Saturday, 8 January 2005

The war on drugs

I generally don’t agree with The Guardian, but this piece (rather long) on the war on drugs seems about right:

Let’s be honest. People try drugs, whether in the form of alcohol or pills, because they are fun. Tens of thousands of UK citizens regularly consume cocaine; hundreds of thousands more use other illegal drugs, completely discrediting the law. In his book Cocaine, Dominic Streatfield quotes the monetarist Milton Friedman: ‘I do not think you can eradicate demand. The lesson we have failed to learn is that prohibition never works. It makes things worse not better.’

Streatfield quotes the extraordinary statistics involved in fighting cocaine and drugs. Here are a couple: over the past 15 years, the US has spent £150 billion trying to stop its people getting hold of drugs. In Britain and the US almost 20 per cent of the prison population is inside for drugs offences. So what is left? We can muddle on or we can legalise cocaine – and indeed all drugs.

Imagine that: we’ve spent an average of £10 billion a year (roughly $18.7 billion a year at yesterday’s exchange rate) for the past fifteen years and, if we’ve had any real permanent gains, I’m not aware of them. Sure, we’ve had some individual victories, but we haven’t even come close to eliminating either the supply or demand for drugs. Nor will we. Ever.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not unsympathetic to the problems of addiction because I’ve experienced them first-hand. My ninth “AA birthday” is at the end of the month (I quit drinking at the tender age of 27) and I know how hard it is. I simply don’t think we are approaching the problem correctly and are creating more ancillary problems than we are solving.

Our effort would be better spent on legalizing drugs, taxing them, and focusing our effort on treatment.

Update: A reader -- also a recovering alcoholic -- emailed to agree with my position on the current war on drugs. My edited response is below:

Thanks for the comments as well.  I expect I will do a birthday post on the 27th when I hit the 9-year mark as well.  Getting dry was no small thing for me -- it involved staying in the hospital for a week with IVs attached to me, though no straps were involved -- but I came out of it a better person.

It’s nice to know that not all people who have addiction problems immediately react with horror at the notion of legalization.  The current prohibition of drugs is causing all of the problems of the original prohibition of alcohol and worse, but the violence is largely confined to inner cities and doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Another update: Jeralyn has some remarks on the same article. We rarely agree, so it's worth pointing it out when we do.