Friday, 3 February 2012

The case for the legalisation of drugs

Sir Richard Branson is a fascinating figure. His politics are surprisingly convoluted for a billionaire businessman; at times he has resembled a Thatcherite neo-classical and at others he has been a Labour-supporting proponent of humanitarian issues and environmentalism. Last week the Virgin Group boss addressed the home affairs select committee on another issue he has championed down the years, calling on the government to implement a liberalisation of drugs policy. Interestingly, what he had to say made a lot of sense.

Branson began, naturally, with cannabis. He insisted that the decriminalisation, regulation and taxation of the drug libertarians have traditionally seen as a start-point for reform would reap widespread rewards for society as a whole. Responsibility for drugs policy should shift from the Home Office to the Department of Health, he argued, quite compellingly enquiring of his inquisitors whether, upon finding out that their own son or daughter had a drug problem, would they rather seek medical help or be having to deal with the police? Tellingly, they offered no answer. In Portugal, where even heroin addicts are hospitalised rather than arrested, drug use has fallen by 50% as a result of legalisation. Each year some 75,000 young Britons have their futures ruined by receiving criminal records for minor drugs offences. Treating drug users as patients rather than criminals would be an important first step to a more effective drugs policy.

Following decriminalisation, Branson admitted that regulation would inevitably be required. I have previously argued that carefully regulating the legal sale of drugs would do more than anything else to save lives. Last November two young men died after taking a fatally potent form of ecstasy (MDMA) at a London music venue. Due to the covert nature of acquiring drugs they had no way of knowing what they were buying; drug dealers are not thoughtful enough to label their products with an ingredients sticker. At present drug users are clueless about whether they are actually taking what they think they are, the extent to which it has been cut with other noxious substances, or even if they have been given a new and untested form of drug. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out why people are dying. Legalisation and regulation would require sellers – licensed by the state – to only offer a genuine product with clear guidelines for safe usage. It may have saved the lives of the two young men last November, and would save countless more in the future.

If the practical case for a more liberal drugs policy is fairly straightforward, the economic argument is somewhat more complex. Branson convincingly articulated the basics last week. Home Office figures show that £535 million of taxpayers’ money is spent each year on the enforcement of laws relating to the possession or supplying of drugs. Conversely, only 3% of total expenditure on drugs is through health service use, and just 1% on social care. A staggering 20% of all police time is devoted to arresting drug users and sellers. The balance between policing and treatment clearly seems skewed, but in this age of austerity these figures are especially unforgivable. At a time when the Coalition is controversially cutting welfare, why do we accept huge spending on a law and order policy that has failed to reduce the prevalence of drugs in society? As Branson succinctly puts it, the money saved through decriminalisation and taxation would surely be better spent elsewhere: ‘it’s win-win all round’.

Now on to the more technical side of things. While the supply-side economist Milton Friedman is of course celebrated for his writings on neo-liberalism, his less well-known contribution to the debate on drugs was also quite brilliant. Friedman argued that the danger of arrest has incentivised drug producers to grow more potent forms of their products. The creation of crack cocaine and stronger forms of cannabis (and evidently MDMA as shown above) is, he claims, the direct result of criminalisation encouraging producers to strive for a more attractive risk-reward ratio. Moreover, drug prohibition directly causes poverty and violent crime. Supply is suppressed by interdiction and prosecution therefore prices rise. Users are forced by their addictions to pay the going rate, then turn to crime to fund their habit as they are plunged into poverty. Finally, and perversely, the government effectively provides protection for major drug cartels. Producing and selling drugs is a risky and expensive business so only serious organised crime gangs can afford to stay in the game. All the money goes to the top. It is, as Friedman notes, ‘a monopolist’s dream’.

The deleterious and unforeseen economic consequences of criminalisation are, one you get your head round them, pretty persuasive. There is, however, one last point worth considering: the moral perspective. You may hate the idea of drugs, most people do. Yet what right does the state have to tell someone what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their own home? John Stuart Mill, the great liberal philosopher, famously declared that ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant’. The act of taking drugs is an entirely personal choice that affects no one but the individual himself. Can the state therefore justify impinging upon his personal liberty? Mill would say no. This is a question that deserves serious thought.

Sir Richard Branson is a maverick. A week ago most people would have been against a liberalisation of drugs policy. After listening to what Branson had to say many will have changed their minds.

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