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October 20, 2007 - Daily Telegraph (UK)

Column: Why Europe Holds The Answer To Illegal Drugs

By Sam Leith

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Richard Brunstrom, the Chief Constable of North Wales, seems to me to be an admirable man. It would be easy for him, politically and socially and in terms of his own career, to toe a downbeat or crowd-pleasing line. Instead, he annoys selfish motorists by arguing that prosecuting people for speeding is a reasonable thing to do; and -- - still more impressively -- he is prepared to tell the truth about drugs.

Earlier this week, before the Home Office concluded its review into drug policy, Mr Brunstrom's local police authority supported and forwarded to the Home Secretary a series of recommendations he summed up as follows: "If policy on drugs is in future to be pragmatic not moralistic, driven by ethics not dogma, then the current prohibitionist stance will have to be swept away as both unworkable and immoral, to be replaced with an evidence-based unified system (specifically including tobacco and alcohol) aimed at minimisation of harms to society."

Now, to say that the war on drugs has failed is not an especially brave thing to do -- though, if you are a senior police officer, it carries more in the way of risk than if you are, say, a newspaper columnist answerable only to the invective of your readers. The dogs on the street know that the war on drugs has failed; the sniffer dogs on the street, come to that, are experts on the matter.

What seems to me particularly admirable about his remarks is that he not only identifies prohibition as unworkable, but also as immoral. He's right, and it needs saying.

There is not a single moral argument -- not one -- for the prohibition of drugs. It is a fraud, and a bore besides, to pretend otherwise. Yet the spectre of moral censure has long distorted proper discussion of the subject. As long as drugs are regarded as a "scourge of society" and a "corrupter of innocence" -- as long as the "pusher" takes his place alongside the paedophile in the bestiary of macintosh-clad menaces at the school gates -- they remain politically toxic.

At the same time, there are strong moral arguments for their legalisation. Our whole social and economic set-up is based on the idea of the right to private property, and at the very base of that -- at the very plughole of our legal system and the fountainhead of our freedoms, in the form of habeas corpus -- is the ownership of your own body, and the right to do with it as you damn well choose.

Taking drugs -- any drugs at all -- cannot be in and of itself an immoral act; except under prohibition, inasmuch as it is arguably moral to obey even an unjust law, and, much more pressingly, inasmuch as by buying drugs you are contributing to the criminal economy that sustains a whole range of moral abuses.

So, away with the moral argument. The moral argument is, as I say, all on the side of legalisation. But the blinding light of moral certainty is the province of saints and fanatics.

The arguments against prohibition are also practical. They are that it doesn't work. The war on drugs is such a failure it makes the pacification of Helmand look like the Entebbe Raid. Cocaine -- once available only to glamorous celebrities such as Frank Bough -- now drifts about us like snow; ecstasy, which back in the day cost north of a tenner a tablet, is now a couple of quid a pop.

Drug-related crime is through the roof, gangsters are swimming in cash, and our eradicationist efforts abroad -- against the poppy harvest in Afghanistan, say -- are costing lives and damaging any hope of winning support from the local population.

But after this, Mr Brunstrom and I (hesitantly) part ways. For the practical argument against legalisation in Britain, things being as they are now, seems to me insuperable. I don't doubt that a legalised and regulated drug trade would be infinitely better than the situation we have now. But the question is how to get from here to there.

If Britain were unilaterally and radically to alter its policy -- surrounded as we still are on every side by, and intimately involved in trade with, prohibitionist nations -- what effect would that have? We would become the crack-den of Europe; the clearing-house and transport hub of a global trade that remained substantially illegal, and that brought with it, in a concentrated form, all the problems and miseries of that trade. It would be a macroscopic equivalent of Brixton's muddle-headed experiment with decriminalisation -- in which demand was encouraged and supply criminalised. That had the advantages neither of moral clarity nor of reducing harm.

The case for legalisation would need to be made Europe-wide, at the very least. And that, I'm afraid, is where things start to get trickier.

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