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November 2, 2005 - The Scotsman (UK)

Don't Follow U.S. Into A Disastrous War On Drugs

The UK Government Could Revert Cannabis to a Class B Drug, but Harsher Penalties Will Only Feed the Black Market, Writes Ethan Nadlemann

By Ethan Nadelmann, former professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, New Jersey and founder of the Drug Policy Alliance

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Young people laugh at the adult world when we talk about the war on drugs. People pretend we need prohibition on cannabis to protect the young. But it's precisely young people who have always had the greatest access to cannabis. If people in their fifties and sixties want cannabis, they ask their children.

The British government says it is time to consider whether cannabis should revert to a class B drug. That would be an incredibly stupid thing to do. We should be moving in the direction of the decriminalisation and regulation of cannabis.

What would be the consequences of increasing penalties by making cannabis a class B drug? It would not reduce its availability, nor would it make cannabis any more or less potent than it is today. All it would result in is more young people getting criminal records. This would simply intensify the hypocrisy of the government's war on drugs and is one area where Tony Blair is foolishly following in the footsteps of a disastrous US policy.

The bottom line is that there is a way to take cannabis out of the black market - that is to tax it, control it and regulate it. The government pretends that prohibition represents the ultimate form of regulation when in fact prohibition represents the abdication of regulation. That essentially leaves drugs in the hands of criminals.

If people are concerned about the potency of substances, all the better to regulate them. During the alcohol prohibition years, the United States had very little low-potency beer around. Most of it was alcohol that was 70 or 80 or 90 per cent hard liquor.

Why? Because Al Capone wanted to stock those trucks with 80 per cent booze, not 80 per cent water. When you regulate something legally, its potency and its dangers go down. When you drive a drug underground and criminalize it, it is much more likely to be transformed into a more potent substance.

There has barely been a single drug-free society in the history of human civilization. All around the world people have found, planted and discovered substances to alter one's state of consciousness. That's a near-universal truth. To have policy that devotes resources to forcing abstinence is going against human nature, against the forces of supply and demand.

You might ask why the drug prohibition policy is crumbling despite vast subsidies. That's like asking why socialist dictators have crumbled. You had a system that ultimately did not stand for human rights, did not recognize the power of supply and demand, and tried to suppress global commodities markets rather than regulate them.

Tonight in the US we will have almost 500,000 people behind bars for violating a drug law. That's not counting the people who steal to support their habit and all the drug dealers who get involved in violence. We in the US lock up more people for drug law violations than the whole of western Europe for everything, and you have 100 million more people than we do.

That's why it's foolish for the British government to be following in the footsteps of the United States.

This high incarceration rate is absolutely integral to the American drug policy. Last year we arrested more than 1.5 million people on drugs charges -- 760,000 for marijuana offences and of those, 89 per cent were for possession alone. We arrested 600,000 people simply for carrying a small amount of cannabis.

In the US that means you may lose your government loans for access to university, it means you may lose access to food stamps or housing. We think nothing of giving millions of people a criminal record. Trying to follow in the footsteps of the old apartheid South Africa on race policy.

My philosophy on drugs is harm reduction. That must seek to reduce the negative consequences of drug use such as deaths, disease, overdoses and accidents, and reduce the negative consequences of prohibitionist policies -- ie crime, violence, corruption, black markets, and environmental damage to developing countries.

The question is, what is that policy in respect of each drug? In respect of cannabis, the optimal policy is going to be one that taxes it, controls it and regulates it.

I don't understand why Scotland is being such a laggard in respect of heroin. People agree that using heroin is a bad thing. But thousands of people in this country are using it, so the question has to be asked -- what do we do?

You can start by getting rid of the waiting lists for methadone and help people to go drug free if that's what they want. But after that you will still be stuck with thousands of people using heroin.

The Drug Policy Alliance is seen as a liberal and progressive organization, but in fact many of our best allies are on the right. One of the good things this Bush administration did was commission some outside reports to look at the effectiveness of the government programmes in a wide range if areas.

The report found that not one of the federal drugs war programmes were being effective. Not a single one.

We're running the largest federal budget in the country's history and keep getting hit by one disaster after another, including oil price shocks. Yet we're spending $20 billion (UKP 11.3 billion) a year on the war on drugs.

People -- both liberals and conservatives -- are beginning to say that we need a different approach. There's growing opposition around the world to the prohibitionist policy. Even in the Far East, which is traditionally always in favour of very harsh prohibition, governments are having to go for harm reduction because of the HIV problem.

This isn't going to happen quickly. But I see myself in the first generation of a long-term political struggle that will succeed after successive generations have taken leadership.

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