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Advocate Niall McCluskey says drug prohibition has failed, and calls for a managed legalisation of narcotics to reduce prison populations, improve treatment and education and improve control.
H.L Mencken once said “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong.” This quote to me sums up the misguided war on drugs. The world has been been dominated by prohibition of drugs since the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs was created in 1961. In the UK we enacted the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971. In that time there has been an exponential rise in drug misuse and organised crime. I have been a criminal lawyer for twenty years and have dealt with numerous drugs cases. Over that time the courts have handed down countless heavy deterrent sentences. Effect on the drugs trade ? Nil. Deterrent sentences have no effect on the drugs trade for one simple reason. Supplying drugs is different from many offences. What the drug dealer is actually doing at some level is participating in a commercial enterprise. Drugs is a business and a very lucrative one at that worth several hundred billion dollars worldwide per annum. With that kind of money involved there is no prospect of harsh sentencing thwarting the drugs trade.
However the problems with the war on drugs is not the responsibility of the courts. It is the politicians in this country and abroad that have created the harsh environment in relation to drugs. The courts have simply carried out the inevitable function of following this cue.
Despite the colossal failure of prohibition it has long been politically unacceptable to advocate legalisation of drugs. This is despite the obvious contradiction of dangerous drugs like alcohol and nicotine being legal and in wide supply. It's also in spite of other very destructive addictions like gambling being allowed to flourish. Don't get me wrong I am not in favour of prohibiting alcohol, nicotine, gambling or any other potentially addictive activities. Nor do I advocate the use of drugs. However I do call for drugs to be legalised for a number of reasons which I will come to.
For too long the focus of the politicians has been wrong. The wider problem is the illness of addiction. In his novel Trainspotting Irvine Welsh portrays the panorama of dependency well. Renton is addicted to heroin, Begbie the adrenalin rush from violence, Sick Boy sex, Second Prize alcohol and Renton's mother valium. Addiction can take innumerable forms. The twelve step programme of alcoholics anonymous has been adapted to tackle all sorts of things including drugs, smoking, gambling, food, sex and spending disorders. There are even addictions that society will praise you for such as workaholism but ask the family of a workaholic how the success of the family member impacted on them and you will hear a different story. As Neil Young once sang
“ I've seen the needle and the damage done. A little part of it in everyone. But every junkie's like a settin' sun. “ Young perceptively includes everyone in the problem unlike the war on drugs which alienates the addict from society and makes it harder to get help.
I believe all drugs should be made legal. Internationally moves are afoot to move the debate in this direction. President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has taken a lead by setting up a global taskforce to reconsider drugs policy. Costa Rica's Laura Chinchilla has stated that drug misuse ought to be a health issue and not dealt with by the criminal law. In Guatemala Prident Otto Perez Milina advocates legalization of the use and supply of drugs. President Jose Mujica of Uruguay is contemplating new laws which would permit the state to sell marijuana and tax it. In the USA in November three states Colorado, Washington and Oregon go to the polls regarding whether to legalise marijuana for adult recreational use.
These creative solutions are a positive response to the overwhelming failure that is the war on drugs. The term war on drugs was first used by President Nixon 40 years ago and in that time over a trillion dollars have been spent on this campaign.
Notwithstanding this vast expenditure the narcotics trade continues to be a highly successful business and the misuse of drugs just keeps on growing. Punishing drug users and dealers has increased addiction by significantly increasing the prison population. In Britain opinion polls show support for legalization of some drugs at least.
Countries such as Portugal, Switzerland, Canada , Australia, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands have all achieved varying degrees of success through either decriminalization or supportive treatment or both. However decriminalization does not confront the supply side. Prohibition gives drugs astronomical price inflation. Prohibition creates gangland millionaires.
Legalising drugs would substantially reduce prison populations and the huge amount of money saved could be better spent on treatment , health and drugs education. The risk of overdose could be reduced as drugs could be controlled better. In addition addicts would not require to go underground and this would reduce dangers of HIV. Legalisation would mean that the government could control the drugs market not organised criminals.
Drug misuse will not go away. Prohibition has failed. It is time the politicians accepted that and put together creative and radical policies aimed at change.
NIiall McCluskey is an advocate specialisng in criminal law.
You can follow Niall on Twitter @NiallMccluskey
Image Credit: Guardian