How to win the war on drugs – just stop fighting

The war on drugs has been lost. But is full legalisation of illicit drugs the answer? Lucy Loewenberg looks at what the experience of other nations – including the US – can teach us.

Customers sample the wares in a California pot shop but it could be some time before Britain embraces legalisation

Countries all over the world have licensed drug use for medical purposes, and a few have gone further than that. The Netherlands has tolerated cannabis sales for decades. Portugal replaced criminal sanctions with health support. Uruguay and several US states have legalised recreational cannabis in an effort to create a regulated market, boost tax revenues and reduce drug-related crime. But is drug legalisation a success story? And should Britain follow suit?

Illicit drug use is certainly a significant social problem. Around the world a quarter of a billion people use drugs. Of these, 30 million suffer drug-use-related disorders, including dependence, according to the UN's 2017 World Drug Report. Millions of those who inject drugs suffer from hepatitis C and HIV. Illegal drugs also fuel violent crime criminally controlled drug markets were linked to an estimated 65,000-80,000 deaths in Mexico over just one decade. Terrorist groups raise funds via drug sales for example, the Taliban controls 85% of opium cultivation in Afghanistan and derives half of its annual income from producing and trafficking drugs. Meanwhile, the zero-tolerance "war-on-drugs" approach has failed to reduce addiction or violence. That's why several countries have turned to more novel approaches.

Uruguay leads the way

In 2001, after suffering a major drug epidemic during the 1990s, Portugal decided to decriminalise drugs. The government abolished all criminal penalties for the personal possession of all drugs, including heroin. Under the 2001 decriminalisation law, drug dealers are still punished, but those caught with a small supply get mandatory medical treatment rather than a prison sentence. Taking drugs has become a health issue, rather than a crime. Teenage drug use has fallen, as has the rate of HIV infections.

Well before that, in 1974, Uruguay decriminalised drug possession for those caught with only a small quantity. The problem was that the quantity was not specified, so sentences were handed out on a case-by-case basis. Also, there was no legal way to buy drugs. That changed when Uruguay fully legalised cannabis in 2013. Those who registered with the government could cultivate weed at home, join a cannabis club, or buy it at pharmacies. But the policy wasn't fully implemented: pharmacy sales remain largely unavailable, while the black market kept growing.

Further north, more than 20 US states have implemented medical marijuana laws, while some have gone beyond that: Colorado, California, Alaska and Washington DC are among the states that have made it legal to own small amounts of marijuana for recreational purposes. Advocates argue that legalisation deprives drug cartels of power, and allows state coffers to benefit from taxing the drug market. So how has it worked out so far?

It's hard to tax a cash-in-hand business

In California, where it has been legal to sell and purchase recreational marijuana since the start of this year, sales are expected to be as high as $7bn in 2018. However, the state will not collect its fair share of pot taxes because the business is all conducted using cash. This is due to gaps between state and federal law on drug policy. As The Economist notes: "Nearly two-thirds of America's states have legalised pot sales for certain uses, but the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1' drug, on a par with heroin. Banks that handle marijuana money can be charged with money laundering." That means cannabis businesses are stuck with piles of cash.

As far as crime goes, it's early days but one promising study by Evelina Gavrilova, Takuma Kamada and Floris Zoutman of the Norwegian School of Economics showed that medical marijuana laws have helped to reduce violent crime in US states bordering Mexico. Over the last few decades most illicit drugs in the US have been smuggled in via Mexico, accompanied by extreme levels of violence carried out by the drug-trafficking organisations involved. The researchers studied FBI crime reports and homicide records covering 1994 to 2012. They found that the introduction of medical marijuana laws ("medical use" leaves room for interpretation) led to robberies falling by 19%, murder dropping by 10% and assault falling by 9%. In California, violent crime fell by 15%. The authors suggest the full legalisation of marijuana will have an even greater impact. It "will allow for large-scale production by corporations as well as for government oversight, likely pushing drug trafficking organisations completely out of the market", which could reduce violent crime.

There is, however, an important caveat regarding the longer-term impacts, notes Professor Gavrilova. A population of former drug dealers with poor employment prospects may simply turn to other forms of crime. Drug traffickers might well "shift their activity to other crimes, such as people smuggling", for example. Also, the incidence of other types of crime, or drug-induced road accidents, could increase.

A 2016 study of Mexican agriculture by Oeindrila Dube found that policymakers hoping to tackle the crime associated with illegal drugs should also consider the supply and demand of commodities more widely. Her research found that, as the price of maize goes up, it becomes relatively less lucrative to grow marijuana, which competes for the same farmland. As a result, falling maize prices boost the appeal of becoming involved in the drug trade, and thus contribute to the associated crime.

British support for legalisation is lukewarm

What about the UK? In Britain, cannabis is classed as a "Class B" drug, which means anyone caught with it could in theory be given up to five years in prison, a fine, or both. The penalty depends on the quantity, and other aggravating or mitigating factors. The penalties are harsher for supplying drugs. As far as public attitudes go, the most recent comparable survey data from YouGov (in 2015) suggests that support for legalising pot is not as high here as in the US. Roughly half (48%) of US adults favour legalising cannabis use, and just over a third (37%) oppose it. In Britain half of respondents (49%) opposed legalisation while a third (32%) were in favour.

The only pro-legalisation party is the Liberal Democrats, who argue that the sale and production of cannabis could raise up to £1bn a year in taxes and save millions of hours of police time (as happened in Portugal). The party suggests that cannabis be sold to over-18s in licensed shops, similar to those operated in some US states. The Conservative Party backs current prohibition policies; Labour's Jeremy Corbyn has said he is in favour of decriminalising cannabis for medicinal use, but his party remains opposed to legalisation; the Green Party backs decriminalisation rather than legalisation; while Plaid Cymru backs decriminalisation for medicinal use.

Estimates from the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), a neoliberal, pro-legalisation think tank, back up the LibDem case the ASI reckons that a legal UK cannabis market could be worth some £7bn a year, raising £1.05bn in tax. "It's high time the British government realised that it's hopelessly out of step with sensible drug policy," the ASI's Daniel Pryor wrote in The Guardian. "Unlike decriminalisation, a legalised, regulated market would drive many street dealers out of existence." He argues that it would create the same transparency as buying a beer at a pub, rather than risking the use of drugs laced with crushed-up malaria tablets and worse.

And if you're not convinced by the free-market argument, note that the British Medical Journal has also called for legalisation. Its editors warn that prohibition and stigma hinder safer drug consumption and push people away from health services. "Health should be at the centre of this debate." They argue that doctors can and should be trying to bring a rational dimension to the debate, "beyond the populist rhetoric about being tough on crime".

Keeping our eyes open

In all, decriminalising drugs has proved successful in Portugal (relative to the pre-existing situation), and legalising drugs does seem like a good idea in theory. But the devil is in the implementation, as both the ongoing black market in Uruguay and the industry's problems securing banking services in the US demonstrate. The potential impact on stretched health services also needs to be considered and planned for. In the UK, for example, responsibility for drug-addiction services has been devolved from the NHS to local authorities, which are not mandated to provide addiction support.

Advocates of legalisation argue that prescription drugs, alcohol, and tobacco can provide lessons on how to regulate drugs (age limits, no advertising, health warnings). But they also illustrate the mistakes made along the way. There is an opioid crisis in the US because doctors oversubscribe painkillers. It took decades for a consensus to be reached over the harmful effects of tobacco. And alcohol abuse is a significant public health and crime issue in the UK. So while drug legalisation seems logical and in many ways morally consistent with our approach to other "social vices" such as gambling, we shouldn't blind ourselves to the potential problems it could cause.

Finally, addictive substances have cultural roots. The Oracle of Delphi had its intoxicating vapours; modern Britain has binge drinking; and it's not surprising that California, home of the hippy, is America's pot pioneer. A change in drug policy will only happen if there's a change in culture, which suggests it may be some time before Britain's main political parties embrace the idea.

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