Prohibition Doesn’t Work. Just Legalize It!

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on RedditShare on TumblrShare on LinkedIn

Wars are very expensive. Ever since Richard Nixon declared a ‘War on Drugs’ in 1971, governments across the world have spent huge amounts fighting a war on a cathartic battle with no signs of ending, let alone of victory. So, with each day that goes by without victory, more drug money ends up in the coffers of terrorists, criminals and paramilitaries. In Britain today, faced with the continuing challenge to balance the national finances, continuing to fight this war in the same way can only end in defeat. We cannot win, because we cannot afford to go on fighting in the way that we have. The balance of costs simply does not add up, and the end result is an unacceptable one, given the corrupt nature of the people and organisations who continue to benefit from the illicit drugs trade. I propose a radical solution. To defeat the threat posed to society by the very worst drugs, we must legalise the least harmful. First and foremost being cannabis.

I don’t want this piece to be seen as glorifying or even legitimising the lifestyle of drug-users. Legal or not, poisoning your body with various toxic chemicals simply for the sake of some pleasurable side-effects is a stupid move – just as stupid in the case of alcohol and tobacco as in the case of anything illicit. Nor do I pretend that drug addiction does not take a horrendous toll on many people’s lives, tearing families apart and often even sending the unfortunate people in question to early graves. But the same can be said for other activities and substances that are entirely legal. Gambling adverts are paraded on prime-time TV, and the ravages of alcohol abuse are plain to see.

Is it unfair to compare alcohol, which causes addiction in only a small minority of cases, with heroin, where less than 10% of users have any chance of ever getting ‘clean’ again? Yes, of course it is. I am not, therefore, calling for a blanket legalisation of all drugs. Rather, I call for the legalisation only of those where the costs incurred by the harm they can cause are sufficiently small as to be bearable in comparison to the huge costs we currently bear fighting an unwinnable war of prohibition. I believe cannabis falls into this category. Some substances really are so profoundly damaging to the body and mind that a civilised society can never tolerate their use and abuse. However, these substances (heroin, meth and other highly addictive drugs) are not only the ones which result in addicts who are in most dire need of help & treatment, but are also the most expensive and demanding to treat. Even when the nation’s finances were healthy, we still didn’t have the resources to adequately deal with those persons addicted to the very worst drugs, and as a result, we didn’t. Today the situation on this front is even worse.

But we have tried to tackle the problem in another way, by attempting to get to grips with dealers and distribution networks, attacking the drug problem at source. Alas, this has proven equally unsuccessful. In an era of globalised economics and near-instant communication worldwide, every impoverished, underdeveloped, poorly-governed part of the world may host the fields and factories that generate drugs to be sold here in the West. With the huge sums of money at stake, rival drug gangs will stoop to whatever levels to ensure the security of their businesses, even if that means assassinating military leaders or burning down hotels full of holidaymakers. The Zeta cartel in Mexico have done both, and much more besides. The murder rate in Ciudad Juarez, which has seen the worst cartel violence in Mexico, actually fell last year simply because the Zetas were running out of people to kill.

The astonishing violence which drug gangs are willing to mete out comes as a consequence of their existence and operation outside the bounds of lawfulness and society. Individuals who are prepared to engage in a business that by definition breaks the law, with the risk of serious punishment if caught, will not shirk at breaking other serious laws in order to protect their investments and profits. They also don’t pay tax. Legalisation of cannabis would go a long way to solving both of these problems, first and foremost because legal transactions all automatically incur tax. What’s more, as in the case of tobacco, any sales could have additional taxes placed upon them in recognition of the drug’s adverse impact on the public heath. Second, legalisation would also reduce the incentives for drug-peddlers (whether they be firms or individuals) to resort to violence to defend their businesses. Once operating lawfully, they could use the law and the courts channels to protect their interests, as any legitimate business does. It is also conceivable that the criminal gangs which today control the cannabis trade would simply be out-competed by the big tobacco firms. Indeed it is rumoured that one of the largest tobacco companies has already trademarked ‘Marleys’ for use as a brand in the event cannabis is legalised. In addition, the products sold would be subject to statutory standards of quality control, protecting users from the shocking consequences that can befall a user who unwittingly imbibes an over-strength or impure concoction.

Make no mistake, this sort of limited legalisation still isn’t a great solution. Even if cannabis were to be legalised, people would still become addicted to it and other, worse, drugs. But in the same way, there are millions are addicted to tobacco, alcohol and gambling. In an ideal world everyone would make the smart, healthy decision to avoid all of these vices. But we do not live in an ideal world. Far from it, we live in a world with a growing trade of incredibly harmful drugs – a trade estimated by the UN to be worth USD320 billion last year. Faced up against such tremendous financial power, we must make compromises in order to have any hope of defeating the threat posed by the most harmful substances, and the most nefarious organisations producing and distributing them. Bringing the trade of as ubiquitous a drug as cannabis out into the open seems to be a sensible place to start. It will enable governments to bring in the much needed revenue to fight the more pressing battles against drugs which are many times more harmful, both to treat addicts and to confront dealers.


Written by Michael Gaffney, edited by Sara Mhaidli