BBC2 last night continued its excellent series ‘What if…’ with a debate on the pros and cons of legalising hard drugs in Britain.
I’ve always been open to some notion of ‘decriminalising’, for example, heroin. By which I specifically mean that heroin users should be treated as patients rather than criminals, as they are currently in Portugal.
This isn’t out of soft-hearted sympathy, and I accept that heroin use is extremely harmful because it is extremely addictive, but my argument was purely cold economics:
An average heroin habit costs the user about £50 a day. Nobody can afford that, so they have to commit crime. If you imprison a user for the crime but fail to address the habit (prison generally makes it worse), then it will cost the taxpayer £18 in criminal justice costs down the line for every £1 it would cost to medically treat an addict. A non-criminal, non-addict can also perform a normal day job and pay taxes himself.
The total economic and social cost of Class A drug use was estimated in 2000 to be between £10.1 to £17.4 billion.
In Switzerland, heroin ‘clinics’ to treat addicts resulted in a net economic benefit of 45 Swiss francs per patient per day, after taking into account the extra cost of running the clinics and the savings in the criminal justice bill.
My argument was also selfish: I've had my home broken into by a young man feeding his heroin habit. I'd rather he was getting treatment at my expense than mugging me or nicking my stereo.
However, recently I have been increasingly drawn to the more radical idea of complete legalisation of heroin, and thus, regulation of the market. Here’s why:
The key to the problem is to stop thinking of prohibition as the norm, and of legalisation as some nutty ultra-liberal idea. Instead, think of heroin as you would any other addictive drug (like alcohol, tobacco) that exists in the world for those people that want to use it, but which has harmful consequences. Then you can rationally assess whether prohibition has been a successful approach to dealing with those harmful consequences.
Restrictions were imposed on doctors prescribing pure heroin in 1968, when there were a few hundred users nationally. Now there are a few hundred thousand…
Proliferation of users and availability
The number one benefit of prohibition must be that it keeps the numbers of users at a lower level than would be the case if heroin were legalised and available from licensed outlets. I’m sure that’s probably true. There must be many people who might use heroin, but don’t precisely because it is illegal. And, goodness knows we have enough problems on a Saturday night in this country with alcohol alone, without wishing a host of new young heroin-users on our streets
But prohibition has failed to stop the number of users rising exponentially, and it has failed to prevent heroin from being easily available to those people that want to buy it. Around four million people use illicit drugs each year in England and Wales (never mind Scotland), and the number of heroin users doubled every four years during the 1990s.
In England in 2003, 42% of 11-15 year olds had been offered one or more drugs. Unlike alcohol and tobacco, you can buy heroin in Britain 24 hours a day, every day including Christmas Day.
An anarchic market: the house that prohibition built
Here’s how the heroin market works:
Because heroin is illegal, the Government has no control over its supply channels, market or price.
Because there is no regulation of heroin supply channels, it is supplied by criminals. Many of these fund terrorist organisations. Afghanistan is the source of 70% of the world's heroin supplies and 90% of heroin used in the UK each year.
Because the profit margins are fantastically high, heroin dealing is attractive to criminal gangs, who have monopolised the market and control the price.
Because the profit margins can be made even more fantastically high by cutting heroin with all manner of rubbish, users inject themselves not with heroin but with a cocktail of crap, which often kills them. Pure heroin has few side-effects other than its appalling addictiveness. In 2002 the UK had the highest level of drug related deaths in Europe.
Because criminal gangs make fantastic profits, they become richer, more powerful and more armed.
Because heroin is fantastically addictive, once you have a customer, you’ve got him for as long as you want him. The sales technique is thus straightforward: find someone vulnerable, malleable or weak, make the introductory offer cheap or free (‘pushing’), and thereafter raise the price dramatically.
Because not many heroin addicts can afford the £50 a day price, they must find alternative forms of income. For men, this is usually crime. For women, this is often prostitution.
When is enough enough?
Here are the two most pertinent drug-related facts:
1) 50% of people in custody and awaiting trial in the UK admitted they were dependent on a drug. (Source: "Prescribing Heroin, What is the Evidence?", Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2003)
2) 280,000 problem drug users cause around half of all crime. (Source: Home Office white paper on organised crime - "One Step Ahead", March 2004)
The ideal solution would be to eliminate the very existence of heroin, and therefore to have zero users. That’s not going to happen, so we have to deal with the real world, and the fact that heroin and its users exists.
Prohibition as a way of dealing with it has created more users, rich gangsters, rich terrorists, 50% of the UK’s criminals, many of its prostitutes and a thousand or so deaths per year.
So the question is: exactly how bad do things have to get before you admit that the experiment has failed?