Drug policy is high as a kite

I love Matthew Perry. As an actor he’s always made me laugh and he seems, for all I know, to be a good person. My propensity to employ sarcasm would make his portrayal of Chandler Bing in Friends the odds on favourite to be my preferred Perry performance. Actually, it is the three episodes of The West West in which he plays White House council Joe Quincy that I enjoy the most. Maybe it is something about seeing him in a more serious role that I really like. Whatever the reason, there was a small bit of fanish glee running through me when I settled down to watch him debate in favour of ‘drug courts’ on Newsnight last week.

Enforcement has issues…

Perry looked more than a little bemused in the face of the flow of single mindedness sent forth by Peter Hitchens, one of Newsnight’s other guests. I’ll forgive him though because one imagines that it takes a couple of encounters before you realise that whatever you say will be stubbornly ignored.  The debate, on whether ‘drug courts’, where first time, non-violent drug offenders are judged by magistrates who are themselves ex-addicts, was somewhat hijacked by an argument over whether addiction is an illness.  Apparently Perry, the ex-addict in the studio, had never been ill at all but had simply lacked willpower. You could almost feel his incredulity at such a bizarre accusation.

By coincidence this came the week after Uruguay became the first South American country, and only the second in the world, to fully legalise marijuana. Indeed Uruguay looks set to be only the first of many countries to make such a move. There is a growing feeling, especially among the largely socialist governments of South America, that the global War on Drugs is not working. Taking a hard line, inflexible stance on drugs has done more harm than good.  It appears that however much is spent, on policing, on prisons or on direct action against producers, the drug business is as big as ever. In his history of narcotics, ‘The Pursuit of Oblivion’, Richard Davenport-Hines points out that 75% of drug shipments would have to be intercepted to reduce dealer’s profits. As it is only 10-30% of shipments are seized.

An error that is often made when discussing drugs is to forget that, stripped back to its bare bones, the drug trade is a simple business. Certain people, mainly in South America and Afghanistan, control the supply of drugs. People throughout the world demand drugs. Unlike the supply and demand of televisions or furniture or clothing, there is a powerful third agent in the economic equation, addiction. Those who demand drugs are largely unable to stop demanding them unless their addiction is treated. The cat is out of the bag and the horse has bolted from the stable all at the same time. Demand will always outweigh supply, so isn’t it best to tackle the issue there?

That’s why the argument for legalization can be so compelling, especially in the case of marijuana that is widely considered to me less harmful than alcohol as well as being a gateway drug that leads to harder drugs. One must ask why a non-addictive high can be the first step towards greater depths of addiction. Is it perhaps that the very same people who sell pot also push pills and coke. Again, the drug trade is an industry like any other, once a regular customer is buying one product that can be tempted to try others.

It seems that when it comes to drugs rational thought is allowed to flee the scene. Common sense suggests that addiction is indeed an illness. The addictive properties of a drug make it nigh on impossible for an addict to kick the habit alone.  Despite this, it is far more common to treat addicts as criminals than patients, unless of course they can afford expensive stints in rehab. Similarly the case for legalisation of less harmful drugs seems clear cut. Yet the idea that any drug outside of the holy duo of alcohol and nicotine should be sold, taxed and enjoyed is taboo in most societies. Despite the misery of the War on Drugs and the absurd logic with which it is justified we seem to be in thrall to its basic premise of criminalization and stigma. Until we shake free of that as a society, following the examples of Uruguay, the long, pointless struggle against drugs will continue.

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