US states declare a ceasefire in the war on drugs

With US states decriminalising the use even of hard drugs, and legalising the recreational use of cannabis, this could be the beginning of the end for drug prohibition. Is that a good thing?

Cannabis growers in Washington state, USA.
The tide is turning on the era of prohibition
(Image credit: © Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images)

What has happened?

Oregon has become the first US state to decriminalise the possession in small quantities of all illegal drugs, including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine – a landmark counterblast against America’s failed “war on drugs”. Possessing and supplying large quantities remains a criminal offence. But people found with small quantities will face similar penalties to those caught speeding – a $100 fine and attendance at a free addiction programme (funded out of tax revenues from cannabis, the use of which was legalised in 2014). Oregon voters backed decriminalisation in a referendum held on 3 November (alongside the presidential vote), and also approved legalising psilocybin, the main psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms. Again, it’s the first US state to do so. The same day, Washington, DC, voters approved the decriminalisation of magic mushrooms and other organic psychedelic drugs. And four more states (Montana, New Jersey, South Dakota and Arizona) joined the existing 11 in legalising recreational cannabis.

Why is this a big deal?

Because it moves Oregon’s approach into line with pioneers such as Portugal, which began treating drug use as a medical issue, not a criminal one, in 2001. As such, it’s a big crack in America’s so-called “war on drugs” that began in the early 1970s under Richard Nixon – an approach based on fiercely policed prohibition and backed up by US military might and global reach. Alas, that approach has proved an “unmitigated disaster”, says Rachel Cunliffe in City AM. It has resulted in mass incarceration that has fuelled racial divisions: black Americans are six times more likely to be jailed for drug offences than whites, though usage rates are the same. It has corroded US foreign policy and fuelled instability and violence in producer countries in Latin America and Asia. And it hasn’t curtailed drug use, merely made life harder for addicts. If we are ever to unpick the havoc and misery of the drug prohibition era, says Cunliffe, America will have to lead the way.

What are the arguments in favour?

First, there’s individual choice and liberty. All known human civilisations have cultivated plants with narcotic (or hallucinogenic) properties, and used them to dull pain, relax or provide enjoyable stimulation. The nation state, a relatively recent invention, has no business telling us what we can and can’t use to get high. Indeed, to govern our choices on pain of incarceration, even where our choices harm only ourselves, is an outrage. Second, there’s pragmatism: prohibition does more harm than good and hurts more people than it protects. That’s true in consumer countries (like Britain), but it’s especially true in the producer countries where violence and corruption are typically endemic. In short, banning drugs doesn’t limit use or slow production. Rather, it pushes up prices, provides a breeding ground for violence, multiplies the health risks of low-quality supply, makes addiction more likely, and criminalises vast swathes of the population. In some producer countries, it also has the effect of eroding the state itself – perpetuating the rule of kleptocratic elites in which the government and the drug lords are two sides of the same coin.

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What about money?

Third, there’s the fiscal argument. Illicit drugs constitute a vastly lucrative and profitable sector; authoritative estimates put annual global sales at $150bn to $400bn. Legalising, regulating and taxing those sales would cut the associated costs of policing and imprisonment (likely to be tens of billions in the UK context), while also providing a lucrative tax revenue stream for governments (several billions). It would also make it easier to control the quality and help people consume drugs safely.

And the arguments against?

The counter-argument, in favour of prohibition, is that it’s wrong to facilitate the consumption of anything (whether alcohol, tobacco or other drugs) that is dangerous. Legalisation would result in more consumption and consumers. Even supposedly “soft” drugs, such as cannabis – which is sold in far stronger forms today than ever before – are risky and harmful. There’s a wealth of evidence, for example, showing a link between teenage use of strong cannabis and an increased risk of severe mental illness. Legalising drugs would suggest that they are “safe”, say prohibitionists, when they are not. And legalising soft drugs would act as a “gateway” to use of harder drugs, they say.

What’s the situation in the UK?

The tide may be beginning to turn on the era of prohibition – a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Heroin, which was originally the trademarked brand name for the drug diacetylmorphine (and marketed, erroneously, as a non-addictive alternative to morphine) was only made illegal in the UK in 1920, and was freely available on prescription to addicts until 1967. Cocaine, which was an ingredient in Coca-Cola until 1902, was also outlawed in 1920 (again, except for licensed medical use). And cannabis was banned for recreational use in 1928, though it was still lawful for medical use until 1971.

And now?

In 2018, in response to two high-profile cases in which young epilepsy patients were denied lawful access to cannabis products that eased their condition, the government changed the law, making medicinal cannabis available on prescription (though only from hospital doctors, not GPs, and only for a set number of conditions where other treatments have proved ineffective). To date, neither main political party has adopted wider legalisation – even of cannabis – as a policy proposal. But there are many influential voices in favour, across the political spectrum. “John Stuart Mill was right,” says The Economist. “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. Trade in drugs may be immoral or irresponsible, but it should no longer be illegal.”

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.