to racketeering. In essence, prohibition provided a financial basis for organized crime to flourish.[68]

Rather than reducing crime, Prohibition had transformed the cities into battlegrounds between opposing bootlegging gangs. In a study of over 30 major U.S cities during the prohibition years of 1920 and 1921, the number of crimes increased by 24%. Additionally, theft and burglaries increased by 9%, homicide by 12.7%, assaults and battery rose by 13%, drug addiction by 44.6% and police department costs rose by 11.4%. This was largely the result of “black-market violence” as well as the diverting of law enforcement resources elsewhere. Despite the hope of the prohibitionist movement that the outlawing of alcohol would reduce crime, the reality was that the Volstead Act led to higher crime rates than were experienced prior to prohibition and the establishment of a black market dominated by criminal organizations.[69]

Furthermore, stronger liquor surged in popularity because its potency made it more profitable to smuggle. To prevent bootleggers from using industrial ethyl alcohol to produce illegal beverages, the government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols. In response, bootleggers hired chemists who successfully renatured the alcohol to make it drinkable. As a response, the Treasury Department required manufacturers to add more deadly poisons, including the particularly deadly methyl alcohol. New York City medical examiners prominently opposed these policies because of the danger to human life. As many as 10,000 people died from drinking denatured alcohol before Prohibition ended.[70]
The current state of the 'drug war' mirrors the prohibition era, and this is one of the points made in the film 'breaking the taboo'. The cure is doing more harm than the problem. Support for legalisation is appearing from the most unlikely sources; for example, just recently, I found an article in the Spectator which argued that the only way to end the horrendous violence engulfing Mexico is to legalise drugs, even making the comparison with the prohibition era. Putting it very simply, prohibition of drugs creates crime, and criminalises large numbers of people who would otherwise likely remain law abiding. As well as the social costs, drug prohibition is very, very expensive. This is a point made in a recent report by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF).

The TDPF report commences by pointing out that no cost benefit analysis has ever previously been undertaken for legalisation of drugs, and yet assertions have been made as if this were not the case. The upshot of this policy is summarised here:

Despite the billions spent each year on proactive and reactive drug law enforcement, the punitive prohibitionist approach has consistently delivered the opposite of its stated goals. The Government’s own data clearly demonstrates drug supply and availability increasing; use of drugs that cause the most harm increasing; health harms increasing; massive levels of crime created at all scales leading to a crisis in the criminal justice system; and illicit drug profits enriching criminals, fuelling conflict and destabilising producer and transit countries from Mexico to Afghanistan. This is an expensive policy that, in the words of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, has also created a raft of negative ‘unintended consequences’.
My intention is not to reproduce every point in the report, but there are some examples that I would like to highlight (note, they are conservative on the costs of prohibition, and conservative on the benefits of a legal and regulated market), such as their calculation of savings under four scenarios (p.7):

Scenario A: 50% fall in use, net benefit = £13.943 billion
Scenario B: No change in use, net benefit = £10.834 billion
Scenario C: 50% increase in use, net benefit = £7.724 billion
Scenario D: 100% increase in use, net benefit = £4.616 billion

These are just for heroine and cocaine legalisation and regulation, and their estimates are indeed very, very conservative (e.g. they exclude costs of the large contribution of the UK government to global enforcement of prohibition). Further, although there are often attempts to suggest that legalisation will increase usage, this is argued without evidence. Indeed, since the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, intended to stop the use of drugs, this is the outcome (p.11):

The report makes the point about increased usage very strongly, with this section quoted below just one example:

The proposed deterrent effect is poorly supported by empirical research. The Science and Technology Select Committee report in 2006 on the drug classification system ‘Drug Classification: Making a Hash of it?’60 stated that:

“We have found no solid evidence to support the existence of a deterrent effect, despite the fact that it appears to underpin the Government’s policy on classification. In view of the importance of drugs policy and the amount spent in enforcing the penalties associated with the classification system, it is highly unsatisfactory that there is so little knowledge about the system’s effectiveness”.
The Government rejected this finding and responded with:

“The Government fundamentally believes that illegality is an important factor when people are considering engaging in risk-taking behaviour. The exposure to criminal sanction, in particular through sentencing, influences perceptions and behaviours. It believes that the illegality of certain drugs, and by association their classification, will impact on drug use choices, by informing the decisions of dealers and users. Imposing penalties on the offence of possession is intended to deter use, particularly experimentation by young people. Whilst the Government accepts that there is an absence of conclusive evidence in relation to the deterrent effect of the existing classification structure, there is some evidence from the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey that the deterrent effect of harsher sentencing was greater among those admitting to the supply of a Class A drug, compared with other offences. The Government will consider ways in which the evidence base in the context of the deterrent effect can be strengthened.”61

However, in the field of evidence-based policy making what the Government ‘believes’ is neither here nor there, and there is notably no evidence provided to support the ‘belief’ of the system’s effectiveness as a deterrent (it was not made clear which evidence from the Offending, Crime and Justice Survey was being referred to). In the absence of this or any other credible evidence, this ‘belief’ can only remain an untested assumption.
The report accepts that estimating future use under a legalised and regulated scenario is difficult to calculate, for example with different effects and impacts according to the type of drug, and different impacts upon sub-types of population etc. However, although they give the scenarios, they consider the increased usage scenario for heroine as unlikely, and their discussions certainly point in this direction. I will not make my argument here, and will leave their conservative assumptions in place, but I think the most likely outcome would be a significant reduction in use of drugs like heroine, and an increase in the use of drugs like cannabis (used as an alternative to alcohol). Much would depend though on the nature of the regulation for each drug, and I broadly agree with the regulation scenarios they give in the report for each drug type.

I have to emphasise that the TDPF report is filled with caveats, is restricted to the impacts of just two drugs, but I also have to emphasise that it is very, very conservative. I very strongly urge you to read the report if you have any doubts. Excepting the moral panic and emotive arguments, legalisation of drugs is the single easiest reform that could be made to save significant amounts of government expenditure. However, as the film 'Breaking the Taboo' identifies, drugs policy is hard to separate from rhetoric and moralising. This is the problem of the idea of being 'soft' on drugs. However, the problems of drugs is largely a problem of illegality, rather than a problem of drugs per se. I am sure that many readers will have doubts, and concerns. For these readers, I cannot do justice to all of the arguments in a post, and I would urge you to read the report, and also try to see 'Breaking the Taboo'. It has never been the case that the arguments for legalisation and regulation were not compelling; it is just that, until recently, they were never given wide airing. It has taken 40 years of failure in the 'war on drugs' to finally allow the arguments some traction.

Note: If you want to understand the arguments for drugs legalisation in a less weighty format, I strongly recommend Ben Elton's humorous book 'High Society'. Although a comedy novel, he also very clearly presents the arguments in favour of legalisation, which he weaves in amongst the narrative. It may not be a 'serious' book, but the argument made is nevertheless serious.

Note 2: I changed my mind on discussing my own views on the impact of legalisation and regulation on usage and will give one example of my reasoning, with the case for regulation of heroine by making it available as a prescription. For current addicts, this would see the addicts switching from buying from illegal dealers to obtaining the drug on prescription, which would be cheaper and safer. As a result, the heroine dealers would be put out of business. As such, the availability of heroine to potential new users would be restricted to people who were willing to actively seek a prescription. It seems that someone one day saying to themself that they would like to take heroine is quite unlikely. Even if a person did, for some odd reason, decide to start taking heroine, they would be advised of the risks and addictive nature of the drug before starting.

By contrast, for anyone who has encountered the world of illegal drugs, the ease of access and the 'culture' of the 'drugs world' is a world apart. It is easy to see how people are exposed to, and eventually try drugs like heroine. For an addict, selling drugs, and actively encouraging new users can help support their own habit through dealing the drug. Under the prescription scenario, I suspect there might be some exceptional and rare cases of existing addicts introducing new users, but this would result in far less new addicts than having people actively encouraging new use, for example by existing addicts who can use new users to pay for their own habit. I suspect that, as addicts recover (and without illegality they would be in the 'system' and availability of help would improve), heroine use would very rapidly decline to a small number of long term addicts.

Note 3: I welcome comments, but would ask that you try to make yourself familiar with the details of the pro-legalisation arguments before doing so.


  1. Pirate Bay has it here:


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