Drug Laws Thin Edge of the Wedge Worldwide
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Laws Thin Edge of the Wedge Worldwide
IT'S MOVING FURTHER towards decriminalization than any other country in the
world," warned Keith Hellawell, the ex-policeman who was the British "drugs czar"
until the Labour government belatedly realized that his job was as ridiculous
as his title.
He was responding to British Home Secretary David Blunkett's announcement on July
10 that being caught with cannabis will be treated no more seriously than illegally
possessing other Class C controlled drugs like sleeping pills and steroids. He
was technically wrong, but in terms of its political impact he was right.
Hellawell was technically wrong because Britain is not leading the parade of European
countries that have broken away from the prohibitionist approach in the United
States. Even after Blunkett's changes, Britain will lag behind other European
countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal in its laws
on recreational drug use. But he was right because Britain is:
Still more or less a great power.
The main engine of the "war on drugs" is the U.S., which managed to enshrine its
prohibitionist views in international law during the Cold War by a series of treaties
that make it impossible for national legislatures to legalize the commonly used
recreational drugs. All that other countries can do without Washington's agreement
is to "decriminalize" the possession and use of at least some of the banned drugs.
(This week, Canada announced it may follow Britain's lead by making simple possession
of small amounts of pot a ticketing offence.)
Numbers of smaller European countries have already decriminalized various drugs,
but what the Portuguese or the Dutch do will never have an impact in the United
States. Britain is one of the very few countries whose example will ever be seen
as relevant in the country that is the real home of the "drug war." Britain's
decriminalization of cannabis, and even more importantly its partial return to
the old policy of prescribing free heroin for addicts on the National Health Service,
could finally open the door to a real debate in the United States.
The actual changes in British law are rather timid. In future, British police
will generally confiscate cannabis and issue warnings to users, rather than arrest
them. But "disturb public order" by blowing cannabis smoke in a police officer's
face and you're in jail. Moreover, only a small fraction of Britain's 200,000
heroin users will get free prescriptions. Nevertheless, this is by far the biggest
crack that has yet appeared in the prohibitionist dam.
Until the late 19th century, all kinds of recreational drugs were legal throughout
the Western world. Florence Nightingale used opium, Queen Victoria used cannabis,
and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes in a matter-of-fact way about Sherlock Holmes
injecting drugs with a syringe. Then came the Women's Christian Temperance Union,
most powerful in the United States. It succeeded in banning one drug after another
until by the early 20th century only the mainstream drugs, alcohol and tobacco,
were still legal in the U.S.
For much of the 1920s and '30s the WCTU even succeeded in prohibiting alcohol
in the U.S. Organized crime expanded tenfold to meet the opportunity created by
this newly illegal demand for alcohol — Al Capone was just as much the result
of alcohol prohibition as Pablo Escobar in Colombia was of America's war on drugs
— but eventually there was a retreat to sanity in the case of alcohol. There will
eventually be a return to sanity on drugs, too, but Britain's decriminalization
of cannabis is only a very tentative first step.
The war on drugs is one of the most spectacularly counter-productive activities
human beings have ever engaged in. "We have turned the corner on drug addiction,"
said President Richard Nixon in 1973, and predictions of imminent victory continue
to be issued at frequent intervals. But the quality of the drugs gets better and
the street price continues to drop. As any free marketer should understand, making
drugs illegal creates enormous profit margins and huge incentives to expand the
market by pyramid selling.
Drug prohibition increases the number of users, fills the jails with harmless
people, channels vast sums into the hands of the wicked people who work to expand
the lucrative black market and causes a huge wave of petty crimes. It is estimated
that half to two-thirds of the muggings and property crimes in both Britain and
the U.S. are committed by cocaine and heroin addicts desperate to find the inflated
sums needed to satisfy their habit.
Decriminalizing cannabis only nibbles at the fringes of this problem, for cannabis
users are overwhelmingly neither addicts nor criminals. The more significant part
of Blunkett's initiative is his willingness to revive the old policy of prescribing
heroin to addicts (now around 200,000 in Britain, compared with around 500 when
that policy was dropped at Washington's behest in 1963). He's only willing to
let a small proportion of them have it on prescription for now, but since those
will be the only heroin addicts who stay alive and for the most part stay clear
of crime, the rest will also be back on prescription sooner or later.
It will be many years yet before mainstream American politicians gain the political
courage to take on the prohibitionist lobby directly, but the external environment
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are
published in 45 countries.
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