06 Oct Legalise Drugs And You’ll Save People’s Lives. The Times, 3rd October 2013
Take crime and contaminated supplies out of the equation and the number of deaths will certainly fall.
Debbie Ball is the owner of The Candy Lady store in Albuquerque, New Mexico, so I suppose she is the Candy Lady. Over the past couple of years Debbie has sold tens of thousands of little plastic bags of sugar rock candy, coloured and shaped to look like crystals of the illegal drug methamphetamine. The purchasers are mostly tourists who have watched the cult TV series Breaking Bad, the hero of which is a respectable middle-aged chemistry teacher who becomes a methamphetamine “cook”.
Imagine for a moment that the Candy Lady could sell the real thing over the counter, for a bit more than the dollar she charges for the sweets. Suppose she became the Meth Madam. How might our lives change?
Last week there was another eruption of what passes in this country for a debate on drugs policy. The Chief Constable of Durham, Mike Barton, became the latest high-profile critic of the War on Drugs and said the same things that high-profile critics have been saying for years. But in case for 30 years you’ve avoided any article with the word “drugs” in it (until now), I’ll recap. At huge expense we have put armies of people in prison, occupied millennia of police time, effectively ceded control of a big and lucrative trade to gangsters, while at the same time failing to meet any of our objectives for reducing illicit drug use. It is time to do something else.
But what? Here critics of drug policy can sometimes become vague or — if they’re being honest — seem a little mad. Some bang on about something called “decriminalisation”, which essentially means that you can have the drug yourself, but no one can sell it to you. We tried a minor version of this policy on cannabis for a couple of years before a panic about new, extra-strong mind-altering skunk sent Gordon Brown rushing back to the old certainties.
There are, however, a few people and jurisdictions prepared to look the question of proper legalisation full in the face. By legalisation we roughly mean that some or all of the currently illegal drugs would become subject to much the same regimes that govern the licensing, production, sale and control of legal “highs” such as alcohol and cigarettes, or of dual-use highs such as prescription drugs or even codeine. So those seeking drugs would be able to get hold of them at a reasonable price without needing a criminal intermediary, and could be reassured of their quality.
Quality, by the way, is important here, just as it is as a plot driver inBreaking Bad. Last week one man died and five others were hospitalised after taking something probably sold to them as Ecstasy in a Manchester nightclub. The subsequent police warning referred to the dangers of partygoers “taking drugs supplied by people who have no regard whatsoever for their wellbeing”. A legal and regulated Ecstasy industry could supply drugs that were not adulterated and whose content was monitored.
But what would such a world look like? An inkling of the answer is beginning to emerge in two American states, Colorado and Washington. Both have decided to legalise the production, sale and use of cannabis. So a recent story in The Seattle Times, headlined “Coming soon: 334 pot stores in Washington state” detailed how the state’s legislators were, in effect, creating a legal drugs industry.
The state liquor board has allocated a certain number of stores the right to sell cannabis, and regulated the retail and production of the drug to favour small producers and shops. Total production statewide will initially be capped at 40 metric tons. The Seattle Times reported the state’s marijuana project director as describing the cap as a “razor’s edge” calculation. Produce too little and consumers go back to the illegal market, produce too much and you flood neighbouring anti-cannabis states with finest Washington giggleweed.
In any case Washingtonians of legal age will soon be able to drive down to the Cosmic Dragon Collective in Seattle or Sacred Plant Medicine in Tacoma and ask for a professionally packaged and marketed and quality-controlled bag o’dope.
There will be problems, of course. But if I had to guess I’d say that within a year or two such a situation will come to seem perfectly normal. After all, in 2009 a major drugs survey estimated that 8.7 per cent of American over-12s had used cannabis in the previous month. The culture is already widespread and cannabis is, in that sense, the possible easy win of the drugs world.
But what about the other drugs? What about meth, heroin, Ecstasy, cocaine and the others? The same study showed they had, between them, been taken by nearly four million Americans in the same period. They are the earners, the illegal products whose profits create the drugs barons, the cartels and the gang industries.
Mr Barton is adamant that he wants the sale of such drugs to remain criminalised, in which case it is not clear to me how the link with crime will be much reduced. He can hardly be arguing for prescription Ecstasy to be handed over for use in controlled conditions.
Other drug reformers imagine a spectrum of legal possibilities. Something such as Ecstasy, legally manufactured and tightly regulated, could be sold in pubs or licensed premises with similar restrictions to alcohol. The most harmful drugs might be available only on prescription for use in particular circumstances. It’s seductive, isn’t it? Tax revenue goes to the government, everything is out in the open, quality is controlled and the same messages about health would apply as they do to alcohol and tobacco. And goodbye most drug crime.
The big problem, of course, is that there is no reliable model whatsoever for working out how much drug-taking would increase as a result of lifting the prohibition. For example one major recent attempt to quantify the cost benefit analysis of legalising cannabis gave a level of uncertainty that created a range of minus £1.3?billion in drugs-related costs to society to plus £400 million in benefit. I would anticipate even more uncertainty in any model dealing with “hard” drugs.
The “it’s illegal, don’t do it” message has a clarity that may well put many off experimenting with drugs. So my presumption is that legalisation risks creating a greater number of casual experimenters.
But set against this risk is the fact that criminalisation makes it virtually impossible to have the same conversations about drugs and sensible drug-taking (yes, there is such a thing) that you can have about fags and booze. The price of such legally induced opacity is impossible to calculate. To take the obvious example, which school is more likely to encourage pupils who have taken drugs to discuss their problems — one with a liberal outlook or one that prescribes automatic and unappealable expulsion for transgression? In one situation you can have a discussion and offer advice. In the other you drive the practice underground and hope that someone somewhere else — the police or drugs charities — will pick up the pieces.
For those who have watched illegal drug dramas such as Breaking Bad, can you imagine how the plots would have gone, how many would not have been killed, if the woman at the corner store had legally sold real packets of blue meth or Ecstasy? There might not have been any drama at all.