The war on drugs has been a disaster. It has penalised the most vulnerable, contributed to the rise of increasingly nasty organised crime groups and cost an awful lot to boot. The government’s interference in the drugs market – already morally dubious – has been characterised by a barrage of failings. It is time to look for an alternative way to treat drugs.
Barack Obama has stated that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol. A large amount of scientific research backs him up. That hasn’t stopped tens of thousands of people being brought into the criminal justice system annually with cannabis warnings. Many more are given fines and cautions or being dragged through the courts – all because a bunch of people they’ve never met and probably never heard of decided that they had more of a right to choose what individuals put into their bodies than the individuals themselves.
Cannabis warnings are a big hit with the police. They’re classified as a ‘recorded crime outcome’ and so look good for individual police officer stats. Some have accused the police of looking for easy targets in deprived areas, with BME youth much more likely to be searched for drugs than their white counterparts. This is not a situation unique to the UK; in the US poor people are disproportionately punished for marijuana use with “middle–class users mostly escap[ing] harsh punishments”. Cannabis warnings, particularly in their unevenly distributed current form, are doing little to reduce the intake of the drug but are doing a lot to fuel resentment towards the police among the most impoverished.
These issues, whilst serious, look somewhat trivial compared to the mass–devastation that Neil Woods, formerly an undercover drugs squad officer, reported to be “a direct result” of the police war on drugs. In a ground-breaking interview with the Guardian, Woods reported that the drug gangs’ response to increasing scales of police drug crackdowns was to up “the use of fear and intimidation against potential informants”. This fear is created through the murders of informants themselves and through the gang rapes of their innocent girlfriends and sisters. The war on drugs may well have ruined and taken more lives than it can claim to have saved.
Things do not have to be this way. Portugal is a great example of how the decriminalisation of the use of drugs can do much good – without leading to a hike in use! Portugal now has an overdose rate more than five times lower than the EU average and a legal high usage rate lower than any other country with comparable data. Since implementing the policy in 2001, HIV infections have also fallen. Portugal’s treatment of drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal one has led to resounding success, with a rise in the number of people receiving drug treatment. A drugs decriminalisation policy similar to that of Portugal could work equally well here, particularly given the well–documented evidence suggesting that prison is often the wrong place for drug users to lose their dependency.
The decriminalisation of drugs would lead to huge savings which could be spent on better drugs education. If the government really wants people to be free, this is the only policy that can really do the job. Addicts are not free, especially not when forced to buy questionably–cut drugs from dealers operating violent and dangerous drugs rings. But when the consumption of drugs is prohibited, even those who would never consider taking drugs are not truly free. The government should inform citizens about the effects of drugs such that they are freely able to make a decision about whether or not to take them. They should not punish people for choices they make about what to put into their own bodies.
The war against drugs is failing and it has left many victims in its wake. A new policy is needed and the sooner the government recognises that, the better.