Should we legalise drugs?

Portugal decriminalised the possession and use of drugs in 2001, and the policy has been a great success. Many US states are softening their stance on cannabis. Meanwhile, Britain seems to be getting tougher. But could legalising drugs actually work? Simon Wilson reports.

Portugal decriminalised the possession and use of drugs in 2001, and the policy has been a great success. Could it work here? Simon Wilson reports.

Why legalise drugs?

Many reasons. Proponents point out that all known civilisations have enjoyed narcotics to dull pain or for stimulation and that the state has no business dictating what individuals choose to ingest.

The British academic John Gray has recently argued that the anti-drug crusade will go down as "among the greatest follies of modern times", since any "coolly utilitarian" assessment of the costs and benefits would quickly show that it hurts far more people than it protects.

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That's especially true in the poor countries where drugs are produced. And banning them does not limit use. Rather, it pushes up prices, multiplies the health risks of low-quality supply and criminalises vast swathes of the population.

Do any politicians agree?

Plenty. Latin American ones in particular have seen how the 'war on drugs' has done nothing to stop the global trade. Indeed, it has resulted in an ingrained gang culture and tens of thousands of deaths in the producer nations 14,000 in Mexico alone in the past three years.

Brazil's ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso has emerged as a vocal champion of the case for legalisation, calling for a "paradigm shift" away from repressing drug users towards treating them.

Already, in several Latin American countries, possession of some drugs has been decriminalised. And so far, their powerful neighbour to the north has done little to protest against these moves.

What's the situation in the United States?

Many feel that the status quo is now damaging Western security interests especially in Afghanistan and Mexico. And there is a sense that the 'war on drugs' policy started by Richard Nixon has failed to cut drug use. Further, there is little compelling evidence that regulating and taxing (rather than outlawing) drugs would cause an increase in consumption.

According to Tom Feiling in his recent book on the global cocaine market The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World, the US has spent an astonishing $500bn attempting to combat illicit drugs, but has comprehensively failed to prevent the "democratisation" of the drug. Supply and demand have both rocketed the US leads the world for illegal use quality is up and the average drug price is down.

So, while the US shows no sign of taking a softer line on cocaine, it is gradually changing tack on cannabis. Marijuana for medical reasons is now legal in 13 states, and 13 more plan laws or referendums next year.

What does the public want?

According to opinion polls, Americans are tiring of their 40-year-old war on drugs. A Zogby poll earlier this year found that a narrow majority now support the legalisation of marijuana. Despite being a widely available and mostly benign drug, in 2008 there were more than 750,000 arrests for simple possession.

There is now even an organised lobby group of frontline officers in favour of legalisation (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP). LEAP argues that thousands of lives are ruined by convictions for minor drug offences.

And research from Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron shows that America could save $44bn each year by legalising and make a further $33bn by taxing marijuana, cocaine and heroin. According to drugs policy thinktank Transform, the equivalent overall figure for Britain is £14bn.

Should Britain move to legalise too?

Yes, says ex-chief-constable Tom Lloyd, writing recently in The Observer. Britain loses more than £15bn a year to drug-related crime, and spends a further £10bn a year on tackling the problem through the criminal justice system.

The only winners are the criminals, who earn about £6bn a year. Any police successes in "cracking down" on drugs are inevitably partial and temporary, leaving intact a huge criminal market that relies on intimidation, corruption and violence to make its profit.

So the state's limited resources would be better spent on prevention, treatment and public health: reducing the harm that some drugs do. Legalisation would have the added bonus as it did in Portugal (see below) of unblocking our overcrowded court system and prisons.

What happened in Portugal?

In 2001, the Portuguese government tried a bold experiment: they decriminalised the possession and use of all drugs. Supplying drugs remains against the law. Anyone caught in possession can have their drugs confiscated, be required to attend counselling sessions, and ultimately given a fine. But they can't be arrested, sentenced, or given a criminal record.

At first, conservative politicians decried the idea as lunacy, predicting waves of drugs tourists and social decay. But after rising in the 1990s, drug usage rates in Portugal have either held steady (heroin), or fallen (most other drugs), and are now among the lowest in Europe.

Convictions for drug trafficking are also down, and there's no evidence of drug tourism. Moreover, according to a study by US lawyer Glenn Greenwald, the incidence of other drug-related ills, such as sexually transmitted diseases and drug-related deaths, has "decreased dramatically".

And by removing the fear of prosecution, the number of addicts seeking treatment has quadrupled, while drug addicts now account for only a fifth of new HIV cases, down from 56% before decriminalisation.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.